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Sake; the third lotus blooms

Words by: Miss SL and Geoffrey Ferres
Photography by Miss SL

In the world of the professional scribe there is a principle of ‘the rule of three’: things that come in threes magically appear more harmonious, memorable and resonant to the beholder. Sake Melbourne, the most recent of a trio of restaurants under the Sake banner, confidently extends this rule to the realm of fine contemporary Japanese cuisine. Twenty months after first opening its doors below Hamer Hall on Southbank with new Head Chef Tomi Bong at the helm, the Sake team greeted us with a thunderous ‘irasshaimase’ welcome and quickly demonstrated that the newest chapter of the Sake story has truly hit full stride.

Approaching Sake from the Federation Square precinct, the restaurant is prominently positioned at the very beginning of the Southbank walkway. Red and yellow lights reflect on the rippling Yarra invitingly, beckoning those crossing Princes Bridge to come down for a drink. Entering the restaurant we are greeted by a sleek interior of dark timbers, highlight tones, mirrors for effect and mood lighting. Moving beyond the eclectic assortment of sake flasks, bottles and ceramics lining the entry area we pass the open and extensive kitchen to take our seats in one of four booths against the back wall. From this vantage point wall-mounted mirrors reflect the riverfront. It’s a cool evening but inside is snug with soothing beats setting the rhythm to the evening. The table setting is elegant and functional with an appealing folded menu and fresh hot pink orchids adorning each setting.

Opening beverage: House Blanc de Blanc sparkling
Wine of the night: Petaluma Reisling 2013
Snack: Edamame lightly salted soy beans in the pod

She says: Edamame is a simple pleasure of life, and when it’s done well – served warm and salted just right – it’s a beautiful way to start the night. Sake did this effortlessly and paired with the Petaluma Reisling it was just a delight. The wine was surprisingly light and easy to drink, however as the night went on I could taste the flavours more acutely as it began to interfere with my palate. Floral notes with a fruity overtone set the mood for the night ahead.

He says: Blanc de Blanc was, is and will always be a universally foolproof starting point. The Edamame soybeans are fresh and well salted, piquing my appetite. The 2013 Petaluma Riesling was pleasant and proved to sustain itself as a refreshing back drop to the evening.

Dish 1: Kingfish jalapeño yuzu soy, jalapeño slices & coriander
Matched with: Shiroku Honjozo Kyoukai #7 Kobo dry

She says: Each component of this dish spoke out as its own character with the coriander tying this modern Mexican – Japanese dish together. The jalapenos created low levels of immediate and lingering heat, which I must admit is quite unique. Lightly squeezed lemon really made the kingfish sing as the star of this dish, drawing out its fresh flavours. The coriander cleansed the palate and prepared us for the next course.

When it comes to sake I can be a bit fussy but I found the #7 Kobo smooth and easy to drink. The flavours were not too sharp and I thought that this would make an excellent entry level sake for those who are not used to its unique flavour profiles.

He says: The heat and bite of the jalapenos was immediately evident, balanced with coriander and the citrus notes of the lemon and lime. Elements of both citrus and soy are dominant in the after taste. The Kingfish is noticeably fresh (as expected) and the entire dish is light and refreshing, orienting our palettes for what was to follow. The #7 Kobo dry sake was well matched: highly polished, sweet and light.

Dish 2: Sashimi tacos tuna & salmon sashimi filled baby tacos with chilled tomato salsa matched with kozaemon junmai ‘sake shots’ (note that we did not have these shots)
Matched with: Kozaemon House Honjozo

She says: This dish was beautifully presented with the Kozaemon House sake shots rimmed with sugar on the taco plate. What was immediately evident upon inspecting this dish was that the taco shells were housemade. The waitress informed us that these were made of potato starch. The taco was filled with beautifully fresh salmon sashimi that was thickly sliced, but unfortunately the freshness of the salmon was lost amongst the overpowering flavours of the taco shell. The salsa, however, really resurrected this dish and brought it home. The zing of the tomato, freshness of the cucumber, coriander and lime makes the Mexican – Japanese fusion seamless.

The Kozaemon house was still quite a clear sake, but the flavours highlighted that it was perhaps a little less refined than its predecessor with sharper, wheat-like flavours more evident.

He says: The Sashimi Taco is a mainstay of the Sake menu and rightly so – it’s heaps of fun! Served with sugar rimmed shots of Kozaemon House Honjozo sake, the epic crunch of the potato starch taco shell gives way to juicy, melting Sashimi and chilled tomato salsa with plenty of bite.

Dish 3: Wagyu new style thin slices of wagyu beef lightly seared with hot oil & finished with ginger, chives & yuzu soy
Matched with: Juho Junmai 50

She says: This dish is immediately different to the others with bold, powerful flavours of yuzu soy and toasted sesame seeds exploding in your mouth from the very first mouthful. The thinly sliced wagyu beef perfectly seared on one side only and left rare on the other, with the marbling of the meat visible. The Juho Junmai is described as a sake of pear and apple notes. I found that it had an aroma of baked apples with quite powerful fruity tones. I must admit that the flavours of pear were lost to me.

He says: Cooked on one side with super-heated oil to melt the marbled intra-muscular fats, the beef strips are meltingly tender. The zest of the yuzu soy, ginger, chives and oil is welcome; while the sauces appeared overly oily on the plate to my eye, the flavours were well balanced on the palate.

The Yuho Sake (Junmai 50) brings surprisingly strong pear and apple tones – it’s like an unexpected but not totally unwelcomed marriage of sake and a poolside fruity lexia!

Dish 4: Nasu dengaku grilled eggplant with light and dark miso pastes
Matched with: Ambuki ‘Pink Lady’

She says: This is the kind of dish that makes me glad I asked for the chef’s choice. As something that I probably wouldn’t have ordered on my own, the grilled eggplant came out as one of the most memorable dishes of the night. Perfectly grilled, the eggplant was contrasted with a light miso, which was sweet and starchy, and dark miso, which was salty and rich, almost like a dark soy sauce. The eggplant itself was sweet as a result of caramelisation on the grill. Beautiful!

The Ambuki sake was sharp, really cutting through the sweetness of the dish. I didn’t really enjoy this sake too much as I found it a bit too harsh for my palate.

He says: The Nasu Dengaku was my favourite dish of the evening.  For me, this is truly remarkable – eggplant and I go back a long way and it’s been a rocky road. Served with dark and light miso and a pickled side of red and white cabbage, the Nasu Dengaku makes great use of this vegetable and I was grateful to have taken the Chef’s recommendation. Edible eggplant skin adds texture to this sticky, slightly sweet and very satisfying combination. The pickled cabbage was mild with sweet and vinegar tones and well suited for contrast.

Mains: Wagyu teriyaki grainfed wagyu cooked medium rare, served on sautéed shiitake & buckwheat with yakiniku sauce, Scampi tempura crunchy tempura scampi tails with sweet ponzu, coriander & jalapeño slices and seaweed salad mix of crunchy seaweeds with daikon & bonito infused
vinaigrette
Matched with: Kozaemon Junmai Ginjo Shinano (organic)

She says: The flavours of the teriyaki sauce were barely identifiable, lost in amongst the char-grilled flavours of the well cooked wagyu. Did the lack of teriyaki reduce the quality of this dish? Most certainly not. The wagyu was juicy and almost Aussie-influenced in its flavour profile. Chinese daikon radish was served with this dish and it immediately reminded me of Japan, where pickled radish was a favourite accompaniment to any main meal. The sauce for this dish had strong flavours of ginger that were soaked up by the daikon.

The scampi had a very strong fresh-water smell, that did not translate into its flavour (thank goodness!). It was deliciously meaty and the tempura batter soaked up the sweet and sour sauce releasing the heat from the jalapenos at just the right moment.

The seaweed salad contained five types of seaweed, all with varying flavours. One of the seaweed types (more leathery in texture) had a strong bonito flavour.

The Kozaemon Jumai sake was very smooth but had quite a bite to it. This is definitely not the kind of sake a beginner drinker should have, but it was beautifully matched to the mains.

He says: This trio of dishes brought together variation on two well known Japanese dishes – tempura scampi and teriyaki wagyu beef – and adds an inspired five seaweed salad.

The tempura was rich, melting and sweet, complemented by cut-through tones of onion and jalapenos with a fulsome soy note lingering on the palate.

The teriyaki beef was served seared and medium rare with full flavoured shiitake mushrooms and a robust side of buckwheat with yakiniku sauce – it was this beef dish that best matched the earthy tones of the Organic Shinana sake.

The seaweed salad was surprisingly appetising and well worth a try – bringing just the right amount of crunch and chew with a daikon and bonito infused vinaigrette, this herbivore bounty of the sea effectively counters the rich indulgence of the meat dishes

Dessert: Dessert platter a tasting plate for two people, chef’s selection of sake
desserts 

She says: Starting with the ice creams (sesame seed and sakura flavours), I must say that the sesame wafer was superbly done. The use of light and dark sesame seeds really drew out the nuttiness within the seeds, pairing beautifully with the sesame ice cream. The sakura flavoured ice cream was more subtle in flavour and was easily overpowered by the buttered biscuit crumble accompanying it.
Next we had the macha churros, an ingenious combination of Spanish and Japanese cuisine. The smooth flavours of macha could be clearly identified in the perfectly flavour-balanced churros. To accompany this dish, we had both red bean paste and milk chocolate to dip them in! YUM! The red bean paste was a beautifully modern twist to this dish that was a very sweet pairing to the macha. The chocolate fondant was incredibly rich, and in all honesty I’m glad I was sharing it! Small but deadly, this fondant could send you straight to hospital in a fit of bliss. My only critique would be that the chocolate had started to set inside the fondant, and so did not pour out.

Finally we had the lemon and mango tart. It was the perfect way to finish the meal as it cleansed the palate of all other flavours with its sharp, bitey flavours.

He says: The tasting plate, combining the best of Sake’s ‘wagashi’  offerings, is an excellent, if decadent, selection to conclude the evening.

The chocolate fondant was rich with a soft, non-liquid centre. The accompanying light and dark ice-cream was understated with a rich crumble and sesame coated wafer adding crunch and texture.The green tea churros were light yet crispy and perfectly accompanied by the red-bean sauce (relegating the milk chocolate sauce, typically a natural churros pairing, to distant second place). ‘Chocolate origami’ mousse was captured (temporarily) within a crispy shell, topped with rich chocolate-coconut sauce. Yuzu tarts evoked lemon and mango with crisp pastry and a fluffy meringue  – the tart was indeed refreshingly ‘tart’ after the chocolate onslaught from the fondant, churros and mousse.

The sparkling Yuzo sake was a pure dessert wine – think Japanese lemoncello and you’ll be close to the mark for this great finishing drop.

Her final thoughts: “Sake provides a beautifully decadent experience with a romantic backdrop of the Yarra and city skyline. The price point of this restaurant makes it perfect for special occasions.”

His final thoughts: “Sake rewards those who venture beyond the everyday choices – try the Sashimi Tacos, Nasu Dengaku and Desert Platter for a surprising, fun and memorable dining experience.”

The Modern Connoisseur dined as guests of Sake. Opinions stipulated in this article are fair and true to the experience had by our writers.

Opening hours:
Mon – Sat: 12pm -11:30pm
Sun: 5pm – 10pm

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