Kisume – Melbourne, City – Saturday 10 March 2018 – Dinner

Kingfish sashimi, truffle soy, black truffle

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.

Chargrilled edamame

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.

Crispy pork kimchi gyoza

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.

Sushi course with deluxe upgrade

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.

Miso soup with chrysanthemum tofu

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.

Foie gras and beef

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.

Spicy miso hapuka with puffed black rice, spicy miso, and chive oil; cucumber salad in the background

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.

Kisumé Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Flower Drum – Melbourne, City – Friday 23 March 2018 – Dinner


Most people have a Flower Drum story, and a view on its merits as a big night out. Back when I first ventured there in my mid-twenties it was a three star restaurant still at the height of reverence from most dining circles.

It was described to me at the time as a destination restaurant even for people living in China. Naturally, I took that statement with a degree of skepticism, but when your waitperson has been at the same restaurant for 25 years, there is an instant knowing that something is going particularly well, in a world where a year is a milestone in hospitality.

Fast forward almost one and a half decades and the knowing is of a different kind. These days I know that you should expect flawless service, and that the tasting menu will include Peking Duck and beautifully cooked beef. In the lead up, the reception when I mentioned Flower Drum was anywhere between excitement and a feeling the place is now passé.

It’s almost as if, in this dynamic world of constant change, that doing something well, over and over again, might be overrated. In a sense I can be guilty of this too, but an understanding of why focus and precision is beautiful in cooking terms was strengthened from my trip to Tokyo last year, and a few other instances here and there (often in relation to Asian food).

To my surprise, there was one change to the “four course” tasting menu tonight, which was no san choi bao, replaced by a crayfish omelette. This was the first course and a delicious introduction into the meal to come. The dish is perfectly seasoned (salt and pepper is provided, but not needed), with large chunks of juicy crayfish smothered by a fluffed egg white omelette. For a long and generous tasting menu, the richness of this first course is felt later in the meal, but I wouldn’t be offering a spoonful of that crayfish back.

Skipping over the service at Flower Drum would be like going to the Taj Mahal, taking a photo, and walking back out. It is intrinsic to the atmosphere in the room, almost prompting a sense of Zen. Like many things of beauty, it is hard to put your finger on exactly why the service here is spoken about like it won an Olympic gold medal. While tonight there is little chance our waitperson, Vincent, has been working at Flower Drum for 25 years like one of my first experiences, he is thoroughly trained.

Saute crayfish omelette

The dedication and commitment to excellence here is astounding, but it doesn’t lead to a loss of personality. A good example is towards the end of the evening when we complimented Vincent on how well he handled our AGT Vouchers (I get a discount through work which is great, but the paper voucher has caused some issues!) Rather than accept the compliment with the same humility he had shown throughout the evening, he humorously said “thank my Manager” with a grin that he would have had no idea what to do.

Wok fried wild barramundi fillet

The next course we enjoyed was the barramundi, with a glutinous shiitake mushroom sauce, and asparagus. I could see Catherine looking at the whole fillet of fish, and back at her chopsticks, and I was instantly brought back to the first time I ate fish here. “Don’t worry, it falls apart easily” I assured her, and sure enough, the fish parts in bite sized pieces perfectly held together for less sophisticated chopstick enthusiasts like myself. Besides the perfect fillet of lightly battered barra, the sauce shares the limelight with a huge lift that doesn’t mask the fish, but does add some punch.

At this stage we were finishing our Moorooduc Estate Chardonnay, displaying a good level of oak and some old school malolactic fermentation that we quite like. Next we switched to a half bottle of the Paringa Estate Pinot Noir from 2013. The Pinot is glorious, especially with the upcoming dish.

That dish is the famous Peking duck which these days is presented with some hoisin art. It’s a bit gimmicky, but delightful at the same time. Once you taste the Peking duck your mind shifts to how succulent the duck is, and how perfect the pancake packaging is. One day I would like to be able to be a regular here just to have the Peking duck. For now my two tastes, matched with the Pinot, are just gorgeous, leaving me to hunger for the next time I’m here, which will be sooner than 13 years.

Peking duck

Next comes the beef, and I really don’t remember it being this large? You are basically presented with a small steak, Asian greens, and a side of unforgettable fried rice. I like this fried rice better than both Lung King Heen and RyuGin, both owning three Michelin stars in Asia. There is a choice to upgrade the beef from local Black Angus to Wagyu which at $40 per head we didn’t do this time, and we were not regretting our choice because it is hard to imagine how the beef could be that much better. Using chopsticks, each piece melts in your mouth, the technique better than most steakhouses, and practiced for a considerable period of time with this 43 year old restaurant.

Grain-fed eye fillet with black pepper sauce, and fried rice

For dessert we are given a choice, which is never a great idea because the negotiation is intense. From the beginning I wanted to have the mango crepes and something a bit more on the edge. Serious contemplation followed as we tried to let our savoury courses digest. Vincent became involved in the conversation and incredibly swayed us to try the fried ice cream! According to wiki the origin of this dessert is America, but to my mind it has become something of a suburban Chinese restaurant cringe dessert.

Vincent was right. Not only did he realise we were going to share dessert (so organised for it to be split between our plates) but he was spot on that fried ice cream can be elevated to an adult dessert. This one is surrounded by sponge cake that has been compressed and then surrounded by breadcrumbs. It is complimented by a berry sauce and I will never say anything bad about fried ice cream again! The crepes are very nice, just as I remember them. Plenty of sweet mango filling, even though the season in Queensland has apparently come to an end.

Mango crepe; and fried ice cream

The hours had passed and all of a sudden the buzz in the restaurant had dissipated as one-by-one the guests had made their way back on to Market Lane. As I finished my Grandfather Port (yes, a traditional meal needs a traditional port!) and Catherine her Jasmine tea, we knew we’d had a night to remember. There is something comforting about Flower Drum, and there’s no need to feel guilty about it.

Flower Drum Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Modern Eatery – House of Aburi Sushi – Richmond – Wednesday 16 August 2017 and 18 November 2017 – Lunch

Omakase Nigiri – including salmon, tuna, snapper, kingfish, omelette

After an unsuccessful attempt by a burger chain, a new Japanese restaurant has taken up residence on Swan Street in a part of the street that has almost completely changed in recent years. The Modern Eatery – House of Aburi Sushi is a sister to two restaurants in Perth, and that foundation might be part of the reason that a few months on it is already more successful than the previous tenant.

The aspects I like about TME speak volumes of what I don’t like in many casual Japanese restaurants and cafes around Australia. Those behind this place have put some thought into the menu, and the fitout. It doesn’t feel cheap, but it is still casual. The space isn’t plain, with some nice high tables to make it feel like a place to eat, and not a takeaway joint or foodhall.

Love Me Tender – deep fried chicken tempura, cucumber, sliced avocado with house made tartare sauce and seared panko on top

Most importantly, the couple of times I’ve been for lunch I have found some good quality food, that is reasonably priced. The omakase nigiri consists of fresh sashimi, that goes beyond the usual tuna and salmon to include some kingfish and snapper. The rice is good, and the wasabi is about right.

Chicken katsu bento

The handmade sushi is well constructed, although the size is a little too large in my opinion. It is a reasonably classic combination (in these parts), with the ingredients all well prepared. The chicken katsu bento is again good value, though the star of the bento is not far above average.

With so many average Japanese outlets across the city and the suburbs, any place that is marginally better will get some attention. The combination of nicely prepared food with some diversity, a comfortable and good looking space to eat, and some friendly service, should see this push from Perth over east see some degree of success.

The Modern Eatery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Oter – Melbourne, City – Wednesday 6 September 2017 – Dinner

Tamarillo Millefeuille + Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

Time passes by so quickly. Now almost three months back, Catherine and I had our first experience at Oter since it replaced Yu-U. Across from its sister restaurant, Coda, the space has been thoroughly renovated.

The feel is not dramatically different thanks to the large bar focussed seating space, and the fact the restaurant is partially below ground. Back in the Yu-U days it was a little claustrophobic though, but now it is quite open and airy. We are happy to sit at the bar, which seems to be the place to be, not to mention the view of three tarts of the day is close to irresistible!

Moulton Sea Urchin + Kohlrabi Noodle

The menu is interesting in its diversity, and the prices are reasonable for some sophisticated dishes. Service is knowledgable and quite attentive, though the whole bar dining concept is a bit confused here with the majority of service coming from the floor, rather than from behind the bar. The bar does give the chefs (largely working further back and not right in front of you) the opportunity to present dishes to you, which has a charm to it.

Blue Spanner Crab + Pickled Cucumber, Hazelnut

To begin we tried one of the Moulton sea urchin on top of a bundle of kohlrabi noodles. Served cold, the sea urchin has that soft texture that can put people off, but when paired next to the firm vegetable noodles, the subtle flavour was able to show itself off. Next we shared the blue spanner crab with pickled cucumbers and slithered hazelnuts. Presented with a cucumber foam, the dish looks delightful, and the flavour is its equal. At this early stage we were growing in excitement for the dishes to come.

The wines by the glass have many points of interest. We started off with a champagne by Piper Heidsieck, before moving into a Chardonnay by Salo. I hadn’t heard of Salo before but it is made by two of the best winemakers in the Yarra Valley, as part of a project to make natural wines. As we got towards our mains we chose a Cabernet Franc by Crawford River. All three glasses were fantastic, pointing to a well thought out wine list.

Alsatian Bread Dumplings + Onion Sousbise, Boudin Noir

We had to ask our waitperson a bit about the Alsatian bread dumplings because they were something we hadn’t encountered. There was just something about bread dumplings, onion sauce, and blood sausage that really piqued our interest. In the end it was a very hearty and satisfying treat prior to our shared mains.

Kurobuta Pork + Confit Celeriac, Lardo

We decided on two mains that we would share to avoid any menu envy. The Kurobuta pork was served perfectly pink, with a whole slow cooked confit celeriac really making its presence felt. The Gippsland duck was served with a pretty beurre blanc sauce, scattered with charred baby leeks. Both were excellent, with some nice contrasting features for us to enjoy while sharing. The pork soft and tender; the duck with that crispy skin around the drumstick, and a more generous sauce.

Gippsland Confit Duck + Charred Leek, Beurre Blanc

Earlier in the night we were craning our necks to check out the amazing looking tarts of the day. One of the floor staff saw us and instantly brought them closer to us, sitting them on the bar touching distance away (we refrained!) There was no doubt one of us had to order one of those slices of heaven. With Catherine keen to try the tamarillo millefeuille, it was up to me to chose a slice, and I went with the chocolate, pistachio and blood orange. As delicious as the tart turned out, with some reduced milk ice cream accompanying it, the millefeuille won the day for its taste and immaculate presentation.

Tart of the day – chocolate, pistachio and blood orange + reduced milk ice cream

Reflecting on our experience at Oter provides memories of some beautifully executed modern Australian dishes that walk the tightrope between bold rusticity and fine dining pizazz. Eating on the bar is not for everyone, but it is the way modern dining is going. With a few tweaks to give some more life behind the bar, Oter could deliver and even tighter experience. It’s not out of the question to go past just for the tart of the day, but stopping in for several courses like we did is well worth it.

Ôter Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Osteria Ilaria – Melbourne, City – Thursday 10 August 2017 – Lunch

Pistachio semifreddo

Have you ever been reluctant to try the sister of one of your favourite restaurants? It can potentially tarnish the feelings you have of the original when you meet the family. Will the new be the focus to the detriment of the old?

The first thing to do is make sure the two are located close to each other. The second is to not copy the original but keep enough similarity that the two can be seen as complementing each other; that they have a reason to exist side by side. I believe the crew behind Tipo 00 have done this to the letter when it comes to Osteria Ilaria.

Spaghettini with clams and squid

Located right next door, the new kid on the block to the gastrotemple that is Tipo, does not look to provide more space just for the same menu. It takes some of the building blocks, in a much larger setting, and adds some modern pizzazz. If you consider Tipo the modern tick to great Italian classics, Osteria goes that one step further, appealing to an even more diverse audience.

Today is a stealth mission, with limited time to dine, and no booking, we have no idea what to expect. Gladly we get a place on the bar and we are ready to eat. What we didn’t realise is that we would not just try a main, but indulge in dessert too.

After we order our main we have some time to look around. There is a lot of bar space, and many areas for sitting comfortably in groups through the large rectangular space. The waitstaff have that authenticity you see at Tipo, but they are a bit busier with all the diners.

Goat with fregola

My spaghettini, a special on today’s menu, arrives beautifully presented, with lashings of clams and squid. It is a clear demonstration that the quality of the chefs here is the equal of next door, and I do believe they work between the kitchens. An instruction on rusticity, the goat and fregola is also one of the specials today. The slow cooked goat is delicious, and the fregola is the perfect carb, capturing the sauce and providing some texture. Unbelievably I have a little bit of menu envy for Catherine’s choice in a bit of a role reversal for the two of us.

For dessert we were back in our usual position. Me ordering the chocolate, and Catherine ordering something a little less rich. The olive oil chocolate mousse reminded me a touch of our favourite Tipomisu from next door in presentation, but it was a dessert all of its own. The biscuit was crisp, offering texture and restraint to the deep chocolate richness of the mousse, crumb, and sauce. By the end it was a bit too much, so maybe one for sharing. The pistachio semifreddo on the other hand could be finished off in a matter of a couple minutes. Distinct pistachio creaminess was elevated with the use of a generous scattering of chopped pistachios, the whole dish another winner.

Olive oil chocolate mousse

By now our casual lunch had escalated quickly. It is difficult to think of how to split future visits to this patch of Little Bourke Street that has two sibling restaurants side by side, absolutely smashing it. My take is that sitting on the bar at Tipo 00 as a couple is still my perfect place for a classic Italian three course; Osteria Ilaria is still great on the bar, but seems to be suited to a small group too, with lots of dishes designed to share, in a much larger (and perhaps more comfortable) setting. Either way I’m impressed by this restaurant on its own merits.

Osteria Ilaria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

French Saloon – Melbourne, City – Monday 10 April 2017 – Lunch

It is not every day a collection of restaurants has such an impact on a diverse range of dining and drinking experiences. The European, City Wine Shop, and most importantly The Supper Club (and Siglo), are three places that captured my imagination many years ago, and have held it to this day. It seems without even knowing it, the people behind these stunning establishments, have grabbed me in the opposite end of town.

Kirk’s Wine Bar is not a place that grabs your immediate attention. In fact, it looks like a lot of wine bars I’ve been to overseas. It is the feeling here that is special. Somehow many of those I’ve been with there, feel the same way too. The fascinating part is why I feel drawn to it whenever I’m in that part of town, whether shopping, after lunch, for pre-dinner drinks, or pretty much any other time.

Naturally, upstairs was always going to end up capturing my attention. It’s not the same, but the walk up the stairs is a bit like going up to the Supper Club. What is upstairs though is a tribute to the casual dining of France. Not that the French do anything that is actually that casual. The French Saloon is put together in this manner.

There is not a prestigious fitout, and the tables are not overdone, but there is a sense of bistro luxury and a feeling of belonging, even if it is just any other Monday in Autumn. From the greeting to the goodbye, there is an ease about this place. If only the menu were as easy. There was no debate, but after a fair bit of catching up, we really needed to order something.

Chris had his eye on the kingfish which I was happy to share. I like the sound of the spanner crab toast and we ordered one each. It was a great start.

The kingfish is served with delicate presentation, surrounded by thinly sliced cucumber. However, the staff direct you to mix it all up, allowing the sauce to combine with the oil and creating a smart combination. The spanner crab is curiously presented half adorned with avocado, and the other half with salmon roe. The toast works well initially, holding together, until it all falls apart in the last few bites. As you can imagine, using a knife and fork does not inhibit the delicate flavour.

For mains, we had decided to share the Cote de Boeuf, along with a side of fries and of the gem lettuce with anchovy sauce. Having ordered medium rare, the steak seems on the medium side, but was still beautifully tender and well seasoned. The strong jus was absolutely superb, lifting the steak to greater heights. The chips were excellent, while the gem lettuce could have been a touch too powerful with its anchovy dressing, to refresh and dull the impact of the steak and jus.

The Pinot Noir we were drinking from Gippsland was at the suggestion of our waitperson, as the bottle Chris selected was off the list. It was an excellent choice, not necessarily matching our choices perfectly, but versatile enough to enjoy with, or without food. In fact, the service on a reasonably busy Monday lunch was great.

As we finished lunch, I asked Chris about his phone call into 3AW, where he had shared with the breakfast presenters his insights from his experiences at Eleven Madison Park, which had very recently won the title of “world’s best restaurant”. When we walked downstairs Chris saw one of his friends at Kirk’s and he too got asked about the same conversation! Like so many meals, ending it with conversations about other meals seems fitting.

The French Saloon is different to the other offerings of this group, but it has the same hospitable feel and warmth. I’m sold on everything they do, though I almost wish I didn’t know they were all connected.

French Saloon Bar & Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bar Lourinha – Melbourne, City – Monday 17 April 2017 – Dinner

Yellowtail kingfish ‘pancetta’ & lemon oil

Great places do not get old. They have a personality. Like people, some personalities wear thin after many years, and some become old friends.

While I’ve been many times, it wouldn’t add up to once a year since opening. I’m pretty sure the staff have turned-over in their entirety several times. Yet, there is something about this simply furnished restaurant with a dominant bar, that stays fresh.

At the time Bar Lourinha opened, it was a trend setter. Spanish tapas was not new, but it was waiting for a further push. Add to this novel concepts of the time like “no bookings”, the unusual location on Little Collins Street, and that added ingredient of intrigue, and you have a recipe for a hot restaurant.

Merimbula oysters

It has now been open for over a decade. While Bar Lourinha is no longer the trend setter, it is now part of a restaurant culture that makes Melbourne one of the best CBDs in the world to eat in. It is a part of my personal restaurant folklore, and I’m sure many other Melburnians.

Tonight it is yet another meal here, spending the evening with friends after a performance by Stephen K Amos during the Comedy Festival. Natalie is a pescetarian and there are heaps of non-meat options so we are covered. Her other half, Jason, thankfully chooses one meat dish after I twist his arm!

We share several plates that include some Merimbula oysters, fritters of salted cod (bacalau), kingfish, mussels, pumpkin, mushrooms, and chorizo. The Merimbula oysters are fantastic; but the fritters are a bit too dominated by the potato, to fully appreciate the flavour of the cod.

Roasted mushrooms & garlic cream

In a flash we have one of my long time favourite dishes here. The kingfish is simply plated, but always has a glorious flavour, like they get access to some of the best cuts. At the time it became a signature, you would not find kingfish on every second menu, and incredibly it is no less special here. The mushrooms are the other “everytime” dish. Sitting in a garlic cream sauce, they are always beautifully cooked, keeping firm and juicy.

Mussels, pimenton ‘El Angel’, burnt butter & bread

The mussels were recommended by one of our several waitpersons. Funnily, one of them was always about 20 seconds behind another one, sounding like a round musical composition of “row your boat”. We were asked for water twice, given the specials twice (which was fun trying to remember the ingredients), and eventually the entire system broke down literally. It seems they couldn’t catch a break as when we asked for the bill, they asked for us to wait a little (please). This does not mean the staff were bad, it was actually decent service, but there was a lack of coordination.

Back to the mussels, and the sweet paprika (pimenton) with burnt butter, and they are superb. A terrific recommendation, and a special dish. Like most tapas you are left wanting more. On the flip side, the heirloom pumpkin dish just didn’t work for me, even with some texture from the freekeh and chestnuts. A return came with the chorizo which was served as two sausages and a tenderly cooked potato. While the potato was nice, it was more of a filler, but the chorizo had the richness that we all love it for.

Cheese selection

With some great wines on both the by the glass and the longer list, we ordered a bottle of the Vinho Verde from Portugal by Quinta do Ameal. Catherine and I had come in for a drink the week before (which is where we got the idea to return for dinner) and this is a wonderful white wine with great mouthfeel and balance. I also tried the cabernet franc by the glass which I’d had my eye on the week before, and I’m keen to try some more!

Churros y dulce de laeche

Not quite completely full, we shared a cheeseboard and some churros to finish. The cheeseboard featured some gorgonzola, manchego, and a softer offering that I can’t recall. It is great to enjoy some cheese while still having an appetite. The churros on the other hand don’t require an appetite. I could keep going on these expertly prepared doughnuts in dulce de leche until the restaurant runs out.

I call Bar Lourinha an institution. That might be wrong, but to me it feels like one. I feel comfortable here and everything is familiar and fantastic. Sure, if this were my first visit it might not have that same exact character, but to me it is a favourite.

Bar Lourinhã Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato