I first visited the Den in 2009, back when Melbourne was caught in the grips of an Izakaya frenzy. It survived the fad and still remains one of the more popular restaurants in town. Tucked away in a hard-to-find basement, this place exudes that hidden-Melbourne-secret vibe which tourists love.
There are tables, but the best seats in the house are the ones at the open bar and kitchen which extends along the whole length of the restaurant. Here you have a prime view of the kitchen staff, complete with Japanese bandanas, diligently cooking away.
It’s a bit more upmarket than the typical izakaya; this is apparent in the modernised menu which has some Western influences. Enjoy some sake, umeshu or Japanese beer with your meal. This isn’t the place for wine.
Agedashi tofu ($11)
The non-traditional quinoa coating added some nutty crunch to the silken tofu and the tomato topping was surprisingly complementary. A nice take on the izakaya staple.
Kingfish sashimi ($18)
Kingfish is by far my favourite sashimi fish. Salmon is boring; tuna is nice but can be a little heavy. I’m finding it very difficult to describe why one type of raw fish is better than the others, but I hope you’ll take my word for it. Izakaya’s kingfish didn’t disappoint; it was fresh, meaty and tender, with a perfect accompaniment in the form of a light soy-based dressing.
Stir-fried eel, water spinach and mushrooms ($16)
The eel was perfectly cooked: soft and tender yet still firm. The slightly crunchy water spinach and earthy, chewy mushrooms provided balance to the stir fry.
Den fried chicken ($11)
The fried chicken or kara-age was just as good as I remembered it. Unbelievably crunchy with a perfect balance of flavours. I’ve yet to find kara-age or indeed any fried chicken better than this (and I’ve been to Japan three times). My homemade rendition is enough to satisfy intermittent cravings but it doesn’t come close to the real thing.
Kurobuta pork belly ($19)
If you haven’t caught onto the trend yet, Kurobuta (literally, ‘black pig’), is a type of Berkshire pig which is highly valued for its unique flavour, fat characteristics and tenderness. In other words, it’s basically the pork equivalent of wagyu. Keen to try this much-raved about meat, I ordered it from the ‘char grill’ section of the menu. It was served plain with nothing but a lemon wedge and a small bowl of salt to go with it. As it turns out, that was all it needed. Usually I’m not a huge fan of pork on its own (needs applesauce!) but in this case I savoured every mouthful. It was just as tender, juicy and rich as promised, the fatty layer melting in the mouth.
Miso pound cake ($12)
Of course, no review would be complete without dessert. During previous visits (pre-blog, of course) I hadn’t ventured beyond the fondue, so I was looking forward to trying some of the interesting Asian-fusion sweet options.
Bob chose the miso pound cake with with cream and walnuts. I wasn’t quite sure how the umami flavours of miso would work in a cake, however it was actually quite nice. There was enough miso content for it to be obvious without being overpowering or too ‘savoury’. My complaint was that the cake was a bit on the dry side and there wasn’t really enough cream on the plate to overcome this.
Black sesame brulee ($12)
The brulee top cracked perfectly, revealing a silky smooth custard which had that wonderful toasty, nutty flavour characteristic of black sesame. A great way to end the meal.
A few Urbanspooners said things about there being other Japanese places which serve better, cheaper Japanese food – to them I say, you are kidding yourselves. Most likely they are talking about the kind of places that pass off miserable rock-hard tofu coated in greasy, heavy batter, floating in instant stock as ‘agedashi’. At this point I will have to go ‘full snob’ and proclaim that such things could only be perceived as ‘better’ by an ignorant palate. I don’t mean to rant but I think the effort that goes into putting modern twists on traditional dishes and collating them to create a diverse menu is severely underestimated.
Digression aside, it’s definitely verging on the fine dining end of the scale. Expect to spend $50-60 on food. If you’re looking for $10 buckets of ramen, this is not the place.
In this day and age of restaurant oversupply and regular closures, lasting four years is no mean feat. Despite the naysayers, Izakaya Den has evidently managed to stand the test of time. Try the chicken and you’ll understand why.Izakaya Den Basement, 114 Russell Street Melbourne