Restaurant Reviews

Kisumé, Melbourne review

There’s drama in the look and on the plate at the new Kisumé, but does it all add up to good times? Michael Harden puts it through its paces.

Kisumé's street-level sushi bar

Martin Reftel and Jessica Reftel Evans

Here are some of the things I’ve eaten at Kisumé. Gloriously fatty otoro nigiri, precision sliced that day from the belly of a whole bluefin. Wagyu meatballs stuffed with mozzarella and served with truffle mayo. Greasy pork and kimchi gyoza bewilderingly topped with salad greens, discs of striped beetroot and a balsamic reduction. Translucent King George whiting dusted with golden-yellow karasumi. Marinated olives, a pastry finger spotty with black truffles and truffled potato purée, complimentary snacks in the top-level Chablis Bar.

Try to get your head around that lot. Just what the hell kind of Japanese restaurant is this?

For starters, Kisumé is a Chris Lucas production, so getting your head around it is kind of beside the point. Nobody goes to a Lucas restaurant – Chin Chin, Baby, Kong, Hawker Hall – in search of a by-the-book culturally authentic-sensitive dining experience. His genre has long been restaurant as nightclub, all crowds, thumping tunes, flashy design and cocktails built for thrillseekers.

Kisumé’s Chris Lucas, chef Kyungsoo Moon and sommelier Jonathan Ross

Even given the head-spinning amount of time and money (12 months for the build alone and a price tag in the millions) thrown at Kisumé’s design, recruitment and produce, and a reservations policy that eliminates the queue, it’s still very much a Lucas restaurant. So the better question to ask is: are we having fun yet?

The answer is a definite yes. Though there are pearl-clutching moments along the way.

The first of these comes with the décor.

Kisumé is carved out of a 1950s office building – literally in the case of the elegant American oak staircases linking the three levels punched through the building’s concrete floors. Architects Wood Marsh have designed the interiors with their trademark dramatic light and shadow. The theatrical lighting, dark-hued palette and leather, timber, velvet and brass detailing give the place a self-consciously sexy, high-end club feel. Those of a certain age may even flash back to the 1980s and the similarly three-level Inflation nightclub on King Street, an early entry on the Wood Marsh CV that has an echo here.

Chef Kyungsoo Moon at the kaiseki bar

The top level, called Kuro Kisumé, is like the VIP section of a nightclub. It’s the home of the mirror-and brass-detailed Chablis Bar, two private rooms curtained off with dusty-pink velvet curtains and a glass wine wall containing gobsmacking vintages of benchmark Old and New World wines. There’s also a 12-seat kaiseki bar down one end, an empty stage as we go to press, waiting for the promised $175-a-head deluxe omakase menus from Kisumé executive chef, Kyungsoo Moon, to commence.

Kuro Kisumé also sports a row of spotlit explicit bondage-themed photos from Japanese artist Nobuyoshi Araki. It’s a bold design move – provocative, potentially controversial, but tasteful, collected. Perfect for droll contemplation over a $60 glass of 2009 Domaine Billaud-Simon Chablis.

There’s more Araki in the basement, though the images seem less immediate on this bustling level, its open kitchen pumping out the restaurant’s “hot menu” – a rollcall of tempura and dumplings and whole grilled fish including an artful-looking, superbly cooked mackerel flavoured with ginger and a chilli and sesame ponzu.

The art on Kisumé’s street level, home to the restaurant’s centrepiece bamboo-topped sushi bar, is the work of Australian photographer Polly Borland. Borland’s images don’t feature bound semi-naked women like Araki’s but, nonetheless, they’re fascinating, well constructed and slightly disturbing. Which also describes some of the sushi.

Otoro double nigiri

There’s a couple of entry points for sushi at Kisumé. Those after a classic experience need to hold out for a booking at the sushi bar and opt for the omakase. Otherwise the sushi is mostly about set options and complicated rolls, many blinged and pimped with gold leaf, caviar and micro-herbs. Boxes containing the assorted sushi, or the tuna or salmon “features” arrive resembling trays of Lego where the maker has ditched the instructions and gone rogue – colourful, sculptural, complicated, often for no other reason than entertainment.

It’s the same for most of the raw fish on the placemat sushi menu. The toro tartare, for instance, arrives in a metal-finish bowl sitting on a pile of ice inside a larger ceramic bowl. Dainty mother-of-pearl spoons rest on the ice. The tartare, a disc of exemplary but chilly chopped tuna belly, sits in a pool of wasabi-spiked soy sauce and is topped with caviar, salmon roe, finely chopped shiso and little pearls of Japanese yam. Purist-minimalist sushi fans may need smelling salts. But it’s a fun dish to eat. Digging through it, you get pops of flavour and texture, a flare of salt, a hum of umami, a background wasabi burn accompanied by the thrill of piling all those luxury ingredients into your mouth at the same time.

Sushi chef Yosuke Hatanaka

It can be tempting to get a little snooty about Kisumé’s push to make sushi great again, but the enthusiastic showmanship of chef Moon is hard to resist without feeling like a stick in the mud.

But this is where Kisumé really shows its mettle because, if you want to be a stick in the mud, they’ve got something for you, too. Book yourself an omakase, clamber into a comfortably upholstered bar stool and observe just how seriously chef Moon and Japanese brothers and sushi masters Yosuke and Shimpei Hatanaka take their ingredients and knife skills.

The sushi omakase might begin blingy – a potato chip topped with oscietra caviar, tuna and gold leaf balanced over an eggshell filled with a sweetcorn purée that has a centre of dark purple beetroot purée – but mostly tones it down after that. The fish – and the skills – become the thing.

Akame zuki – bluefin tuna marinated in soy in front of you for about seven minutes – arrives unadorned except for some house-pickled Tasmanian ginger. Superb baby abalone gets a dusting of salt while a scampi and uni combination is lifted with finger lime and ginger. Mackerel smoked on the binchotan grill comes rolled, Osaka style, around rice and flavoured with yuzu. There’s a marvellous otoro double, raw and just seared tuna belly bound together on top of rice rolled with tiny slivers of fresh wasabi.

Moon can’t seem to resist a bit of flash – there’s a prawn, toro and uni combination nigiri that gets the caviar and gold-leaf treatment, and the seared Blackmore wagyu nigiri arrives under a glass dome filled with smoke – but his gorgeous miso soup with chrysanthemum tofu, the tofu sliced into delicate tendrils that wave like seaweed in the broth, shows that he also has a talent for more subtle showmanship.

Miso soup with chrysanthemum tofu

There’s gold in the omakase drink pairing, too. Former Eleven Madison Park sommelier Jonathan Ross pulls together a sleek and beautiful collection of classic things to put down that might start with Kisumé’s gluggable on-tap house sake (Shiki Junmai) and then roam to a 2006 Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge riesling, a 2009 Jean Chauvenet Nuits-St George Les Vaucrains Premier Cru Burgundy, and a brilliant smoky-rich umeshu by Osaka’s Choya Kokuto.

Surprisingly, given Kisumé’s clear ambition to extend the Japanese experience in this town, wine is emphasised over sake. The presence of wine guy Philip Rich – formerly of Prince Wine Store – and the existence of the third-floor Chablis Bar make it a little less surprising. Chablis alone runs to four by the glass and more than 60 by the bottle. The sake offering, on the other hand, occupies just two of the list’s 20 pages.

The wine list channels Kisumé’s democratic, something-for-everybody approach with great entry-level by-the-glass prices for the likes of Victorian riesling and Provençal rosé. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the wine wall on the top level, where buffs can browse gorgeously racked and illuminated benchmarks until their hearts are pounding and their palms sweaty.

Layered pineapple pavlova

Desserts will more likely calm the heartbeat than set it racing. A layered pineapple number, however, of soft white cartoonish-looking pavlova sprinkled with matcha and set in a glass with a dried pineapple chip and quenelle of sorbet suspended on top, gives it a better crack than most Japanese joints in Melbourne.

Kisumé is not like most Japanese places in Melbourne. Bigger, flashier, it owes more to America’s glam sushi palaces than it does to anything homegrown. It’s brash, sure, and not interested in the hushed-temple-of-peaceful-minimalism model. But there’s an applause-worthy commitment to great ingredients, talented professionals, sharp service, good design and delicious things to drink. It’s a Chris Lucas restaurant, not concerned about stepping on a few toes and traditions on the path to some fun. But one thing’s for sure: Kisumé will show you a good time.

Kyungsoo Moon

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