There's more than one illusion at work at Izakaya Den, the first of which hits you the moment you enter its main dining area. Down two flights of stairs in the basement of the city's Hero Building, a corridor suddenly opens into a long, high-ceilinged industrial space, windowless, with a wide black wood bar running down one side. It appears, at first glance, astonishingly large until you realise that a wall-sized mirror at the back of the room is creating the stretching-into-the-distance feel. Yet even when you've pegged the optical trick, the mirror continues to work its calming, space-making charms on the superbly designed room.
Izakaya Den's other illusion - that it is a little slice of Tokyo transported to downtown Melbourne - also owes a lot to design, of both the room and the concept. The concrete-bunker bare bones of the space, with its exposed pipes and ducts, are mixed with the clean wooden lines of heavy bar stools surrounding the elevated tables along one wall and the double-seater benches at the bar. Near the entrance, black leather couches and small stone-topped tables add yet more texture to the room. It feels both modern and traditional, expertly playing the slice-of-Tokyo riff.
Behind the bar, to the beat of an edgy (and often loud) soundtrack, the all-Japanese staff decked out in dark uniforms and colourful headscarves work the grill and the deep-fryer and dish up plates of steamed fish, slices of grilled wagyu porterhouse and bowls of gently steaming dashi broth. The lunch menu and daily specials are projected onto one wall, and the shelves behind the bar are stacked with bags of rice, bottles of sake and soy and neat stacks of ceramic bowls and plates. There's even a bonsai tree in a concrete planter at the entrance. It's certainly a meticulously planned illusion but one that doesn't feel fake or forced.
It's not surprising that when Izakaya Den opened late last year it felt so fully formed. Simon Denton (Verge) and his business partners Takashi Omi (ex-Yu-u) and Miyuki Nakahara (ex-Kuni's) have been discussing the concept of an izakaya in Melbourne for five or six years and have made numerous trips to Tokyo to check out the state of Japanese taverns there. Among the things they learned during their fact-finding missions is that there are no hard and fast rules to the genre but that one of the core values of a true izakaya is relevance to the place where it is located.
The most literal manifestation of this principal at Izakaya Den is on the drinks list, a two-page document that arrives rolled up and tied with string. It contains an excellent range of sake (served by the beaker or bottle or in elegant glass tumblers), shochu and umeshu, many of which are exclusively imported, and there is a good selection of Japanese beer, some of which also is available only at Izakaya Den. The wine list, however, is all-Victorian, adding the requisite local element to the proceedings. It's an interesting, compact list that gathers benchmark and boutique labels from across the state, including the earthily lovely Bass Phillip 2007 Pinot Noir.
There are more nods to the local among the 30-plus small dishes designed by consultant chef Kentaro Usami (sushi chef at Kenzan GPO). Though fusion is something of a dirty word, there seems to be some of that happening here, and for the most part it clears the hurdle.
A simple dish of lightly steamed seasonal vegetables is served with a dipping sauce made from yuzu kosho (a spicy green paste made from citrus and chilli) and sour cream. In Japan, the vegetables would have been steamed to softness, but this version, with a near-raw crunch and the addition of sour cream toning down the dipping sauce's chilli hit to a whisper, has a local slant. It works, in a slightly sophisticated veg and dips kind of way.
There's also Ken's prawn cocktail, a Japanese take on the retro classic that combines steamed prawns and avocado pieces with a nest of crunchy shredded wonton wrappers and a slightly odd mayonnaise flavoured with mustard and miso. It's an interesting idea but it doesn't quite gel.
Izakaya Den doesn't offer traditional sushi or sashimi but there are a couple of raw fish dishes on the menu, including a superb take on kingfish sashimi. The fish, marinated and slightly "cooked" in sesame oil, comes with a quite robust and surprisingly successful dressing made from sweet chilli and fish sauce. Accompanied by ponzu-marinated onion, sesame seeds and sprigs of baby coriander, this is a pretty dish to look at and, with a clever blending of flavours and quality fish, fun to eat.
There's plenty for those looking for a more traditional izakaya eating experience, much of that coming from the grill. Ox tongue, thinly sliced and served with spring onion oil, is a highlight, as is the full-blood wagyu porterhouse, sourced from Mayura Station in Mt Gambier. The ponzu and grated daikon dressing and pickled okra that accompany the bite-sized slices of beef work well, but with such superb, richly flavoured meat, the small mounds of salt and pepper on the plate are superfluous.
The best dish on the menu is one of the simplest and, unfortunately, one of the rarest. Kingfish heads (the by-product of the sashimi so only a handful are available each night) are salted, grilled and then presented whole to be picked apart with chopsticks. The slightly sticky, glutinous meat around the fish's jaw is especially good, sweet, delicate and addictive enough to make for highly competitive eating if you're sharing the dish.
Vegetarians can eat well here: there are several versions of tofu, and artfully pared-back dishes such as a single small tomato, roasted, peeled, chilled and sitting on a thick, brick-red, sweet dengaku miso sauce. The sweetcorn kaki-age, clusters of corn kernels coated in tempura batter and quickly fried, is a sweet, salty, crunchy joy, especially if you're drinking a Yebisu at the time.
A short list of sweet things includes a slightly earthy black sesame parfait served with fresh grapefruit. There's also a great-looking Fuji apple millefeuille that comes as a tall, thin stack of slices of dried Fuji apple sandwiching an excellent creamy Fuji apple sorbet with manuka honey poured over the top. It's restrained, sweet enough and quite refreshing.
Although its moves overtly channel Tokyo, Izakaya Den also seems quintessentially Melbourne. The obscure, barely signposted entrance and the basement location certainly tap into the local hidden bar obsession. But with authentic ingredients, authentic cooking and superb design elements - particularly the beautiful, bench-like bar - Denton and co have given Melbourne a thoroughly stylish and enjoyable Japanese joint unlike anything the city has seen before.