I visit the Arts Centre Melbourne reasonably frequently and so I’m always on the lookout for great pre and post-theatre dining options in the vicinity.
I think I’ve alighted on a new favourite. Sake Restaurant and Bar, a fusion Japanese restaurant and bar originally hailing from Sydney (and with a Brisbane outpost too), launched last year as part of the Hamer Hall refurbishment.
I can’t believe it’s taken this long for Melbourne’s arts precinct to take full advantage of its river frontage – the view the restaurant commands of Princes Bridge, Federation Square, Flinders Street station and the skyscrapers of the CBD must be one of the most iconic Melbourne postcard images you can find.
The restaurant is double-storied and very large, though you won’t feel like you’re in a beer hall or a dining shed. There are small tables riverside, larger tables inside (though the restaurant full opens out to the waterfront when the weather is pleasant), booths and more seating upstairs.
The decor is contemporary Japanese chic. I loved the rising sun foil artwork hanging at one end of the restaurant, the swathes of cloth draped from the roof beams, the fibre optic sakura branches and the beautiful plateware, all of which is imported from Japan (so don’t break it!).
I was invited to sample various dishes from Sake’s restaurant and bar snacks menu with appropriate sake and wine matches. Most of the dishes are part of the ‘signature dishes menu’ which is $88 per person.
The night started off with a cocktail, a Japanese version of the Tom Collins. A refreshing gin and mint hit for a hot summer’s evening.
To start from the bar menu we tried paper-thin slices of translucent Hiramasa kingfish topped with slices of jalapeno and a small bunch coriander in yuzu soy ($22). This is one of Sake’s signature dishes for a reason – the lightness and delicate flavours of the sashimi are heightened by the very mild chillis and freshness of the coriander. It’s fusion that works.
Another fish+chilli combination in the entrees is the salmon tataki with jalapeno dressing ($24). While the combination of the rich salmon and creamy, almost foamy, dressing was interesting, it paled in comparison the cleaner, brighter flavours of the kingfish. I felt that the richness of the dish needed a cut of acid to balance it out.
Next up the crispy coins of panko rice balls would be perfect with a beer in hand. I found the interior to be more rice than the advertised soy bean, bamboo and shiitake mushroom hence they are very filling, especially when doused in the thick wasabi mayonnaise.
In contrast, I didn’t think the popcorn shrimp ($29) was up to scratch and if I was going to order a fried morsel option I’d go with the panko rice balls. The tempura batter was much too heavy and the prawns were a bland, watery flavour masked by a spicy sauce that wasn’t spicy enough for me. It was generously proportioned though and I saw plenty of other tables enthusiastically tucking into the bowls with chopsticks.
If you don’t like fried food (or even if you do) as a starter I’d steer you towards the grilled cubes of miso marinated Patagonion toothfish ($20) instead. I’ve never eaten toothfish before and I’d liken the texture to that of eel, in this case served with a thin veneer of caramelisation from the grill and resting on tiny springy lettuce leaves.
From the restaurant menu the slices of medium rare wagyu beef teriyaki was meltingly tender, with the seared grill lines imparting a slightly smokey flavour into the meat ($39). It was almost outshone by the combination of sauteed shiitake and buckwheat in yakiniku sauce – a surprising combination of crunch and sponginess and an even better accompaniment to the meat than the traditional bowl of steamed rice.
Dessert was a buttermilk pannacotta with passionfruit coulis which isn’t on the usual dessert menu. I don’t normally get excited by pannacotta but this was an unusual texture – light and fluffy and more akin to a meringue than a gelatine-set dessert.
At Sake Restaurant and Bar food is interesting and generally works well, the staff are highly professional and the setting is magnificent. The locations in Sydney and Brisbane are both one-hatted restaurants and I expect the Melbourne version will be similarly awarded. Melburnians seemed to have already embraced it.
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