MSG: The Melbourne Social Guide

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Izakaya Den

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Izakaya Den

Basement 114 Russell Street
Melbourne, 3000
Tel: (03) 9654 2977

Izakaya Den on Urbanspoon

Our trip to the much vaunted Izakaya Den had an explosive start when our good friend Jess (aka. glutamate) decided to walk straight into the glass door that served as the entrance at the bottom of the stairs. So let this first paragraph be a warning to you, gentle reader, what appears to be a long wooden thing hanging in thin air in the entrance actually is a door handle!

Luckily Izakaya Den is… well…. an izakaya, meaning that Jess could alleviate the pain in her face with some sake (Japanese rice wine), or umeshu (a sweet tasting plum wine) as she preferred to do in this case.

I’ve always wanted there to be an authentic izakaya in Melbourne because they were one of the things I loved most about Japan. Hanging out in an izakaya is usually a laid back, inexpensive and delicious social experience. Izakaya Den is probably the closest to recreating that feeling so far in Melbourne, though it isn’t particularly cheap and not as laid back as one might like (damn you backless stools!). Also I’m not sure what would have happened if I yelled sumimasen! at the waitresses (which sort of means excuse me, and is yelled from anywhere in an izakaya in Japan to gain attention from the service staff… sort of like the french garcon!) but I have a feeling people would have stared at me.

What Izakaya Den does provide though is a very wide selection of sake, umeshu and shochu. Jess had the Umiko umeshu from Tochigi, which was amusingly described on the menu as simply “with pleasant acid”. This was actually a fairly apt description, it did prove to be pleasantly acidic.

I selected the Akishika ‘Deer’ sake served warm. I’m no sake connoisseur but this was definitely enjoyable, full bodied, fairly dry and with a pleasant bite to it.

Food-wise, Izakaya Den specialises in tapas-style dishes to share (much as in a Japanese izakaya the dishes would also be snacky and shareable but in larger portions). We had a variety of dishes in two rounds.

The first round consisted of the deep fried prawns, the Den chicken and the tuna tataki. The prawns were the first to come out and, boy, what an opening. They were absolutely delicious, perfect batter, fresh prawns, brilliant dipping sauce, couldn’t fault the dish. The chicken came next and turned out to be a fairly convincing version of Japanese tori karaage, deep fried balls of almost-fillet-chicken (karaage often has cartilege and lots of grey meat), served piping hot.

These two dishes were great but I was not prepared for the awesomeness that was the tuna tataki. Perfectly seared melt-in-your-mouth slices of tuna, three on a wasabi-based sauce and three on a chilli-based sauce, all absolutely brilliant. This is a must-have dish and has been raved about by several others.

Round Two consisted of the whitebait dish, a tofu dish and the ocean trout. You’ll have to forgive me for not recording the exact dishes as they appeared in the menu, at this point I was far too dazzled by the food to write in my Moleskine. Hopefully Jess has a better memory than me when she edits this post. These three dishes were, once again, all excellent. The trout was a little dry perhaps but that’s the only even minor fault I could find in it. The tofu dish was a bargain at $4 and packed with interesting flavours, the whitebait was seriously addictive.

Jess: I loved the white bait dish, especially since I generally hate white bait. As I always say, I love the restaurant and the cook that can make me enjoy what I think I hate. I can’t remember exactly how this dish was served, except that I liked it. I believe it sat on a bed of vinegared white onion, with lemon? and topped with seaweed. As  Alex says, very addictive.

The tofu was swimming in a  ponzu sauce topped with diced daikon and sliced spring onion. I loved this dish and completely agree with Alex; complete bargain for $4.

The ocean trout was cooked in a sweet soy sauce, and accompanied with picked raddish. Not a stand-out, not because it wasn’t good, but more because the other dishes were so brilliant.

In addition to the amazing food and great range of booze, Izakaya Den is also interesting design-wise. Though I once again disagree with the predominance of backless stools, there was available back support in the form of couchy looking things with tables near the entrance. The design was a bit too minimalist and computer-bleepy for me and a bit too stuck in the industrial-chic vibe, but it was definitely innovative. And I appreciate good design, even the little things.

Alex’s Ratings:

Taste: 10/10. You may say: “zomg! a 10? but you cant give 10s!” And my answer to you is, like hell I can! I’ll give an 11 if I damn well feel like it. Well actually, why not give a 10? I’ve been wanting to give someone a 10 on something since we started this thing. I mean why have a rating out of 10 if you never award a 10? I say award 10s, and be generous with your 10s. Also, the food was amazing and I couldn’t find any real fault in it.

Value: 9/10. One of the great things about Izakaya Den’s menu is that there’s something for everyone. There are some excellent dishes under $10 in the small dishes section (the tofu dish? a bargain at $4!) and I highly recommend that if you’re a student on a budget and want to leave here full, shell out the $3 for a bowl of rice. But I like the broad range of budgetary options for those of us with tighter purses.

Authenticity: 8/10. Remains faithful to the izakaya concept while innovating in both the dishes on offer and the atmosphere. Some edamame would be nice though, in general perhaps a few more classic dishes.

Ambience: 7/10. The design was interesting and innovative but points are lost for backless stools and a  slightly cold machine-like feel about the place.

Service: 10/10. Excellent, the maitre’d took good care of us after Jess’ errr… mishap. The staff were always attentive and polite but still relaxed. This score would have been a 9 but I’m adding the extra point because one of the guys (bartenders? kitchenhands? waiters? who knows) behind the long bar gave me the akishika sake glass as a parting gift. I’m not sure if this is a usual thing or not but I’m a sucker for freebies.

Overall: 9/10.Hats off.

Note: Kitchen open til midnight every night except Sunday (11pm)… awesome!

Jess’ ratings

I had gone to Izakaya Den earlier sans MS, and here are some of the dishes I had tried.

The tuna takaki ($17).  As MS says, the lightly seared then sliced delicate little slices of heaven literally melt in your mouth. I much preferred the red chili mayo (but I love all things red chili, and if there had been no chili mayo, I would love the wasabi mayo too). Fortunately for me, my MS partner had a preference for the wasabi mayo. I love my dining companion, with his penchant for the opposite of what I adore. He eats my briny bitter olives, and I eat his sugary pineapple. We’re a dining match made in foodie heaven. Anyway, I divulge. Thinking of this dish makes me feel all sorts of funny lovey-dovey things as this dish to me is so wonderful. Whenever I talk about izakaya den, the first thing I say is “tuna tataki,” and if they have had this dish, they smile and nod knowingly, as if they understand exactly what this dish makes me feel, and as I smile and sigh back, I feel the other person I am speaking to and myself share a connection, of understanding that there is a perfect dish out there and we have experienced it, that those of you out there who have not had tasted this dish do and would not understand until you eat it. I may sound crazy, but in short, favourite dish at the moment. Go try it.

These were some of the supporting cast to the tuna star. Even though the tuna shone through like the starlet it was, the other dishes at izakaya den also desert merit. Above, in order, stir fried tofu and mushrooms, grilled pork belly, potato croquettes, apple mille feuille for dessert.

The stir-fried mushrooms ($15) was sort of value in that it was a big dish, but for $14, it was nothing special. Just a mix of mushrooms and some tofu stir fried. I don’t like paying for dishes I feel I could cook without much effort, and this was this dish. Good filler, as you get plenty of mushies.

The pork belly ($16) was tasty. Simple. Grilled meat. There are also bits of leek skewered between the pork belly pieces, adding a nice sweetness to complement the meat. A tad pricey at $16, as it was ust very simple (albeit good) grilled meat.

The  potato croquettes ($6) were disappointing, at best. I’m sad to say they weren’t even just not good, they were bad. I couldn’t eat them… for someone that loves food and hates wastage,  not finishing a dish means I really did not like they. They looked pretty, but that was about all. I  know I shouldn’t be so sad about not liking a dish, but I love croquettes and I loved izakaya den but I hated this dish.

We also experienced the apple mille feuille ($10) which was simply a delightful way to end the meal. This was a light refreshing dish consisting of thin slices of dried fuji apple layered between delicate mounds of fuji apple sorbet finished with a few pieces of nicely marinated strawberries. Not quite a thousand layers, however one can forgive the lesser amount of layers after watching the staff meticulously build this little tower of joy. Cool, refreshing, perfect way to end the meal.

Taste: 9.5/10.  Food is fantastic. Some of the dishes are so simple, such as the fried chicken and the prawns, like, surely you batter some chicken and batter some prawns and you deep fry it, of course it’ll taste good. But my god, the tuna tataki is heaven. 1/2 point off for the croquettes.

Value: 9/10. This is a tricky one. If you want to be stuffed from this restaurant, then it is very poor value. But this is the case with all Japanese restaurants, even the cheap ones. You want sashimi, it’ll cost you. It is very good quality produce, cooked very well.

Authenticity: 8/10. Hm this is when I guess I disagree with Alex on authenticity – he thinks ‘classic’ dishes like edamame are needed. I think the concept of an izakaya is to do only a few dishes, but to do them well. So you don’t need the entire barrage of dishes that a ‘typical’ Japanese restaurant that we are used to. I loved it.

Ambience: 9/10. Love the concept, love the feel. A bit ‘concrete-y’, but very sleek. Love the big open bar, and I love watching the art of food preparation, watching all the individual parts of the dish being brought together to make the final product. Big fan of the projector displaying the specials too.

Service: 10/10. I wanted the free glass too. Of course MS did not offer it to the lady. The maitre-d, Simon literally ran up the stairs when he heard my smash into the door, and was so kind as to offer me some ice for my head. And then realise what I really needed was a drink, and then promptly bring it to me. The rest of the staff were all very attentive and friendly .

Overall: 9/10. Love it. Can’t wait to go back. But this time I’m prepared for the door. Pity I didn’t hit it with just that little bit more force, if I had, I may have cracked it and it could have been a warning sign for all future attendees. I mentioned to a patient of mine that I smashed right into the door, and he said he did the same thing! It made me feel less retarded. 🙂 Also dying to try the kingfish sashimi that has been receiving rave reviews.

Written by alexlobov

March 22, 2010 at 1:55 am

6 Responses

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  1. […] Izakaya Den « MSG: The Melbourne Social Guide […]

    the clarinet | Clarinet

    March 22, 2010 at 10:12 am

  2. That is a high score. I am sold. Must make booking soon

    penny aka jeroxie

    March 23, 2010 at 7:40 pm

  3. Yeah I was seriously impressed. By the way, the two of us sauntered in on a weeknight at around 8.30 and didn’t need to book 🙂


    March 23, 2010 at 7:56 pm

  4. Great review, I’m trying to place where it is. Will have to go and find out in person.

    Ed Cook

    June 6, 2010 at 12:42 pm

  5. […] I have dined at Izakaya Den on two prior occasions, and had been very impressed as reviewed previously here. […]

  6. Yes! Finally someone writes about soup.

    November 21, 2012 at 6:25 pm

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