The shadowy after-hours aquarium vibe at Iki-Jime seems appropriate for a seafood restaurant. Even the bar nuts, tossed with prawn-shell powder and dried anchovies, stick to the theme. This used to be Bistro Vue, but the French theatrics have been stripped away, replaced by walls and ceilings painted moody, inky blue-blacks, cloudy zinc tabletops and pools of light and dark into which indigo-uniformed waiters appear and disappear.
The French accent has mostly vanished from the menu too. It's all seafood now, aside from dessert and three vegetarian side dishes, with influences coming at you from every direction.
Take the "prawn cocktail" (the inverted commas are theirs) consisting of five prawns arranged on one side of a dark earthenware plate. Cooked in a court-bouillon, dressed with wasabi vinaigrette, and dusted with tomato powder and prawn powder, the prawns are then topped with a crumble of cured duck egg yolk, lemon rind, finger lime and chives. It's a clever remix, referencing the classic with a carefully calibrated play of fats, acids and underlying heat. It makes great prawns even better.
Iki-Jime excels at this kind of big-flavoured, well-balanced tap dance, though it would have attracted attention for the quality of its seafood alone. Owner Shannon Bennett is a long-time fan of fisherman Mark Eather and has used his fish at Vue de Monde for some time; Vue Group executive chef Justin James has put Eather's catch in the spotlight here.
Sustainability is also on the menu, with a nose-to-tailfin approach that's committed without being fanatical. Fish trim is used in snacks on the bar menu in the form of skin (puffed, served with barbecue-spiced prawn crackers) or cheeks (rich, fatty, served with butter lettuce and an eye-twitchingly tart finger lime vinaigrette) but the fish used in the sausages, served in brioche buns with a seaweed mayo and a tarragon emulsion, is prime flesh, usually snapper.
The barramundi head on the main menu makes another fine argument for reconsidering the scraps. Brined, glazed with a roasted-yeast and apple paste and then deep-fried, it delivers layers of flavour, stacking sweet on fat on umami.
Part of the joy of eating here is the gradual realisation that Iki-Jime is less stitched up than it appears. The dramatic darkness, the attentive well-groomed politeness of the staff and the stage-like open kitchen trigger a fine-dining response, but the food is playful, light, interesting and good looking.
The Moreton Bay bug tart places the lightly grilled bug on a paste made from kelp dashi that's been emulsified with butter and miso inside a shortcrust pastry shell. Sweet bug meat, briny, salty dashi, plus lime zest and the crunch of radish make the two bites here particularly special.
"Fish and chips" (again with the inverted commas) sees raw tuna dusted with pickle powder wrapped around fried potato and leek. Cold-smoked trout is teamed with a bowl of crème fraîche mixed with chives, dill and hard-boiled egg and smothered with salmon roe. It's accompanied by superb blin-like pockets of fermented potato bread. It's the kind of dish you'd be happy ordering from breakfast to nightcap.
There's good drinking on the 56-page wine list that spends a lot of time in France, including three pages of Champagne. It comes across as more formal than the approach to the food, but there's a cracking list by the glass that includes superb minerally amphibolite muscadet from Domaine Landron and fine, rich Alsace pinot blanc from René Muré.
Desserts play it safe too. A mango, rum and finger lime tart takes the deconstructed path with charred mango slices arranged like a flower teamed with shards of rum-brushed brik pastry and a dollop of lime curd. Chocolate mint and finger lime garnish. It's fine, but suffers a little in comparison to what precedes it.
Iki-Jime is a great example of total restaurant reinvention. Out with the French and in with the fish. It's timely, modern, sharp with all the essentials in place. I can't wait to go back.