Thursday, December 16, 2010

Hiding Izakaya Den

The grumpy cab driver drops us off and we traipse down Russell Street in the Melbourne CBD. Why don’t these buildings have numbers? We overshoot by a mile on the wrong side of the road and hike back up the other way. I’m glad we don’t have a booking. We oscillate at the corner of Little Collins Street, but it’s not here. We see stairs going down to a clothing retailer – that couldn’t be it, could it?

Izakaya Den, Russell Street, Melbourne
There’s much to like about Izakaya Den – when you find it. Pass the door and billowing noren and again descend industrial concrete stairs to a buzzing, welcoming downstairs – your reward, if you will, for finding it.

The first thing I noticed was the incredibly long room – but it was wishful thinking. The illusion is created by a mirror at the end of the room which appears to double the length of the room – what a fabulous space that would be, not to say that it isn’t currently.

Barman
There’s seating all along the bar as well as low seats and tables near the entrance for waiting diners, although we see people eating here later in the night too. Tables for larger groups are further down through the restaurant.

The soft lighting is perfect: not so dim that you can’t see your date or menu, but neither bright enough to really read a book.

Warm towels
We were seated at the bar within minutes one late evening, given a numbered pebble in exchange for my coat and presented with warm towels. As we wipe our hands, looking the bar up and down, we feel that we’re in for an experience.

Water glass
Water is served in a range of adorable glasses decorated with animated characters – all very Japanese. The menus (food, drinks, sake) come rolled up – a small food menu, smaller than the drinks menu actually, with nightly food specials projected onto the wall behind us.

Izakaya Den menu
The sake menu is substantial to say the least, but we elect from the cocktail menu – most featuring a Japanese liquor – umeshu plum wine, shochu distilled spirit or a sake.

Buchi Mojito (left) and Amai Mitsu (right)
My selection of  the Buchi Mojito is made with Hinoryu shochu, which is surprisingly not strong in the mix; likely helped along with the addition of sugar, lemon, orange and a flutter of crushed mint and shiso leaves. It's not particularly sweet with sour notes rather stimulating the appetite.

The Amai Mitsu is a stronger drink of sake, Aperol and 42 Below honey vodka, eased with fresh orange and honey syrup. Both drinks are made promptly by the barman directly in front of us, and presented somewhat ceremoniously before us.

Spicy tuna special
Food arrives just as promptly in no particular order, most of it cooked within sight in the long, narrow, completely open kitchen. We’re started on the spicy tuna special, which comes as a self-serve plate of mayonnaise dressed tuna, nori seaweed strips, thin squares of daikon and crunchy-thin taro chips.

The circle of tuna showcases raw diced tuna and avocado amid a wasabi-spiced mayonnaise dressing. My favourite side item was the seaweed, rolling with tuna to form tuna-seaweed cigarettes, which were then crunched through to the perfectly hot, creamy and so-fresh mixture inside.

The daikon was also great, adding a touch of freshness although the pink peppercorns seemed to have more bite than the spicy tuna. The taro chips were not as exciting, but another texture for us to play with nonetheless.

Sakata-coated prawns with citrus mayonnaise
It was impossible to pass on the whimsical Sakata prawns on the menu, and we were justly rewarded upon its presentation. They really are coated with crushed Sakata rice crackers – the plain variety, I think. Three huge, tail-on, curled-up prawns are plated simply; their lightly-coloured batter reminiscent of tempura.

Served with a very subtle citrus mayonnaise, these crustaceans are cooked to a crisp perfection, putting smiles on our faces and a crunch in our mouths.

Ox tongue, spring onion
I’m not entirely sure why I ordered the ox tongue, not being a fan of offal. But the dish looked so good that I jumped right in; first trying to bite a slice of tongue in half, then deciding it’d be easier to put the whole tongue (stay with me) in my mouth because of its chewiness. It wasn't chewy like a tough steak as such, but chewy like, well, like you’d imagine a cooked tongue would be.

It was hard not to think about an ox’s face as I was eating this, especially with someone egging me on. I liked the char flavours on the surface of the slices, but think it could have either done with more time on the grill or come in thinner slices for greater ease of eating. It could also come with more spring onion topping or other garnishes as a further distraction from the ox-tonguing and for the offal-averse.

Beetroot with mushroom
The beetroot dish was unexpectedly homely - an entire half of a braised beetroot sat in the earthenware bowl, covered in a soy based sauce and a heap of enoki and other mushrooms. The natural sweet, earthiness of the purpley-red vegetable was allowed to shine in its whole form, with us using a spoon to break it into bite-sized pieces.

Grilled white asparagus, miso crumb
The last dish, which I thought was going to come first, was the simply grilled white asparagus – an artful arrangement of grill-marked, thick white asparagus spears, served with mayonnaise and a salty, sweet miso crumb. The mayonnaise seemed almost an afterthought; nice but almost unnecessary with the flavours of the fresh asparagus doing the job nicely.

White sesame mousse with tapioca
With the light eating style, there was room for a shared dessert. We chose the mousse of white sesame; an ingredient of which I only now realise is so overshadowed in popularity by the more dramatic black sesame.

It came with the tapioca balls that one gets in Asian pearl milk teas and had a smushy, sweetened red bean centre. There was also a drizzle of honey for added sweetness to the rather refreshing dessert, if not the prettiest, served in a stunning glass dish.

Given the late hour of our dining, there were no longer waiting diners after dessert and just a general convivial air. Everyone there looked to be enjoying themselves; amongst themselves but contributing to the overall laidback atmosphere that encouraged us to hide down in Izakaya Den just a little longer.

Izakaya Den on Urbanspoon

8 comments:

Gianna@TheEmptyFridge said...

This is my #1 reason to return to melbourne in the new year..
if not for the sake menu then for those hot hand towels.

The food and cocktails are everything I imagined them to be.
Def an cheaper option then flying back to tokyo!

Not Quite Nigella said...

Hehe I also get very easily lost! But glad to hear that it was worth it after everything! :)

Tina said...

Hi Gianna - Yes, cheaper I'd imagine and still loads of fun :)

Hi Lorraine - I knoew it would be hard to find, but not that hard!

Susan: My Food Obsession said...

This place looks awesome! I wish I lived in Sydney and not boring old Brisbane LOL!

Ellie (Almost Bourdain) said...

It's easy to get lost in the laneways. I am hoping to see Izakaya type of restaurants in Sydney. All eyes are on Adam Liaw's new venture in Surry Hills.

Tina said...

Hi Susan - ... or Melbourne ;)

Hi Ellie - That does sound interesting. There's also one that's supposed to be opening in Glebe - though unsure of progress there.

Ashley said...

It's so fun to see what other people eat here! I love Izakaya Den too, makes me want to go back and try more....

Tina said...

Hi Ashley - There's so much I wanted to try, but two can only eat so much... :( Next trip...!

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