A Japanese den by a sushi master, hidden in Richmond
If you're the sort that baulks at $150-per-head set menus, you'll never truly appreciate a place like Minamishima (4 Lord Street, Richmond).
Sure, it's got a price tag. But for foodie purists, every cent is worth it. You are not just paying for supreme-grade ingredients, some of which are regularly shipped in from a Tokyo fish market, prepared by world-class, highly skilled chefs, presented impeccably and all melt-in-your-mouth, oh-my-God orgasmic. You are paying for the anticipation. For the ever-filled water glass and replenished napkin. For the hushed, dramatic mood of the restaurant itself. For dishes timed to perfection, and the en-pointe realisation of your most specific drink requirements. You are paying for the entire experience.
In my opinion? It's better than a weekend away, which is hella more expensive.
Minamishima opened in October 2014 with no fanfare. Owner-chef Koichi Minamishima spent the first five years of his career washing rice, so surely his restaurant's quiet entry into Melbourne's buzzing scene years later would not have fazed him. After his most recent stint, 15 years at Melbourne's Kenzan, the sushi master decided to go out on his own and opened the laneway-hidden 40-seater, flanked by sidekick Hajime Horiguchi (ex Wasabi in Noosa), and maitre d'/sommelier Randolph Cheung (ex Flower Drum).
A few doors down Lord Street off Bridge Road, you wouldn't know Minamishima was there unless you were looking for it. Slotted underneath a block of apartments, the venue's facade is subtle glass, and once you enter, you're led down a short hallway into the restaurant proper. To the left is the famed sushi bar, where - if you're lucky enough to score a seat - you'll witness the man himself expertly crafting the elements of your meal. To the right is the dining room: a length of regular tables and chairs, with bench seating along the northern wall, which looms dark and ominous in the very dim light.
There is a quiet tone throughout the restaurant - part Japanese politeness, part architectural serenity, part awe, and possibly some really good soundproofing. It's like you don't want to shout; it would ruin the peace. It's almost temple-like, but frill-free, dark and stylish.
To start, I requested a dry, minerally sake and the result was bang-on: a Junmai from Kyoto. It was poured at the table from one of those giant bottles, which sadly was never going to fit in my handbag. Nevertheless, the two glasses I had from it were crisp and delicious.
The food at Minamishima is served as an omakase (chef's selection). If you're at the sushi bar, you'll be presented with 15 separate nigiri, one by one. In the dining room, where we were, you're each given four starting dishes, a palate cleanser, then nine pieces of different nigiri (in our case, served three at a time). After this is a traditional broth, and finally, a delicate dessert.
Naturally, the menu changes depending on seasonality, availability and, no doubt, creativity. Yes, it is mostly seafood, but my friend who I dined here with is not a big 'raw fish' person by her own admission, and she loved it. The quality of the ingredients is evident. Each dish is relatively small - as you would expect sushi to be - but detailed and precise, and by the end, you're nicely full.
On the night of our visit, we ate:
Shiitake with oyster cream
Yuzu cured kingfish
Milk-fed beef and clam
Mikan and saffron sorbet
Shima aji from Saga
Alfonsino from Tasmania
Calamari from Port Philip Bay
King prawn from Queensland
Mirugai from Aichi
Engawa aburi from Hokkaido
Akami from Tasmania
Otoro aburi from Nagasaki
Anago from Oita
Broth with somen
Japanese tea chocolate (served with Japanese sencha tea)
We booked about six weeks ahead - and that was for a Tuesday. As my friend noted, this place would be great for a date (mostly because it's so dimly lit) - but I don't know of many dates that would be organised that far in advance! I'd keep it for the special occasions, the meals intended to impress, and the bugger-it-let's-book-in-and-spoil-ourselves nights. Whatever the occasion, Minamishima is best for small groups due to its table configurations and the bar seating.
Foodies, enjoy. Everyone else, your learning should start somewhere ;)