The tapas trend in Australia seems to have now progressed to other forms of ‘little food’ – and in Melbourne, it has led to the growth of izakayas, or Japanese pubs.
Izakaya Den (from Simon Denton of Verge fame) is the latest restaurant in the izakaya-spurt. After you descend down the stairs from the barely-there doorway, it’s very Japanese: in the layout of the eating bench along the length of the narrow underground concrete chamber; the projection of the specials menu along one wall; the ninja-stealth staff uniforms and the paper scrolls listing the food and drink (including an extensive selection of sake, shochu and plum wine).
However, the food is not the sort you’d normally find Japanese salarymen scoffing down with beer before their late-night commute to the suburbs. Izakaya Den serves Japanese melded with Western tastes and so the menu encompasses traditional, but more often than not, fusion dishes, all to be shared.
You could say that our experience veered from Japan to Italy to Switzerland and back again. We ordered the tuna tataki of thinly sliced melt-in-your-mouth cubes of tuna dotted with garlic soy, bresaola sheltering a daikon strip salad and my favourite, an unusual take on umagidon with eel and rice steamed in fragrant bamboo leaves. For dessert, C and I shared black sesame icecream topped with pink grapefruit, a white chocolate and green tea fondue with little green tea and macadamia mochi balls for dipping, and a cute little wagashi decorated with the tiniest of pink bows.
With a beer and a cocktail, the meal came to about $55 a head for three people. So the little food is not cheap – but it is beautifully presented, surprising and unique. Best of all, the cool space will transport you back to Tokyo.