16th November 2017
4 Lord St
Richmond, VIC 3121
One of the best sushi experiences I’ve ever had was at a 100 yen sushi train in Japan, down the road from the hotel we stayed at in the Shibuya. It wasn’t so much that the sushi was wildly inventive or unique – in fact it was far from it, as what each pair of nigiri amounted to was a slice of fish, draped over a nugget of rice with a daub of wasabi. What made the meal memorable was the amount of care the chefs so clearly placed into each morsel, and the absolute freshness of the seafood. As I sat in the small, cramped, and utilitarian space under an old apartment block, I was simply astounded by the quality of the food on offer. And just in case you were wondering, I managed to put away 24 pieces of nigiri in less than 20 minutes.
Needless to say, we don’t have anything of that calibre in Melbourne. Sushi trains here peak at the likes of Sakura Kaiten Sushi, which although of good quality overall, is still a little gimmicky, and certainly nowhere near as cheap. But if you take price out of the equation for a second and simply talk about good sushi, then you really can’t beat Minamishima – the only sushi bar in Australia with the elusive three-hat status.
But success doesn’t come easy. The head chef – or itamae – Koichi Minamishima spent a whole 2 years just washing rice at a restaurant in Nagoya before he was even allowed to touch any of the food. Yes! Two years! Of just washing rice!! Eventually however, he managed to make his way to Melbourne to become the head sushi chef at Kenzan, before finally opening up his own restaurant after more than 25 years of sushi-making experience. Now if that doesn’t set the bar high, I don’t know what will.
If Minamishima was created with the intention of showcasing the art form of sushi, then the restaurant itself is a shrine. While most of the restaurant is suspended in twilit darkness, dramatic downlights illuminate the altar that is the sushi bar. There is no a la carte menu here; the only option available is Omakase ($185pp), which gives the chef free reign to put on a show with the best seafood of the day. Everyone enters the restaurant with a hushed reverence; this is truly a place of worship.
Our journey starts with an appetiser of Edamame Tofu with Sakura Prawn Powder and Ginseng Jelly. Although it’s called tofu, the delicate morsel actually has the creamy mouth-feel of custard, its mild earthy flavour forming a backdrop to the umami seafood flavours. In just a few spoonfuls, this dish demonstrated Japanese cuisine at it’s finest – elegant and restrained, yet complex and flavoursome.
We were then handed a Hokkaido Scallop wrapped in a piece of nori. The shellfish had been given a careful once-over with the blowtorch, leaving it sweet and meaty, to contrast with the crisp nuttiness of the toasted seaweed.
The King George Whiting was our first piece of nigiri, and it was absolutely breathtaking. The slick, translucent fish had been brushed with the barest hint of sesame soy and a tiny speck of wasabi. Hidden underneath was a single shiso leaf. It was all so minimalistic, yet the flavours played off each other so exquisitely it was as if a symphony of taste had been unleashed upon my tastebuds.
I was really looking forward to the Calamari, as I heard that Minamishima’s deft knife work rendered it with a texture almost similar to butter. And indeed, the calamari really did melt in the mouth with a sticky, gelatinous sweetness, leaving behind a hint of lime, and an unexpected burst of pepper. In comparison, the Sea Perch was less memorable. But I did recall the fish being plump and surprisingly fatty, its creaminess brought out by a quick lick with the blowtorch.
I love unusual shellfish, and Geoduck is definitely something I will be ordering whenever I see it on a menu from now on (though so far I’ve seen it a grand total of zero times in the last 6 years). Despite its delicate appearance, the shellfish was satisfyingly crunchy, and needed nothing but a hint of soy and wasabi to bring out its natural ocean sweetness. I found the Queensland Prawn to be less impressive, as I felt that it didn’t show off the natural sweetness the crustacean had to offer. I did however like the dusting of prawn powder on top; reminiscent of prawn crackers, it added another dimension to the flavour of prawn.
The Flounder Fin was an unusual cut, but possibly one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. The incredibly fatty piece of fish had been blowtorched into a caramelised, buttery mouthful that melts in the mouth with richness, tempered only by the slight vinegary sweetness of the rice.
I’m not usually a fan of Tuna, but I’ve never had anything like this before. Jewel-bright and bursting with freshness, this piece of nigiri was clean and balanced, served with just a touch of soy and ginger.
But the star of the show is the Otoro – the fattiest portion of the bluefin tuna belly. Seared with the blowtorch so all the fats have been caramelised, this was an unabashedly indulgent piece of sushi.
In direct contrast to the otoro, the Smoked Bonito had a bold, smoky flavour and meaty texture that demanded attention. I really enjoyed the savouriness and stronger fishy flavour of this piece, which was brought out by the sharpness of spring onion and garlic.
The Mackerel was the strongest-tasting piece of fish for the day, its brininess restrained by the delicately citrusy sheath of kelp.
I’ve never had good Sea Urchin before, so this was a complete revelation. I was enraptured by the cool, creamy texture, and the subtle taste of ocean. No wonder they call sea urchin ‘the butter of the sea’.
I’ve had plenty of eel before, but I’ve never had Anago – salt water eel. Whilst unagi – the saltwater eel most of us are used to – is rich and meaty, the flavour of this is a lot more smooth and subtle, with a natural delicate sweetness.
Instead of being served in the usual style of gunkan sushi, the Salmon Roe was delicately scooped onto a pinch of sushi rice, and garnished with nori flakes. I actually really like this change in serving style; not only am I able to slowly savour the briny pop of the fish eggs, I was also able to truly appreciate just how fluffy and perfectly cooked each grain of rice was.
Our savouries were concluded with a piece of Tamagoyaki, stamped with the restaurant’s name in kanji. Despite being an egg omelette, this was actually so sweet and fluffy that I’d almost be inclined to call it sponge cake. It certainly was an apt way to transition into the final part of our meal.
But first! K shelled out the extra $32 for one of the specials on that night – Fugu Nigiri with Foie Gras. According to him, the fugu had a nice bite to it, but most of the flavour came from the shaved foie gras on top. He is also happy to report that he did not die eating it.
Our savouries were wrapped up with a bowl of Snow Crab Soup. Each sip was cleansing and restorative, and the spanner crab dumpling was like a fluffy, delicate fish ball.
And finally, we have arrived at dessert. We were served a trio of Tea-Flavoured Chocolates, and a steaming cup of green tea to sip on. Each piece was dusted with a different type of powdered tea, and we were instructed to eat them left to right, from the lightest to heaviest. The matcha chocolate was sharp and grassy, whilst the genmaicha carried the warm aroma of toasted rice. Finally, the hojicha was rich and earthy, with dark toffee notes imparted by the charcoal roasting of the tea leaves. These were so very, very good, the chocolates melting in the mouth like the centre of those Lindor balls everyone loves.
We emerged from Minamishima an hour and a half later, blinking and bewildered. We were so transported by our experience that it felt surreal to find ourselves back on a quiet one-way street in suburban Melbourne. It’s hard to believe that anything, anywhere else in the world can match up to the skills and talent that Koichi Minamishima brings to the sushi bar. If you’ve been to Japan, you’ll be familiar with the care that Minamishima puts into his craft, but you’ll still be wowed by the inventiveness and quality of the food. If you haven’t been to Japan however… prepare to have your mind blown by this one-of-a-kind experience.
Rating: 18/20 – my new celebrity crush.
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit.