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Minamishima, Melbourne restaurant review

Koichi Minamishima, Hajime Horiguchi and Randolph Cheung

Koichi Minamishima, Hajime Horiguchi and Randolph Cheung

Yearning for an upmarket sushi bar that transports you straight to the streets of Tokyo? Say konichiwa to Minamishima, a hushed temple of Japanese culture in Melbourne’s backstreets, writes Michael Harden.

Japanophiles are goners. Possibly they'll be smitten as soon as they find the gritty urban Richmond side-street off Bridge Road. Probably once they've spotted the blink-and-you'll-miss-it signage on the front window on the ground floor of a new block of apartments. Certainly by the time they're seated in one of 12 upholstered timber armchairs lining the sushi bar. It's all so swoon-worthily authentic, they'll have signed on before the first course arrives.

But even if you're not one to immediately go weak at the knees at all things Japanese, Minamishima is still a restaurant that's very easy to fall in love with.

It has the integrity and sense of theatre common to all great dining experiences. You know these guys know what they're doing from the moment you're greeted at the door. The sense of anticipation it creates is palpable.

The bar, a minimalist, American-oak beauty, is the room's focal point, backdropped by a wall of grey tiles, their texture animated with arcs of downlight. Stationed behind the bar are three sushi chefs, one of whom owns the restaurant and gives it its name. The chefs have white jackets, white caps, beautiful knives, lidded timber boxes containing seafood treasures, quietly intense concentration.

In front of the sushi bar is a private room and beyond that a softly lit dining room with walls upholstered in charcoal fabric. It's attended by waitstaff decked out in black and white who ferry food from the kitchen via timber doors next to the sushi bar that silently slide open and shut. It's all so ordered, so serene, with just a murmur of background music to soften the silence, that it seems quasi-religious.

A temple of sushi in the backstreets of Richmond. Flock, acolytes! But worshipping here comes with some provisos.

Minamishima is closely modelled on (some might say cloned from) upmarket sushi bars in Tokyo, so those looking to order à la carte, or who would like tempura or sukiyaki as well as raw (or, occasionally, swiftly blowtorched) seafood might want to consider another venue. Here, there are two choices only.

The first - and best - is to eat at the sushi bar.

The omakase menu runs to 18 courses with 15 pieces of exquisite nigiri bookended by a vegetable course and a broth, and a dessert. The chance to sit ringside watching the chefs is a big part of the appeal here. Koichi Minamishima, the Japanese-born and trained executive chef and owner is familiar from years behind the sushi bar at Kenzan, and Hajime Horiguchi was the head chef at Wasabi in Noosa. The often breathtaking display of knife skills, the mesmerising glisten of brilliant seafood, the precise handcrafted placement and presentation are all the more impressive for the complete lack of flash and dazzle.

The second option is in the dining room and is good for those who need a partial respite from the raw fish. Nigiri sushi still rules but arrives grouped on a platter rather than piece by piece. Three other courses from the kitchen accompany the sushi, perhaps a sliver of grilled mackerel, a chawanmushi studded with crab meat and a morsel of superb wagyu served with grilled root vegetables. It's hardly an inferior option.

This lack of flexibility and choice might seem off-putting, but in this case the total surrender seems more like a release than a constraint. It's quite remarkable how little choice matters when the attention to detail is as meticulous as it is here.

Every stone and ceramic dish with their subtle metallic shimmer and gorgeous texture, all the glass sake jugs, all the intricate handmade cutlery and cast-iron teapots are from Japan, handpicked by chef Minamishima. The vinegar used for the sushi rice, meanwhile, comes from Nagoya (Minamishima's home), and the icing sugar-like "snow salt" that seasons some of the nigiri comes from the seas off the coast of Okinawa, Japan's southernmost prefecture.

This is also a place where a good percentage of the seafood sitting atop the exclusively vinegared rice is sourced from the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.

There might be the amazing torigai, an exotic-looking Japanese cockle that starts off white at one end and gradually shades darker towards a tapered, slightly frilled brown "tail". Slippery and subtly flavoured with ginger and soy, it hails from Aichi prefecture and has a wonderfully chewy texture.

There's also remarkable blue-fin tuna from Nagasaki, cured to a glistening blood-red colour with soy sauce and topped with a sprinkling of sesame seeds, with a texture that may have your eyes rolling back in your head. Or superb flounder fin (engawa) from Hokkaido, intricately scored, lightly seared with a blowtorch and wrapped in a thin band of nori. It looks delicately beautiful but packs a gorgeous punch of rich, smoky, oily flavour, the fattiness in the flesh adding a meltingly soft texture to proceedings.

Nigori sake jelly with yuzu granita and sweet pickled baby peach

All of this handpicking of hand-turned vessels and flying in of quality seafood from Japan costs money. The $150-a-head price tag (both at the bar and in the private and dining rooms) could be another obstacle to Minamishima achieving universal adoration. But while the bill is undoubtedly hefty, at no point in a meal here do you question why you're being charged that amount. The value is clear. It's on the plate and in the room - the whole package. And while the folks behind Minamishima would never be crass enough to say "take it or leave it", I am. If you like this sort of stuff and you have the means, there's no reason not to take it, with both hands.

Now that you're resigned to giving the credit card a proper thumping, you might also seriously consider committing to one of the two drink-matching options put together by Minamishima's urbane general manager and sommelier Randolph Cheung (formerly of The Atlantic, Saint Crispin, Flower Drum, Asiana et al).

Cheung's wine list is a lovely, finely tuned collection that takes in rosé from Provence (2013 Château d'Esclans Whispering Angel), Yarra Valley sparkling (2010 Hoddles Creek Blanc de Blancs) and Grüner Veltliner from Austria (2012 Bründlmayer), but his sake list is interesting enough to turn the head of even the most feverishly committed wine fan.

The list is a great addition to the ever-expanding local conversation about the variety and versatility of sake. It also emphatically proves just how well sake and food play together.

It starts with the first course of the sushi bar omakase, a gorgeous selection of summer vegetables - a peeled cherry tomato, a piece of pumpkin faceted like a roughly finished jewel, little batons of eggplant and a small flurry of mustard greens all cured in a mix of dashi, sake, mirin and a little soy.

One of those vibrant dishes that makes you feel virtuous by eating it, the vegetables are accompanied by a cloudy, sparkling sake by producer Dassai that's refreshing and vaguely sherbety. It feels light and cleansing while also adding richness to the match.

Then there's Kirei Shuzo Karakuchi 80 Junmai Nama Genshu, a gorgeously light, whisperingly dry number with a faint floral backbeat that's paired with three different rounds of sushi: local King George whiting served with sesame seeds and baby shiso leaves, garfish topped with grated ginger and minute pieces of spring onion and almost luminescent calamari flavoured with lemon and sprinkled with snow salt. The knife work on the calamari is a marvel. It's scored so precisely that when you put it in your mouth it immediately breaks into lots of tiny pieces - a truly brilliant textural experience.

Rich Naka Shuzo sake, made with some distinct spicy notes, is poured with the arrival of the tuna nigiri. The three separate pieces include the soy-marinated version and two pieces of rich tuna belly from Nagasaki, one served raw, the other seared slightly, which amplifies the fish's beautifully rich fattiness.

The rollcall of sushi also includes Tasmanian salmon roe wrapped in crisp nori, New Zealand scampi teamed with finger lime, and local sea perch with ponzu and radish.

The meal ends with a perfectly clear, sparkling dashi broth containing a cube-shaped calamari and fish cake, followed by an equally refreshing, invigorating dessert of yuzu granita, Nigori sake jelly and half a sweet pickled baby peach. It's gorgeous stuff, made even better by an accompanying elegant sake infused with sour plum.

Minamishima is a beautifully realised restaurant. Dining here feels like an event, whether you're propped up at the sushi bar on your own or ensconced in the private room with seven of your besties. It has the potential to lure a whole new crowd into Japanophilia and Melbourne is very lucky to have it.

4 Lord St, Richmond, Vic, (03) 9429 5180
Open Tue-Sat 6pm-10pm
Prices Omakase menu $150
Vegetarian No
Noise Hushed
Wheelchair access Yes
Plus Melbourne gets a great sushi restaurant.
Minus Seafood imported from Tokyo doesn't come cheap.

4 Lord St, Richmond, Vic, (03) 9429 5180
Open Tue-Sat 6pm-10pm
Prices Omakase menu $150
Vegetarian No
Noise Hushed
Wheelchair access Yes
Plus Melbourne gets a great sushi restaurant.
Minus Seafood imported from Tokyo doesn't come cheap.

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