Dining at a specialty restaurant that comes with a warning is a lure for foodies like me. There are places like Stra Pocha in Strathfield NSW which warn you their Korean chilli chicken dish is very hot and others like Tempura Hajime which warn "all the dishes are Japanese tempura deep-fried, is that OK?". Little did they know that I was walking on air as soon as I heard those magical words.
I've been keen to dine at Tempura Hajime ever since it fell into my radar some time in 2007 but strangely enough, my trips to Melbourne often coincided with when they were either closed for holidays or booked out. This time around, all the restaurants in my hit-list for this trip (well, the ones which accepted reservations) were booked months in advance to ensure no disappointment.
Sadly though, I will never be able to taste the original tasting menu by its founder and former chef, Daisuke Miyamoto, as new management took over just a week before I arrived in Melbourne. Despite not having a benchmark to compare against, having now had the Tempura Hajime experience and spoken to the passionate young new owner/chef (whom Daisuke has personally know for years), I believe the restaurant is heading towards a golden future.
At the morning of the booking, I received a text message from the restaurant with directions to this hidden restaurant - "Enter from brown wooden door at 60 Park Street. No restaurant sign. Thank you."
Carefully counting down the numbers, we found the restaurant relatively easily.
For those who don't know much about Tempura Hajime, it is a small intimate restaurant which caters for a maximum of 12 clients per night. They currently only open for dinner but they mentioned they may start offering lunch from July onwards. The chef buys his own ingredients fresh daily and does all of his own prep work and cooking demonstration. Everyone must order the fixed tasting menu, a $72 degustation with a focus on the battered goodness of tempura.
Course one is sashimi of kingfish and ocean trout plus a miso and sesame oil dressed chicken salad. The flavours were delicate and fresh.
We are given two types of dipping sauces, one is fresh lemon juice with Murray River salt flakes and the second is the traditional tentsuyu sauce with fresh grated daikon, and are advised which sauce would be most suitable to which tempura.
We start with a tempura of corn which is wholesome in flavour and exquisite in appearance. The batter is spectacularly light, crisp and pure - the result of a combination of soy bean oil, tea seed oil and sesame oil used in the frying process.
Next is the prawn tempura which is nothing like the common food court prawn tempura. The natural sweetness and succulent crustacean flavour of the prawn is accentuated by a gently crafted tempura batter.
We continue with the eel and tuna tempura which were immediately dipped into a sticky teriyaki sauce before serving. I'm normally not a fan of eel but both these tempura morsels were so delightful.
Moving on, we have the mixed seaweed salad, scallop with sea urchin tempura, seasonal vegetable tempura of sweet potato and asparagus and eggplant with minced chicken tempura. These were all as light, crispy and as beautiful as the next.
Main course is a kakiagedon which is a hearty mixed vegetable and seafood tempura on steamed rice with teriyaki sauce. While feeling slightly disappointed that this marked the last tempura-based course, I was surprisingly full already. Although I think if they had served a bonus round of the eggplant and minced chicken tempura, then I would have eagerly obliged!
Last course is dessert, a yoghurt pannacotta with grapes.
Overall, I really loved this charming little restaurant! While the portion sizes don't shriek value for money, the experience as a whole really lets you appreciate the raw delicacy of fresh ingredients and quality tempura. Plus the service is quirky and adorable too ;)
60 Park Street, Melbourne, VIC
Phone: (03) 9696 0051