I will admit it. I just don’t know enough about Japanese food to feel entirely comfortable critiquing it. I do know about restaurants and I do know what is good though.
There is no aspect of Japanese food that I do not like. Tempura, nigiri sushi, sashimi, yakitori, ramen, you name it; I love them all. When they are done at the highest level of quality it sticks out. There may only be a sparse number of ingredients, making it less obvious to differentiate, but when the component parts are superb, it is something of beauty.
Take that tradition of few ingredients and incredible fastidiousness, and add some modern flourishes and you have “modern Japanese”. Like other modern takes on traditional cuisine, it is not a complete transformation, but does make a statement. The other ingredients here at Kisume is a rockstar sibling restaurant in Chin Chin that is still attracting lines of people many years on, a glamourous space over a couple of levels, and that intangible cool that is a magic of its own.
We had the tasting menu with the deluxe sushi upgrade. The food is by no means flawless, or even close. The service is chaotic at times, but generally okay. No one seems to care that much because this is one of the hottest tickets in town. The experience feels similar to when you see your favourite band – even if they are not the best they could be, you are so excited you don’t care that much.
Tonight I’m dining with three friends and we all have different views on Japanese cuisine. “Chef” as we know him, is not a devotee and, unsurprisingly, this is not his best experience. Jarrod loves Japan and Japanese food, but was unmoved by several dishes. Trav has been to Japan multiple times too but had a more positive response.
The tasting menu started with edamame. We had already been suggested to try some as we decided what we would order, and whether we would try the tasting menu. They were very nice, chargrilled with salt and garlic oil. After opting for the tasting menu we were told that was the first course anyway. Then we received a further two bowls. Three bowls of edamame for four people? We felt bad leaving one completely untouched but the staff didn’t admit it was a mistake, and either way that is a lot of edamame to eat.
Next were some delicious pork gyoza that some at the table were saying are equaled at several other venues in Chinatown, but I thought were terrific. Kingfish sashimi that is first class comes next. Truffle soy and black truffle elevate the flavours, but the kingfish is top of the range. When kingfish is this good it reminds you why variations are so popular on restaurant menus. It was my favourite dish of the evening.
The sushi boxes have some serious diversity. There is sashimi, nigiri sushi, and several other tastes and textures including the uramaki (inside-out roll). The issue here is the varying degrees of enjoyment from the food. At the bottom end some of the sashimi is chewy in an unpleasant way, and the combination of uni, pastes and roe in the middle is difficult to understand (and not explained by our waitperson). The large pieces of cucumber are a distraction. On the plus side, the nigiri is excellent (wish there was a lot more) and some of the sashimi was beautiful too.
I appreciate the skill involved in the chrysanthemum tofu, and I like the silken texture, but the miso is plain. Anything but plain, the grass fed beef tenderloin from O’Connor’s is almost completely covered in foie gras. As an ingredient, foie gras is the epitome of richness, but there is an issue with the beef. Experience of beef in Japanese restaurants has always involved an awe about how it can be so tender and juicy. The richness of the foie gras simply doesn’t mask the fact that the beef is not up to the quality we would expect.
The hapuka fish with a puffed black rice crust is easily the superior of the two mains. The crust works really well against the firm and juicy fillet. Add the spicy miso and chive oil and you have a very nice dish. The side salad of cucumber, cucumber and more cucumber was pleasant enough with its vinaigrette dressing and good measure of coriander. However, did we really need three of them for four people. Generousity is one thing, but wasting so much cucumber felt wrong, especially after our three serves of edamame.
The dessert to finish lacked impact. Three puffs of cream with some additions for texture. It was sweet, and we ate it (in under 2 minutes), but it felt like an afterthought.
On this one experience I wouldn’t go back to Kisume, but I’ve heard enough good things about the Chef’s Table (exclusive to 12 people) and there were some serious highlights. There’s little doubt that with a restaurant this spoken about it will get another chance, but I hope it is better the second time around.