Restaurant Reviews

Kappo, Melbourne restaurant review

Kappo introduces the traditional Japanese dining style of the same name and takes it to a whole new level, writes Michael Harden.

Miyuki Nakahara, Takashi Omi, Kentaro Usami, and Simon Denton

Marcel Aucar

“Please refrain from using mobile phones in the dining areas,” the menu reads. “No flash photography.” How you react to these directions – with a sense of relief, a feeling of panic, a niggle of outrage – will be a pretty clear indicator of whether or not Kappo is going to be your cup of sencha.

Then again, there are plenty of other intimations that this isn’t your average restaurant. Just getting from the entrance on Flinders Lane to one of the 24 black wicker-seat bar stools in the dining room involves pressing a buzzer at a discreetly marked side door and being ushered down a moodily lit hallway to a compact carpeted room with chefs behind the timber bar and a Japanese vocalist soft-jazzing Neil Young on the stereo. In other words, it’s no secret that this is a Japanese restaurant of Serious Intent.

It’s in the name, the food, the design, the service and even (roll your eyes if you must) the soul of the place. Anyone enamoured of Japanese culture will savour the rules, the idiosyncrasies, and recognise they’re all bound up with what makes Kappo a very exciting place to eat.

Once you’ve been here a while, you can’t imagine that anyone immersed in this serene, quietly luxurious environment, all timber and rice paper and gentle lighting, would even think about yammering into their phone or blinding everybody in the place with a camera flash. But still, despite this latest venture from the team behind Izakaya Den and Hihou (the bar right above Kappo, in the old Verge dining room) appearing to magically transport you to Tokyo, there’s the reality of not actually being in Japan. Away from that dining culture, and perhaps with their experience of the local scene in mind, Simon Denton, Miyuki Nakahara and Takashi Omi may have considered it best to cover all contingencies.

It certainly feels like they’ve got all the other contingencies well covered, from the weather-dependent towel (hot or cold) you’re handed on arrival to the rather lovely box of chopsticks presented so you can choose a degree of thickness and heft that best corresponds to your level of dexterity.

Then there’s the gratis glass of sake and small refreshing snack, perhaps tofu wrapped in pickled daikon and sprinkled with lemon zest, or a pleasingly textured, vibrant green pickled lettuce stem wrapped in kombu. These land after you’ve chosen one of the three individually named omakase menus: the five-course Hajimeni (“the introduction”), the seven-course Kanshin (“the interest”) or the nine-course Odoroki (“the surprise”).

Selecting a menu isn’t the only choice you’ll make here, but refreshingly it’s one of the few that need to be made at Kappo. Another involves the 30-plus ingredients listed at the top of the menu – with yam potato, candy beetroot, abalone, brown sugar, sea urchin, mustard green, cherry blossom leaf all potentially among them – that change regularly, reflecting availability. The purpose of the list is to give a glimpse of the ingredients you might be eating, but it also allows diners to opt in or out of any particular ingredient.

A word of advice to those considering playing the opt-out card: unless a particular ingredient has you reaching for the EpiPen, it’s best just to let former Kenzan chef Kentaro Usami feed you with the best of what he’s got, even if you think you might not like it. Here, you probably will.

The sea urchin is a case in point. This intense and often divisive morsel is part of one of Kappo’s best dishes. It’s a DIY tartare-like deal where all the ingredients – sea urchin, shaved squid, salmon roe, little cubes of swordfish belly marinated in a ponzu, soy and daikon mixture, sea grapes, zucchini that’s been marinated/pickled in sake lees (aka shio koji), wakame, and a small dish of dark-brown crumb made from crushed house-made rice crackers – come separately and you toss them into a rippled glass bowl with a squeeze of lime then mix them together.

Oh boy. It’s salty, fishy, sweet, tangy. Things pop and spurt and crunch and slide. And that sea urchin, intense and briny, is there providing a lusty salty-umami undercurrent. It’s a brilliant, lively dish that’s a bit like being slapped in the face in a way that’s particularly pleasurable.

The slap comes about halfway through the menu and is an excellent indicator of Kappo’s approach, given that it’s a dish that seems very Japanese but also distinctly modern Australian.

That’s the way of Kappo. The restaurant, designed by Kei Kitayama of architecture firm Denton Corker Marshall (he also designed Hihou and Izakaya Den), looks like a kappo-style restaurant in Japan, but it’s larger than would be traditional and has additional table seating and a private room for six. In Japan it would all be about the bar.

The food, too, is closely modelled on the immediacy of traditional kappo-style dining. Usami and his small team move quietly behind the bar, crafting each artful course in front of diners, and relying mainly on vegetables and seafood. But at Kappo, there’s often a modern twist to the proceedings.

A small sculptural pile of vegetables, some pickled, some fresh, is teamed with a walnut miso, made from miso paste, ground walnuts, shiitake juice and ginger juice. A quail leg is marinated in soy, mirin and sansho pepper before being crumbed and deep-fried. Air-cured salmon is wrapped around a sliver of salted cucumber and placed on a small pool of rich egg-yolk miso. Little rounds of sweet potato are topped with a tangy yuzu-flavoured miso. A mixed tempura features tiny pieces of garfish, white asparagus and a sprig of ice plant.

It’s good stuff, bright, fresh and well proportioned, the modern elements never overwhelming or unbalancing the Japanese roots of any dish. With all that balance, all that finesse and freshness, and all those courses, deciding what to drink can obviously become a little puzzling. What’s going to travel with you from delicate kombu broth through to robust grilled trout tail? Enter Raffaele Mastrovincenzo, Kappo’s dapper sommelier.

There are three drinks lists, including one from upstairs at Hihou, of cocktails, beer, shochu and Japanese whisky. The other two, one sake, one wine, are compact and beautifully crafted. The sake list is all about the output of six small producers from various parts of Japan while the wine list, a tight four pages with an emphasis on white wine, bounces back and forth between the Old and New Worlds, and benchmark and artisan producers (2009 Bindi Quartz Chardonnay from Macedon, 2013 Barracco Vignammare grillo from Sicily).

Mastrovincenzo has an excellent grasp of the food and his omakase drink menus, tailored for each of the three food menus, are an excellent way to go if you’re not the designated driver or expected to achieve greatness the following day. But taking the journey with the Roman sommelier, you get to taste gorgeous fragrant sake from long-established producers, such as Zaku, Gangi and Katsuyama, as well as funky Italian and ethereal Austrian wines, with perhaps a cute-labelled umeshu towards the end of the meal. It’s a trip.

Sake needs to be at least part of the equation – no matter which path is taken – because there’s always a sashimi course that might include translucent slivers of King George whiting fanned out next to little cubes of tuna belly that has been marinated in soy. They might share a plate with slivers of icicle and red radish, beetroot stems and delicately shaped little cones of chilli daikon. It’s beautiful stuff, made better with the drink pairing.

The red wine list comes in handy on the odd occasions when Kappo strays from the fish and veg path, such as with a particularly delicious, heavily marbled wagyu rump cap from Queensland that’s simply grilled, sliced and served with radish and salt.

Desserts, which follow a simple final savoury course of rice and pickled vegetables, might start (if you’re lucky) with a sublime pale-yellow yuzu sherbet, lightly sweetened with honey and topped with a mint leaf. It has the type of refreshing beauty that can haunt you all summer long. The sherbet is followed by a medley of clever, interesting and not too sweet desserts that include a green tea tiramisù (with roasted green tea, Yamazaki whisky and mascarpone in the mix) that’s rather good despite its slightly off-putting light-khaki hue. There’s also a surprising and quite wonderful wasabi cheesecake and little clear balls of kuzu (a natural thickening agent, like arrowroot) that have a slightly sweet lima bean paste at their centre and are topped with shiso leaves.

Kappo is the antithesis of all the raucous queue-riddled pan-Asian diners that have been so successful (some of them deservedly) in Melbourne in recent times. It’s quiet, compact, measured, precise, focused, calm. And stitching it all together is the service from Simon Denton, co-owner and still one of the finest front-of-house people the city’s ever seen. You get attention here. You’re looked after, cosseted and cared for. It’s why you don’t need to talk on the phone or record every second under the harsh light of a flash.

At Kappo, it’s all about right here, right now.

Kappo, Melbourne restaurant review
Kentaro Usami

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