Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Will there be any Batter? - Tempura Hajime

It was the second time we loitered near its inconspicuous entrance. The first pass we walked straight by wondering if we’d misunderstood the seemingly clear instructions for the rendezvous. Glancing around furtively over my shoulder at the surrounding deserted office district, I pressed thumb on buzzer and the door clicked open in acknowledgment. Why the espionage? Were we about to be handed a stolen manuscript detailing each and every Mystery Box ingredient to be used over the entire series of Masterchef Australia? Or perhaps a draft copy of the Federal Budget leaked three months in advance?

Palate cleansing Sashimi of Ocean Trout, John Dory and Kingfish served with freshly grated wasabi root prior to the tempura courses

No, instead we’d finally got ourselves to Tempura Hajime, that widely lauded yet reclusive den for fine tempura in Melbourne. That is, the real deal. Nothing like those roughly battered and gluggy ebi tempura dunked unceremoniously into foodcourt bowls of udon that we’re more familiar with, or so our expectations assured us. We were led though a darkened bar area that looked like the waiting rooms at either my dentist's or tax accountant's. Neither had ever provided me with fond anticipatory memories so perhaps just as well we weren’t given the option to linger, but directed straight through and out the other side. We may as well have stepped though Alice’s looking glass. The famed tempura bar! In contrast this room was brightly lit, drawing immediate attention to the dominating blondwood-panelled U-shaped bar surrounded by 12 stools. Yes many will know that the restaurant only accepts 12 “clients” per night. For those that hadn’t known, it’s true, and also why a booking for an evening of choice generally needs to be secured at least a month in advance and probably much earlier if on a weekend. Our 7.30 Saturday evening spot for two took just that, though demand may have tempered as the current economic crisis continues to extend its reach. Separate bookings are staggered at 15 minute intervals so as to ensure that equal attention can be paid to everyone. Proprietor and tempura supremo, Daisuke Miyamoto is the one and only chef and master of ceremony. Surprisingly, he does not possess a domineering personality. Quietly efficient, meticulous and softly affable would be more accurate descriptions for both host and hostess. This made for relaxing and comfortable dining despite sitting pretty much face to face opposite the chef for the entire meal.

Okay I couldn't stop myself...smile Daisuke san, smile

Tempura Hajime must be contender for the most hyped about niche eating venue in 2007/2008 though the noise seems to have died down. For awhile there, the image of Daisuke san over his copper woks was perhaps the most photographed profile-in-action captured by awestruck food bloggers. There is no need to decide over the food, the $72 per head menu is fixed though you'll be asked if there's anything you're allergic to or won't eat. If this includes seafood my suggestion is to forget about the place and save your dining-out splurge for elsewhere. And it’s mainly all about tempura, albeit tempura done with pedantic attention to detail. Plus it’s all delicious though we agree with most who've dined there (and written about it) that it's really about the experience and aesthetics, from its atmosphere of covert exclusivity, to its meticulously presented food, to the delightfully quirky one-of-a-kind Japanese stoneware used in service. Personally, I was fascinated with the whole observable ritual that went into producing each piece of grease-free, airily coated and perfectly crispy tempura. I won’t detail here each and every masterpiece that was proferred for tasting but the famous and sexy tempura scallop stuffed with uni (sea urchin roe) and shiso is shown below. As a caution, I do believe some surprise in this aspect would add to one's own experience but if you must, others have detailed each morsel likely to be offered in all their glory here. Incidentally we weren't too wowed by the scallop as the 'bitey' fresh shiso somewhat overpowered the delicate mollusc, have read that nori is used instead at other times.

Definitive proof that the term 'Food Porn' is by no means inappropriate or overused

So is the experience worth it? For us we certainly walked away happy, but we do pretty much consider it a once-off (or once in a very long while) dining experience. If not exactly one-note then certainly a very focussed specialist Melbourne fine-dining offering. Don’t be fooled by the ‘tempura bar’ misnomer, a cheap meal out won’t/can't be had here. Yes it’s probably the finest tempura to be had in town but at the end of the day, a stick of asparagus is still a stick of asparagus no matter how many superlatives are used to describe it, and same goes for the prawn. It certainly can't be judged on the same food value scale as say The Press Club or Maha, but Tempura Hajime does offer a different, quite unique experience and yet another choice for those of us fortunate enough to eat in Melbourne.

Chilled sake served by Dumbo the earthern despenser

I've read around the blogs that the proprietors of Tempura Hajime may be moving on (back to Japan?), but the restaurant was still around when I checked back in April 2009. If it sounds like it could be your thing, experience it while you can! That is, if you can figure out how and where to get in...

Food: 17/20 - Innovative procession of tempura for Melbourne.
Service: 17/20 - Charming, welcoming and personable as are essential for the small space.
Value: 15/20 - Depends how much you love fine tempura in all its forms.
R-Factor: 13/20 - May be too focussed given Melbourne's choices for fine dining.
Spot Score: 16/20 - Overall interesting with a sense of occasion.

Tempura Hajime
60 Park Street, South Melbourne VIC.


Food lover said...

I love Japanese food and struggle to find really good restaurants in Melbourne - will give it a try!
Great blog btw :)

Towz said...

Hi (fellow) Food lover
Thanks for your comment! Definitely give TH a try, especially for that different and memorable night out. Be forewarned though...after your visit, tempura offerings anywhere else in Melbourne are going to taste decidedly second-rate!