Izakaya Den is probably the best definition I could give, for what I look for in a restaurant. It is a hidden gem in the basement of a busy city corner and unless you knew what you were looking for, you would never be able to find it. (Actually, I knew what I was looking for and still thought it was impossible to find!) Once you have discovered one, I love how hidden gems make you feel like you've stumbled into a secret gourmand society... The second criteria is that the eatery has to be understated and casual but offer top notch food and drinks. The third criteria, is comfort and intimacy - it has to cater for both, couples and groups; and the forth criteria is dessert. If it offers good dessert, then I'm sold.
So I guess it only makes sense, that I crown Izakaya Den, my favourite restaurant (at the moment).
The space is filled with a lively mix of electro-funk tunes and the roar of Melbournians kick starting their weekend. It is a long room made to look deceptively even longer with a towering mirror hung on the wall at the other end.
We sit at the bar on a tall bench; directly in front of me is a large tray of king oyster mushrooms and I'm also facing the open kitchen. Zen and I are handed a set of menu scrolls and an oshibori on a traditional bamboo stand. The oshibori is a warm towel which is given to customers in Japan before a meal to cleanse their hands. I feel like I've been transported back to a cool underground pub in Tokyo.
The service too, is very Japanese. The staff is always courteous and there when you need them but aren't intrusive.
Now back to the menu... The specials are projected against the walls and the others are listed in three scrolls, separated by drinks, sake and food. The drinks menu features some helpful tasting notes which is a thoughtful touch, considering they have enough options to fill an A3 page! Satisfying all tastes, there are Australian beers, Japanese beers, single malt, shochu, umeshu (plum wine), cocktails, mocktails, spirits and soft drinks. The sake menu is an impressive list too, with products imported from all over Japan, and a price range which stretches from $25 for a 400ml bottle to $220 for a 720ml of the most premium.
Zen and I are pretty new to sake so just share the house sake, Kizakura Yamahai ($25, 400ml bottle) from Kyoto. It is delicate and surprisingly really easy to drink. I also have the Fuji Breezer ($12) a concoction of apple juice, pomegranate, fresh lime and shiso leaves, and Zen has the Ginger Mist ($12), a luscious blend of fresh ginger, lemon and orange, ginger beer and fresh mint. They are both refreshing, with the herbs enriching the natural sweetness of the fruit juice.
The food menu consists of seven items each, in six categories. There's small, char grill, cold, hot, vegetables and sweet. We start with a handful of items from each category but end up adding to our order as the food starts to arrive. Why? Because there is no greater tease than to see the chef prepare something delectable for another table nearby!
First up is the spicy tuna tataki with garlic and soy ($18). Identical slivers of tuna are arranged on a bed of thinly sliced onion. The fish is bursting with flavour, and paired really well with the delicate dressing of garlic and soy. Furthermore, the garnish of toasted sesame seeds highlights the aromatic use of sesame oil which in turn tones down the raw hotness of the onion. It is a gorgeous and well balanced appetiser.
Next we have deep-fried chestnuts ($8), which is orgasmic compared to roasted chestnuts! These are piping hot, robust in flavour and rich and buttery in texture. They are lightly salted and extremely delicious!
The Kurobuta pork belly kushi-yaki ($15 for two skewers) are char grilled with chunks of leek... We are warned not to touch the metal skewer sticks as they've just come off the flame. So after fumbling with a napkin and chopsticks, the first taste of the pork belly just melts in my mouth. We also have the greens, fried bean curd and dashi ($10) which was mistakenly ordered while I was pointing at the item beside it, the persimmon and green beans ($8). The greens are less interesting in comparison, but I don't complain as I'll happily eat anything they feed me at Izakaya Den.
As lovers of shellfish, we just had to try the mussels saka-mushi ($15) and the miso soup with pippies ($10). The sake marinated mussels arrive looking pretty ordinary in a heavy ceramic bowl, but in fact, they aren't ordinary at all. They are juicy and sweet and there's a wonderful kick in the cloudy broth. The miso soup with clams is pure comfort food, although at $10 a bowl, it is the most I have ever forked out for this delectable stock.
The bandana-wearing cook picks up a couple of king brown mushrooms from the large tray in front of us and in a few mesmerizing actions, they're split into 6 and on the grill. Just before the mushrooms are ready, they're brushed with a glossy blend of ginger and soya sauce and then immediately served. I can't think of a better or simpler way to eat these grilled king brown mushrooms ($10). The toasted soya sauce and smokey char-grill flavours are magical.
The steamed unagi with rice ($8 for two) is scrumptious also. They're small triangular parcels wrapped with bamboo leaf and filled with a slice of eel and a layer of hearty glutinous rice.
The special fried black rice ($10) is quite something too. Although called 'black rice' it is actually deep purple in colour and exhibits a smokey and nutty flavour as well as a firm chewy bite. It's probably the best value dish on the menu if you're after a delightful stomach filler.
Still excited by the fabulous menu, I add on two more dishes, plus dessert. The sweet corn kaki-age ($7) is the highlight of the night. Dare I say, it was as good as the corn tempura I recently had at Tempura Hajime. These golden morsels are crunchy, sweet yet savoury. They're served with a small pile of green tea salt which increases the depth of flavour.
Our last dish before dessert is the Mayura station grade 7 wagyu porterhouse ($29) which is served with pickled okra, sea salt flakes and a full-bodied soya sauce. It is awesome; unbelievably tender and juicy.
Then we finish off with a ginger creme brulee ($10). Yes, one dessert, because apparently, the boyfriend doesn't like sweet stuff... But guess what, he ends up polishing off half of it uninvitedly anyway! That's how good the brulee is.
Despite all the small dishes being mouth-watering and inexpensive, they do tally up quite unexpectedly. Our bill came to $184.50 for two, but for the brilliant night out that it was, I thought it was totally worth it!
114 Russell St, Melbourne, VIC
Phone: (03) 9654 2977 [lunch bookings only; dinner has a no bookings policy]
Kitchen opening hours
Lunch: Monday - Friday, 12 - 2:30pm
Evenings: Tuesday - Saturday, 5:30 - midnight