Den fried chicken $10
Everybody loves a secret. Is this why all the hot new bars and restaurants are deliberately difficult to find? We had all heard great things about Izakaya Den in Melbourne, but without Minh to lead the way, I don't think we would have ever found the entrance, marked only by a discreet silver plate stamped with "Den".
We push our way through the glass doors of an office building and descend a set of stairs that is cloaked in silence. We duck our way through a hanging curtain, turn the corner and then find a basement restaurant heaving with patrons and abuzz with activity.
Inside Izakaya Den
The bar counter is packed with diners perched on timber stools. It'll be thirty minutes for a table, we're told, but are pleased to discover we can still order drinks and snacks while we wait in the lounge area.
[clockwise from top left] Kabosu plum wine 60ml $9
We kick off with cocktails - my umitini is particularly potent with limited presence of the promised kotobuki tea syrup. Minh's brasiko is a tropical blend of cachaca with passionfruit and lime, and Suze's plum wine is predictably sweet and easy drinking.
Miyozakura 'Panda" junmai gifu sake 180ml $12
Jacq's sake gets the most attention, packaged in a reusable glass printed with a stretching panda.
Being able to order snacks while you wait is a brilliant concept, and our dishes are efficiently set up on low tables that double as stools. Den fried chicken is an instant crowd-pleaser, nobbly fillet pieces crusted with a golden crunchy batter.
Grilled flat mushroom is an ode to simplicity, sweet and caramelised from the ginger soy marinade and the grill, and satisfyingly chewy in texture.
Sweet corn kakiage $7
Sweet corn kakiage is another winner, the bright yellow kernels melded together with the brittle adhesion of batter.
A table is announced as ready, and we're escorted to our new location, with fresh crockery and chopsticks quickly delivered and dispensed.
Eggplant and king brown mushrooms arrive with a mound of momiji oroshi, grated daikon radish spiced with red chilli. Momiji oroshi means "grated maple", a poetic reference to the orange maple leaves that appear in autumn. The simmered eggplant and mushrooms have a nourishing umami flavour, lightened by the wet and spicy paste of daikon.
Is there anything sexier than sashimi? Silky pillows of kingfish are firm and sweet, scattered with sesame seeds and micro leaves.
There's nothing but murmurs of contentment when the mussels land on our table. Steamed in sake, the mussels are plump and tender, and we greedily use the shells to scoop up a mouthful of the intensely fragrant broth with every mollusc. The broth is deliciously sweet, salty and spicy.
Ox tongue is another classic Japanese dish, the thin shavings seared until just cooked without being overly bouncy. A garnish of spring onions adds a lively finish.
Grilled miso cod fillet $12 (blackboard special)
We score the last grilled miso cod fillet from the kitchen, a blackboard special that has been hugely popular all evening. The plank of white fish has been marinated in miso paste, its salty sweetness rendering the skin to a blackened crisp.
Two lamb cutlets come with a $23 price tag, but we fall upon the thick and juicy slices with reverent appreciation. The meat is cooked to a succulent pink, protected by layers of fat that have been caramelised on the grill. I swoop quickly to score the bone, the best part of course, and worth gnawing over quietly until every shred of meat has surrendered.
Japanese sake cups reused as water glasses
It's hard to leave, ensconced on stools in the dark and cosy basement. The food is fast and tasty, and the spectacle of the open kitchen has the added excitement of occasional flames leaping high into the air. No wonder people are prepared to queue, and no wonder the entrance is such a secret.
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9/07/2011 09:29:00 a.m.