114 Russell Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9654 2977
If you live in Melbourne and haven’t been to Izakaya Den, you’re probably on the same level of cool as Annie Wilson. And by cool, I really mean loser. With a capital ‘L.’ Seriously, if you haven’t proceeded down the steps of 114 Russell Street, walked straight ahead and into a fashion store, scratched your head before heading out and then realising that Izakaya Den’s entrance is, in fact, a discreet doorway hidden by a screen, then you’re a loser. And yes, I, a food-blogger, who’s only JUST written about this oh-so-hot izakaya in 2011, can only be chucked in the very same category as poor Miss Wilson (though in order to recoup some semblance of coolness, I did visit way back in August 2010).
Shhhh, it’s a secret.
Walking into this ‘no bookings, please’ venue is like walking into a Tokyo bar. Not that I’ve been to Tokyo before but I have seen Lost in Translation and this is a place where I can see myself downing shots of sake and bottles of Kirin with Bill Murray. It’s cool, sexy and would be pretentious if not for the bevy of extremely hospitable wait staff.
They take your coat to hang in the coat room and give you a cute pebble with your coat room number on it (which doubles up as your ‘table’ number), and lead you to your seat – either at the long bar or on one of the high wooden tables that dot the bunker-like space.
On both occasions, Adam and I chose to sit at the bar. There’s nothing like watching the bartender expertly whip up your shochu sour ($14) while you wait for your food to cook, and giving a smug nod to those who would dare rock up after 7pm on a Friday night only to be told that they would have to wait in line.
I love how they present the menus – rolled up in perfect scrolls and secured with a rubber band.
Let’s now talk about the food. Let me be frank from the start: Izakaya Den is not a place where you’d go to for a filling dinner. While it is possible stuff yourself until you’re full, this would mean running your credit card dry as the food doesn’t come cheap. Six measly dishes, for example, would not only set a party of two back $100 (not including drinks), but a trip to Maccas to fill the still-empty space in your stomach. Do, however, come here for pre-dinner drinks and nibbles though; it’s the perfect spot for it.
Speaking of perfect, take a look at the sweet corn kaki-age ($7). And no, don’t look at my crappy low-light photography (yes, I’m aware that it needs a LOT of work). Oops, too late now I guess. The tasty morsels of crunchy corn were deep-fried and served with a green tea salt. I really loved the contrast between the sweet kernels of corn and the salt which was infused with that lovely delicate green tea taste.
Next came the tuna tataki ($18), the dish that gets many a food blogger going. Six beautifully seared pieces of fresh tuna sat on blobs of wasabi or red chilli mayo. The little tiles of tuna would have been awesome on their own – they were amazingly fresh – but the sweet and creamy mayo that accompanied each slice made them taste even better. A highly recommended dish.
I can never get enough of fish, so a serving of fresh salmon rolls was required ($16). Each roll of fresh salmon was wrapped around some avocado and pickled kombu. Topped with some ponzu-marinated shredded daikon, the roll provided a lovely balance of flavours.
Enough seafood, here’s some poultry. Presenting the den fried chicken ($9), the ‘Den’s version of a karaage obviously. The skin was beautifully fried to a crisp, and the meat inside tender and juicy. A dollop of Japanese mayo and a wedge of lemon accompanied the plate of chicken which went down nicely with a bottle of Kirin ($7).
Here’s something with a bit more substance – the lamb ribs with red miso sauce ($18). I wasn’t expecting much from this dish, especially since I’m not a huge fan of lamb ribs but I must say that this was a pleasant surprise. Put succulent lamb flesh and bone together with a sticky, sweet miso sauce dusted with sesame seeds and you have yourself a winner. Ding ding ding!
All that food wasn’t going to fill us up, but sadly our wallets were slowly emptying – and it wasn’t even dark yet – so we had to end the procession of savoury nibbles and move onto dessert. We settled for the Fuji apple millefeuille ($10) which was a tower of apple sorbet and dried apple slices. A slow drizzle of honey and pineapple pieces (which seem kinda arbitrary but anyway…) completed the picture. Adam was a bit ‘meh’ about the dessert but I, as a lover of fruity desserts and frozen treats in general, loved it.
Although you’re better off going elsewhere for Japanese food that adequately fill your tummies, I would recommend Izakaya Den if you have an hour or so to kill before dinner, or if you’ve just had dinner at Maccas but can still squeeze in a tiny dish or two before karaoke with Scarlett Johansson.