A truly excellent new Japanese restaurant in Melbourne’s CBD is quite literally a hidden gem.
Melbourne’s newest and most exclusive Japanese restaurant is genuinely hard to find. It’s down a laneway off Bourke Street that seems to become invisible when you start looking for it. Once you find it you punch a code into a buzzer in a nondescript apartment building, walk through a set of doors, then take a lift to the basement where you’re confronted by a series of identical featureless doors. One has the word Ishizuka painted onto a strip of wood next to it. Walk through it and you’re in a world so beautiful and different it feels as if you have moved through time and space.
Inside you walk up a gentle slope, the rough textured foundations of the apartments above forming columns in the walls around you, up-lit from a bank of lights obscured by the raised, black carpeted floating floor. It feels ancient, almost Roman. In front of you is a great white half fabric dome that separates you from the dining space. The maitre’d walks you around to reveal a kitchen framed by the culinary equivalent of a proscenium arch. Black stone walls with imbedded sake display cabinets surround the cool blondewood benches of the kitchen. An anticline of coloured marble completes the underground backdrop. Enclosing this perfectly open kitchen-as-theatre are the stalls: 16 padded leather and wood stools around the polished softwood bar that brackets the kitchen on three sides.
Diners are individually greeted by chef and owner Tomotaka Ishizuka. He offers his business card in two hands and politely welcomes you to your seat in his restaurant. He was head chef at KOKO, Crown Casino. He trained in Tokyo but shifted himself to Kanazawa to learn the gastronomic art of Kaiseki. That is the tradition of multi-course Japanese cuisine and the multiple skills that are involved.
While Tomotaka may have had to feed a room of 150 at Crown he seems in his element cooking for just 16 over a two-hour sitting. Although you are intimately close to your neighbour, the feeling of the room is quiet and private. You can hear the chefs’ razor-sharp knives slice through the food, the delicate ‘tink’ as exquisite handmade ceramic dishes are laid out and the reassuringly gruff whispered ‘Hai’ as the sous chef takes instruction.
Kaiseki at Ishizuka is a 12-course affair. It could start with sakizuke, a delicious block of edamame tofu topped with scampi and Siberian caviar set in a dashi gel. It is a masterpiece in soft textures and umami.
This could be followed by zensai – a seasonal tasting array served on a beautiful cut-glass plate with a cup of silky steamed egg custard and cherry-shaped morsels of perfectly cured ocean trout wrapped around fresh cheese. There’s a beautiful block of sushi, sea urchin stuffed raspberry and sweet corn and flavour-filled fish cake. This dish is a microcosm of the skill and layered flavours that can be found through the rest of the 10 courses. There could be tiles of toro – tuna belly from the markets in Tokyo, sliced in front of you. One of the beautifully understated dishes is yakimono, a grilled dish of cod marinated in sweet miso for three days then grilled to deep golden brown and topped with a foam of marron that is also grilled to set it, topped with three lobes of fresh sea urchin. Again a masterpiece in texture and flavour, the crowning glory a candied walnut and a small pickled radish perfectly fanned with minute knife strokes. The wine and sake list is small for the scope of the food but perfectly curated by master sommeliers Sarah and David Lawler.
Dining at Ishizuka is not a normal night out. There is a slow act of ongoing mesmerism that drags the diner into the carefully considered actions of Tomotaka and his team. The knife strokes, the burnishing under flame, the cooking over charcoal, the placement of gold leaf on a puck of lobster – beautifully considered movements that all form part of the greater choreography that is the meal. It has the zen-like quality of the Japanese tea ceremony, in which time slows down and the senses are heightened. This is fine dining refined, redefined and completely personalised under the steady hands of Tomotaka Ishizuka.