Saturday, 28 November 2015

Reviews of Melbourne's Minamishima and Tipo 00 - Two of the City's Hottest Restaurants

I was recently back in the Land Down Under to try out some new restaurants spend some time with family.  My choices: the sushi specialist Minamishima, a winner of two hats and Victoria's Restaurant of the Year, and the one-hatted Tipo 00, named Victoria's Best New Restaurant.

Minamishima - Is this Australia's Best Japanese Restaurant?

There was, and is, an incredible amount of hype surrounding the opening of Minamishima, in the inner-southern Melbourne suburb of Richmond.  Open only since December 2014, chef Koichi Minamishima has won rave reviews across the board, with critics praising the authenticity and quality of the experience.  At A$150 (SGD 152), it is, by Singapore standards, super-cheap for a top-quality Japanese meal, although many Australians would never dream of spending that much on dinner, let alone 15 morsels of raw fish.

Set behind a discreet glass front, I take a seat at the American oak counter with my father-in-law R.  Here is the view from our seats, with chef Minamishima in the background, and his colleague Hajime Horiguchi.

We accompany our meal with two very nice carafes of sake.  The appetiser, a charcoal-grilled jumbo-sized edamame with shiitake mushroom salt, is a bit underwhelming.

That heralds the start of our sushi odyssey.  I am not going to comment on each and every single morsel I was served, so here are captioned photos of what we had.

Australian King Dory

Whiting with Pickled Ginger and Spring Onion

Squid, Lime Juice and Shiso

New Zealand Scampi

Ark Shell (Akagai)

O-toro (Fatty Tuna Belly)

O-toro, Aburi-style

Anago (saltwater eel)

Tasmanian Ikura, Gunkan-style

Sweet Omelette

Diamond Clam and Clear Broth

Red Bean Ryokam with Cherry Blossom Ice-Cream
To be clear, I didn't photograph a couple of the morsels, which were among the more outstanding.  In particular, an aburi-style engawa (flounder fin) was absolutely delicious, salty, charry and oily.  In fact, when I first walked in to the restaurant, the first smell that assaulted my nostrils was the smoky aroma of charred fish as chefs Minamishima and Horiguchi wielded their blowtorches with abandon.  Out of fourteen sushi courses, five of them were done aburi-style, make of that what you will.

Other highlights were the Japanese mackerel cured in rice vinegar, soy and kelp, complex, minerally and with a rich and unique umami.  And I must admit that for all the praise in Singapore lavished upon Japanese ikura (salmon roe), the pop, burst and freshness of the Tasmanian product always wins hands-down for me (you snobs may choose to stop reading at this point).

But I have to say, I wasn't blown away by this meal, not even mildly.  Don't get me wrong, the sushi rice was superb and the pickled ginger was mild and caressingly cleansing.  However, there was not a single morsel which gave me the sushi epiphany, the excitement of discovering one of nature's treasures, simply highlighted, that I had been so badly craving.  There was not the solitary moment, such as my first taste of tokishirazu salmon at Kunio Tokuoka, which quickens your blood and makes you grateful that whatever else was going on in your life, you were here to enjoy this moment.  And it's not about luxury ingredients or the reliance of local seafood, either; I thought the o-toro sushi here were positively ordinary compared to what I have enjoyed in Singapore, most recently at Fairmont's Mikuni.

Service is generally competent and kawaii in a Japanese way.  I will not, however, forgive them for upselling me on an o-toro and beluga caviar add-on, when they did not explain that the fish was minced.  Ordering any premium product in a minced state is a risky business at the best of times (have you wondered why they minced it in the first place?), and this was not the best of times, especially for an additional $45.  And what about the manager Randolph Cheung, who has been lavished with praise and awards from the Melbourne food mafia, and is apparently also the restaurant's sommelier?  But only when he feels like it, mind you.  When I asked the waitress for recommendations for two carafes of sake, she said she would ask "the sommelier" (presumably Cheung) over to come and help me.  She returned two minutes later and told me what he recommended, presumably because he was too busy and couldn't be arsed coming over to help me and answer a couple of questions.  You know, as in what a good sommelier would be expected to do.

Minced o-toro and Beluga Caviar
I also noticed that almost every single morsel served up by the chefs had already been brushed with soy sauce, and came accompanied by a very polite request: "please, no sauce".  I meekly obeyed, after all, they were the dudes with the scary-looking knives and all I had was a camera and a Blackberry.  However, I thought that in quite a few instances, the sauce had already been overdone, and that the quality (or otherwise) of the fish was being masked.  Also, on a Thursday evening, the restaurant was pretty much full (I think they were serving some 35-40 covers), and chefs Minamishima and Horiguchi were pushing, pushing non-stop throughout service, more like an industrial production line than any romantic conception of an artisanal little 12-seat sushi counter-style restaurant.  At any given point in time, there were around 9 empty platters next to chef Horiguchi (who was stationed closer to me), waiting to be filled up with sushi before delivery to diners who weren't seated at the sushi counter.  I couldn't help but feel that so much success and recognition in such a short period, and the corresponding popularity, had stretched the restaurant and compromised the quality of the offering.

So is Minamishima really Australia's best Japanese restaurant?  Truthfully, I can't say for sure as I haven't had too much Japanese food in Australia recently.  On this one performance, however, I really hope it isn't, because it frankly fell far short of what I had expected from a universally-vaunted two-hat restaurant.

4 Lord Street
Richmond Victoria 3121
Tel: + 61 3 9429 5180


Tipo 00 - Italian Magic on the Wrong Side of the Tracks

Just a short little note here on Tipo 00, a one-hatted little wonder of an Italian trattoria in a not particularly posh part of town (wrong side of Queen Street, apparently, away from the barristers' chambers, banks, big law firms, etc.).  I was here with my old crony Dr Duncan Markham, who is now better known for his speech and language consulting business, but who rode the macaron wave to internet infamy almost a decade ago.  His guide to macaron making is still one of the web's definitive resources on the little treats, and I highly recommend that you take a look.

Anyway, the good doctor and I decided to meet for lunch in town.  Like me, he also has a problem with being decisive, so we walked from Flinders Street Station looking for a place that might catch our fancy.  Suddenly, he stopped me.  "What about Tipo 00?"  What, you mean the one-hatted, wildly popular Best New Restaurant of the Year, without a booking?  Unlike me, Duncan is an optimist.  Well, we got lucky that day, because there were a couple of spare seats at the marble-topped bar. 

What did we have?  Well, with a place named Tipo 00 (after the very fine Italian grade of flour used for pizzas and pastas), you need to try the pastas, so we went for pappardelle with rabbit and hazelnut (A$27), and a braised duck potato gnocchi (A$26).  Both were very good, but we were both surprised that the rabbit came in a light sauce, almost more of a jus, than a rich braise.  The pasta itself was excellent, rustic but still silken to the bite.

Service here was friendly and superb.  Our waiter, whose accent I think was Irish, pleaded with us to order dessert.  After my Minamishima upselling experience, I was wary but my natural dessert-sluttery asserted itself, so we ordered a crespella of pistachio and a hibiscus and blueberry pannacotta.

Crespella of Pistachio with Pistachio Gelato
And weren't we glad that we did.  The crespella, basically a thin crepe rolled around chopped pistachio and pistachio ricotta, was simply sensational, warm, sweet, crunchy,m lightly savoury, the tight-rolling of the crepe creating additional layers of texture.  Duncan raves about his pannacotta, wobbly and bouncy as it should be, and the blueberry coulis was wonderfully balanced between sweetness and acidity.  You know how in Singapore, pannacotta is often the last refuge of many a scoundrel Italian chef who can't be bothered giving you something more complex or serious?  Not the case here; wow, wow, wow, wow, wow.

With a shared entree and a main and a dessert each, our bill runs to A$50.  Considering the quality of food that we had, this is simply excellent value.  And just because the restaurant is named for a pasta flour, remember not to skip dessert.

361 Little Bourke Street
Melbourne Victoria 3000
Tel: +61 3 9942 3946
Email: eat
Reservations highly recommended

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