When I ask people where one should go for good sushi, the majority of them would say “Shira Nui” (though those who enjoy slow service and can’t be bothered going to Glen Waverley would say “Shoya”). When I tell them that I have, in fact, been to Shira Nui and said that it was “great but not super-dooper-fantastic”, they usually look at me in horror and exclaim, “No, you haven’t really tried Shira Nui until you have sat on the counter and ordered the chef’s omakase!” With this in mind, I rang the place up on Wednesday afternoon and asked them if they could squeeze Adam and I in at 6pm the next evening (last night) and thankfully, a spot at the end of the counter was available on the condition that we would leave by 8pm. No problemo, we thought, we had to go to church down the road at 7:30pm for their special Easter presentation anyway. The reason for such a special dinner? No reason. I just wanted to treat Adam to some good food and c’mon, as if Ms Libby really needs a proper reason to go eating . And hey, I am following Aussie Easter traditions in that I’m scoffing myself with fish after all.
We walked into the very tiny and unassuming restaurant on Springvale Road just before 6pm and already, several diners were comfortably seated. Cries of “IRASSHAIMASE!” went up all around the dining room, from the waitresses to the sushi chefs, to say “Welcome! I’m just as sick of saying it as much as you are of hearing it but let’s just get on with this charade, okay?” Our bums on our counter stools, we were given menus but without looking at them, we simply told the waitress that we wanted the “omakase” which is where we let the sushi chefs decide what we should eat.
It’s a bit of a gamble, not knowing exactly what we would get but on the other hand, omakase customers usually get the better quality stuff over the a la carte customers. Prior to starting, they did ask us if there was anything that we wouldn’t eat though so it’s not like you would be presented with something you vehemently hate. The beauty about Shira Nui’s omakase setting is that we can sit there for as long as we want until we decide that enough is enough and you get charged accordingly. The waitress told us that people usually pay between $75-80 per person (which was what we paid) but apparently some iron stomachs have been known to spend closer to $100.
We received an amouse bouche prior to the show. Two tiny pieces of fried fish and some pickled vegetables which you could eat all at once on the spot, or in little bites throughout the course of your meal (I did the latter). We watched as the two chefs, grand master Hiro Nishikura and his two assistants danced behind the counter with knives, raw fish fillets, rice and blowtorches.
Watching them prepare fresh sushi in front of your eyes was an amazing experience, a bit like Iron Chef but without the awful dubbing. No sooner than taking the first bite of my fried fish, our sushi arrived. We were also instructed by the chefs when it was okay to dip or sushi into soy sauce or otherwise (that bit becomes important later).
Each of us received a plate with two pieces of sushi and the first one was a nigirizushi of raw King Dory fillets (which look a bit like you-know-what if you think really hard). A gruff instruction of “no soy” was also given by Hiro-san as the two of us tucked into our soft-textured fish that was only flavoured by a squeeze of lemon juice to bring out the fish’s natural sweetness. Sublime. Adam, on the other hand, didn’t hear the “no soy” instructions and proceeded to dunk his fish into a bowl of soy sauce. Looking in horror, I told him that the chef told us NOT to have it with soy to which he asked me (while darting nervously to and from the sushi chefs welding their filleting knives like they were samurai swords), “What are they going to do to me now?” “Get angry at you” I replied, just so I could see the look of alarm in his eyes (haha, yeah I’m mean).
Shira Nui’s much-loved pan-grilled salmon sushi. I loved it when I had it last year but it definitely tasted better this time around (see? omakase = better food!). I was glad to witness the making of this perfectly-executed sushi, from the moment the salmon left the other kitchen (where all the hot food was being served) to the grabbing of little bundles of sweet vinegared rice thrown on the bench that was smeared with a hint of wasabi (enough to give it a kick but not too much so that my tongue would burn – because I hate wasabi, you see) to the way each piece of salmon was lovingly placed on each bundle of rice before being dusted with what looked like the Japanese seven-spice blend, shichimi. After a little squeeze of lemon juice, both pairs of sushi were signed, sealed and delivered with a neat bow of nori. Talk about a flavour explosion! It was smokey and sweet and spicy and tangy all at the same time, and yet the natural flavour of the salmon still poked through all of the layers of flavour. Too good!
Raw mackerel sushi. Mackerel is one of those fish that can’t keep fresh for very long so it is usually salt-cured when it comes to serving them in sushi form. I was initially reluctant at the thought of eating such an oily and salty fish raw, even if it was sprinkled with shichimi but matching it with a covering of kombu (a type of thick seaweed) that has been soaked in a sweet mirin reduction was nothing short of genius. Delicious!
Now this one got Adam excited (he loves his beef). A grilled wagyu beef fillet, having only spent a whisker of a second on the grill leaving it half-raw, was topped with a smidgen of onion jam and spring onions. It was so soft that it literally melted in my mouth. I know that phrase is so tired and cliched but really, it DID.
This was something new to us. When Hiro-san introduced it to us, we initially thought he said “ox tail” but upon nibbling on the chewy and almost rubbery piece of orange flesh, I realised that he was saying “ark shell.” It’s a mollusc that isn’t too disssimlar to an ordinary clam and on its own, it is pretty tasteless which was why we were instructed to dip it in soy sauce. I got a bit naughty though and decided to boldly try one without sauce and dammit, he was right. While you could taste the sea in the flesh, it isn’t very nice on its own. I think the point of Hiro-san making us try the ark shell was to convey its interesting texture which is a bit like a calamari with millions of little grooves imprinted in the flesh.
Seared tuna steak. Another beautiful one. The tuna fillet was seared on the grill for only the briefest of moments, leaving the outside crust crispy and the inside beautifully rare. It was then cut up into little slices, sprinkled with shichimi and placed on a small mound of warm rice. Then came the onion jam. And the spring onions. And the strip of nori. Bewdddiful.
So far I’ve been saying good things about the omakase, so it is with reluctance when I tell you that this next sushi didn’t really do it for me. It was a piece of okra stuffed with a minced fish and crab mix which was then lightly friend and served in tempura form. It was then wrapped with nori and dotted with a plum jam. Eaten with soy sauce, I thought that while it wasn’t a bad dish, it was simply different to what we had been experiencing so far on the night. At another random Japanese restaurant, this would have been the norm and I wouldn’t have whinged about it but omakase at Shira Nui? It would forever be known as “the thing that didn’t belong.”
Ooohboy, the raw king fish was probably my favourite one. This very firm fish was marinated only the simplest of ingredients, soy and mirin but boy, was it big on taste. Coupled with the marinade and the fact that the kingfish is a very strong-tasting fish, it was obvious that no soy was needed for this sushi. It was sweet, sublime and oh-so-wonderful. More please!
By this stage, we were almost stuffed and about to admit defeat. The thrill of the omakase was to see what surprise would land on our plates each time and we really didn’t want the fun to stop. We figured, however, that eight dishes was already a pretty fine effort and it was always time for us to make a move on and head to church anyway. But then the chef walked past us on the way to the other kitchen and told us that the oysters were coming up so we thought, “Okay, one more!”
This photo is shocking so you will have to trust me when I say that the oyster sushi was excellent. Watching the chefs construct the sushi was just as exciting as watching Big Love (it really IS an exciting show!). There were four bundles of rice in total, then came the sheets of nori being wovened vertically around each rice bundle to make a “bowl” where the rice was the bottom of that bowl. Then comes the baked oysters hot from the oven. They are carefully spooned out of their shells with a spoon and placed in each “sushi bowl” before being squirted with Japanese mayonaise and glazed with a blowtorched. By golly, it was delicious! It was so rich, so creamy, so briny, so indulgent. One bite and I was KO-ed. Mmmmmmm.
We were done with sushi for the night but I wasn’t about to leave until I sampled the green tea creme brulee that Kelly loves so much. It was $11.50 a serving and we decided to share it between the two of us. As we were waiting for our dessert, Adam and I started talking about how impressive we were with the whole show. Nine intricate dishes, and each of them arriving quickly after the other. The staff at Shira Nui clearly knew what they were doing and there was not even a minor hiccup in their production line which resembled the Just-In-Time assembly line system that quality management theorists often rave on about. The mainlanders at those bloody dumpling place that take 20 minutes to deliver a greasy plate of dumplings and then manage to stuff up the second dish could sure learn a huge deal just by sitting at Shira Nui‘s counter.
Our green tea creme brulee was served in a small espresso shot-mug which, when the tough crusty lid was cracked, revealed a light oozy green custard that was rich and delicious. I remember squealing with glee as I made 10 billion cracks on the burnt toffee top while Adam sat there rolling his eyes. I now know why Amelie gets excited over creme brulee. Accompanying the creme brulee was a black cup of vanilla ice cream cubes and fruits to refresh the palette. And to our left is a shot glass of kiwi sorbet that was given to us “compliments of the chef” which made us feel special.
All up, it $180 for the two of us including drinks and dessert. The result: two very happy campers. In spite of such a great dinner, I’m still reluctant to declare this the best sushi restaurant in Melbourne. Yes, everything was delicious. Yes, the service was warm and friendly. Yes, some of the best sushi dishes were tasted last night. But I’ve tasted nothing as fresh and sublime as Shoya‘s sushi bowl. Having said that though, Shira Nui is definitely one of those places worth driving to from the other side of town so I definitely recommend this place. Just make sure you go for the omakase though. And tell them that you are allergic to okra.