Japanese Melbourne-Style: with a View
Address: Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Rd
Phone: (03) 8687 0775
Lunch, 7 days, midday until 3pm
Monday to Thursday, 6pm until 10.30pm
Friday, 6pm until midnight
Saturday, 5.30pm until 11.30pm
Sunday, 5pm until 10pm
Melbourne, you beautiful bastard. Your blue glass buildings line the Yarra River, your skyscrapers light up our lives and your arts scene makes us proud to call Australia home. Most importantly, you never cease to provide us with a new place to have dinner. Recently you gave us Saké Restaurant and Bar and Trocadero in the revitalised Hamer Hall. With stunning views of the water and our sparkling city, both are the perfect place to impress.
But it’s Saké Restaurant I want to touch on today. Executive Chef Shaun Presland has teamed up with Rose Ang to deliver modern Japanese and a beverage list to boot. Interior design house Luchetti Krelle has created a Japanese fairytale, with an open kitchen and private dining booths on the bottom level and a cherry blossom tree in cool LED lights on the top level.
The food is a mix between contemporary dishes boasting market-fresh ingredients and deep fried snacks that would be well suited to a drunken midnight eating binge. You’ll enjoy Saké Restaurant, but it comes at a price. This Japanese wonderland is high class. It’s the kind of place you’d go to impress a date, a client, your boss or an overseas visitor. Although this meal was complimentary, I still consider the value as if I were a paying customer for the sake of this review.
Unless a meal is outrageously outstanding, I find it hard to part with a big wad of cash. It’s probably because ‘cheap gourmet’ is the new fine dining, and we are so spoilt for choice in Melbourne when it comes to eating out. When eating at a restaurant with a significant price tag, I’m forced to think of the amazing value at The Estelle in Northcote, which I believe rivals the likes of Attica and Vue de Monde for a fraction of the price (5, 7 or 9 course degustation for $70, $90 and $110 per person respectively, without booze).
Mains at Saké Restaurant cost between $19 for a standard vegetarian dish and $39 for premium beef or fish. A set of sashimi (18 pieces) or sushi (16 pieces) costs $47, placing Saké Restaurant well and truly up the ‘finer’ end of the dining scale. Bar snacks and starters are also more expensive than average, such as the $17 Japanese tacos: two tuna and salmon sashimi tacos with chilled tomato salsa and Kozaemon Junmai ‘sake shots’ (I found the idea awfully similar to the ‘King of the Chimichichangas’, the Japanese tacos at Claremont Tonic – maybe it’s a new thing?) I’ve also heard good reports about Saké’s steamed wagyu dumplings with ginger, chive and a spicy sour dipping sauce, also $17.
I enjoyed dining at Saké Restaurant, with its waterfront view. Although reflecting now, nothing about this particular dinner experience remotely reminded me of my trip to Japan in the latter half of last year. Accordingly, Saké strikes me as modern Japanese, despite their claim to some ‘classic’ dishes on their website. On this particular night, I was invited to try Saké Restaurant as a guest with a group of media folk who stuff their faces for a living.
We were treated to Saké Restaurant’s Signature Dishes Menu, which would usually set you back $88 per person, and that’s excluding alcohol. As we were seated, a Japanese take on the Tom Collins cocktail was served with shochu instead of gin. It wasn’t overly sweet and had a maraschino cherry bobbing on the surface–my kind of poison.
Our dinner was matched with saké by sommelier Alex Watson, who was still battling jetlag from a recent work trip to Japan. What a life. The first variety was Kozaemon Junmai Daiginjo, a luxurious saké made in small batches with hints of apricot and peach. It complemented our first dish wonderfully, a bright starter of sashimi hiramasa kingfish fanned on a decorative blue plate with yuzu soy and thin slices of jalapeño. Piquant and fresh, it set a high standard for what was to come.
The kingfish outshone the tender salmon tataki with jalapeño dressing. The salmon was heavier due to the creaminess of the dressing and the oily nature of the fish. We were poured some Shinano Miyamanishiki Junmai Daiginjo saké, an organic drop with notes of bamboo and banana. Stronger in flavour than the former, it was well suited to the richer dishes that followed, although I enjoyed the first variety more.
A deep bowl of panko rice balls arrived next, more a bar snack than a restaurant dish. Notably different from the previous plates, these crumbed soy bean, bamboo and shiitake mushroom nuggets with wasabi mayo and coriander were a compelling carb hit.
My favourite morsel followed: bite-sized pieces of caramelised toothfish, marinated in miso and perched on lettuce cups. If these babies were served at a function, I would stalk the waitstaff every time they emerged from the kitchen with a new platter. By the end of the event, we would be on first-name terms, although I’d be known simply as ‘toothfish lady’.
Before we could say ‘irrashaimase’, a huge serving of popcorn shrimp was before us. The prawn tempura pieces were tossed with a creamy spicy sauce and served on a yuzu-dressed salad. They were more or less enjoyable, but I’m a strong believer that prawns are best served fresh, not deep-fried and in this case, slightly soggy.
By the time the grain fed +7 wagyu teriyaki beef emerged from the kitchen, we were full. But as one person at the table pointed out, “how can you say ‘no’ to wagyu?” Cooked medium rare and served on a slate black plate with sautéed shiitake and buckwheat in a yakiniku sauce, I said ‘yes’ with my stomach, if not with my mouth.
Our wagyu was washed down with a 2010 pinot noir, ‘Picnic’ by Two Paddocks. Interestingly, Sam Neil owns this winery. You may have heard of Sam from classics such as Jurassic Park.
Among this feast were also bowls of mixed green salad, miso soup and rice. I drank the miso, but didn’t touch the others for fear of not having room for dessert. It was an irrational fear; I always have room for dessert. Especially when it’s a passionfruit buttermilk panna cotta with flecks of vanilla, paired with a sweet and zesty yuzu sake. Desserts such as the bubble milk tea trifle with tea infused tapioca pearls, toasted white chocolate mousse and white chocolate pistachio crunch, as well as the ‘matcha bento box’ with a green tea macaron, green tea ice-cream, green tea cheesecake and green tea brûlée, definitely warrant a return visit.
All I need now is a special occasion, because unless you’re snaking at the bar, Saké Restaurant is just that kind of place.
* Saké Restaurant upcoming event at The Famous Spiegeltent
Event: Sushi Ragamuffin Master Class with Shaun Presland with sounds from Mista Savona
Date: 9 March Time: 2pm- 3.30pm
More information here