Modern Japanese food Melbourne: Sake Restaurant and Bar
In long ago times, Flinders Lane was the epicentre of Melbourne’s rag trade. Design houses, fabric retailers, wholesalers, buttons and notions; it was literally the fashionable place to be.
It’s very easy to still call it fashionable – but for an entirely different reason. Arguably, it’s the most happening food street in the city.
On a recent cool Friday night, Greedy Girl with her dear friends Bev the Cook and The Bibliophile headed for the eastern end of Flinders Lane. Their first choice venue was packed with after work revellers and a lot of other venues had queues snaking down side alleys. Harrumph! Not fond of queueing, and looking for a place to eat, drink and a noise level that made conversation possible, we headed for Sake Restaurant and Bar.
This is a chain of restaurants – there are two outlets in Sydney, one in Brisbane and two in Melbourne (the other in the bowels of Hamer Hall, part of the Arts Centre precinct). It lays claim to serving modern Japanese food.
The restaurant is part of the Urban Purveyor Group, which has a host of eateries and bars throughout Australia, including the Fratelli Fresh restaurants and the Munich Brauhaus on South Wharf.
Everyone in hospitality tries to offer something different. This iteration of Sake makes use of the building’s basement for a bar (complete with live DJ) and outdoor area. Even early after work, the bar was – quite literally – thumping. Upstairs, we were shown to a table not far from the sushi preparation zone and the volume levels (in the beginning) were low enough for us to chat.
Immediately it seemed we were surrounding by wait staff, all wanting to know what we’d like to drink. In the space of a couple of minutes, no less than three different staff asked for our order. We thought we’d better knuckle down and work out what tipple to consume. Bev the Cook chose a delightful 2014 Hay Shed Hill cabernet sauvignon from Margaret River. The wine, sake and cocktail list here is extensive; it’s definitely better value to buy a bottle than go by the glass.
The food is designed to share, so we were happy to avail ourselves of a range of small dishes. The Bibliophile ran through the menu and we chose a variety of dumplings, some tataki, a couple of fried dishes and some sushi rolls. Our waiter advised he would bring the sushi last so we “didn’t fill up on rice”. No problem.
First up we shared some spicy edamame as well as various small dishes of pickles. The edamame was very spicy – overwhelmingly so in Greedy Girl’s opinion, but it didn’t take long for our first plates to appear.
Or should that be steamers? We started with wagyu beef dumplings and prawn shumai.
The wrappers for the beef dumpling were very sticky – to each other and to the paper lining the steamer. They were tasty but it seemed a waste of such a premium beef. Ne’er mind, they went down the hatch.
The shumai were a very disappointing texture – too soft and almost gloopy.
Next up, we had beef tataki (apologies for the quality of images – the interior is very dark). This was coated with a togarachi spice and dried plums. It was an interesting dish.
We moved to a duck ‘katsu’ – essentially breaded and deep fried pieces of duck served with cucumber and eggplant. At least for three diners, we were going to avoid any arguments over this plate.
Next, we had a special – the dish pictured at the top of this post. It was a squid tempura. The Bibliophile said the pieces he got were very tender – Bev the Cook and Greedy Girl found it impossible to bite through the squid which was quite fibrous.
We then moved to, in Greedy Girl’s opinion, the dish of the evening – a spicy tuna roll with sesame and chilli sauce. These were delectable and perfectly sized to pop into the mouth.
Next was a salmon and avocado roll with a sweet soy glaze. The salmon had been seared, which isn’t Greedy Girl’s preferred way to eat it, preferring raw or smoked. Still, it was a nice dish.
We were into our second bottle of red by this stage, but it became increasingly harder to get the attention of wait staff. The Bibliophile was scratching his head; he was sure we’d ordered another dish but our initial waiter had told us at the outset that we’d finish with the sushi rolls. We eventually flagged down someone to ask – we’d asked for a chicken karaage with a curry aioli. This appeared a little while later and was perfectly edible, if not the prettiest dish Greedy Girl has ever seen.
And we were done; it was another challenge to find someone to ask for the bill. We had no offer of dessert or further drinks. With a crowd downstairs at the bar, presumably they were looking to turn over the table and yet we got very limited attention to be able to pay and depart. By this stage, the restaurant was almost completely dark and incredibly noisy. There were a lot of wait staff but it didn’t seem to have any organisation – we couldn’t point to anyone in particular looking after us. It was quite disappointing.
A note about the ambience – Australia is such a multi-cultural community, we do pride ourselves on having reasonably authentic representations of the various national cuisines. As we were shown to our table, the hostess (who was possibly Irish) called out the Japanese salutation of welcome, ‘irasshaimase’. It struck an odd chord with Greedy Girl; she’s used to hearing it when walking into sushi bars all over the world, but spoken by a Japanese person. But here it felt somewhat theatrical.
This was reasonable food but there was no ‘wow’ factor and not anything so wonderfully inventive that would make Greedy Girl want to sample it again.
Sake Restaurant and Bar
121 Flinders Lane, Melbourne