Have you noticed a bit of a theme in my food posts so far?
Over the last few years I have enjoyed a deep and passionate love affair with Japanese food. It all started in 2010 on a whirlwind 3 week trip to Japan. I fell in love, hard and fast. I couldn’t help it, the food was glorious. Some of my fondest memories of that trip are of the meals we had there. A delicious katsudon bowl of crispy fried pork and egg sitting on top of a bed of rice and onions at an Izakaya in Matsumoto. Swishing thin slices of beef into a piping hot shabu shabu in the hot spring town of Gora. That trip tipped the scale for me and opened my eyes to the real beauty and variety of Japanese cuisine.
Since that trip, it has been my mission to find fantastic Japanese fare in Melbourne. I have yearned to recreate those magical food moments that I experienced time and time again in Japan, when the sake flowed freely and the food was exquisitely presented, and exquisitely delicious. This is not the first installment of my Japanese food quest. Since returning from my trip I have enjoyed countless Japanese meals, plump and sweet teriyaki salmon at Kenzan, nibbly Japanese dishes at Hako, sashimi in a ball of ice at Shoya, udon noodle soup at Hanabishi, bento boxes at Chiba…the list goes on. All these meals were good, all these meals were memorable. But they weren’t “it” for me, and I continue to hunt, continue my search. I know it’s out there.
Last week a colleague sent me a link to a write up on Izakaya Jiro and suggested I try it out. I read the huge menu and became instantly excited. Lots of small sharing dishes designed to be enjoyed over a long night of drinking, and a drinks menu featuring 50 different types of sake. I was there will bells on.
An ‘Izakaya’ is a Japanese style bar/pub that serves good quality food. The word Izakaya in Japanese literally means “sitting in a sake shop”. I remember sitting in a fabulous Izakaya in Hiroshima with My Love back in 2010. It was a rowdy, happy place. Big groups of people were squashed into tiny booths, talking loudly over each other and laughing. They were downing their beer and sake while devouring steaming hot gyoza, plates of sushi and delicious okonomiyaki. I LOVED that place. It was boisterous, drunken, happy and delicious.
Izakaya Jiro is not boisterous or rowdy. It is a small, quiet restaurant with a few black tables and chairs and generally dark décor. The table setting was simple but pleasing. Cute little terracotta cups and a lovely scrolled menu. I liked it, even if it was quiet and didn’t quite conjure up those same happy feelings I had felt walking into the Izakayas in Japan.
When seated we were welcomed by a very attentive (almost too attentive) waitress offering “Japanese tea” to begin with. This Japanese tea was a delicious woody green tea that wasn’t too strong in flavour ($2.50 per person, refilled all night). We drank our tea and got straight onto the good stuff , ordering a carafe (150 ml) of sake from Gunma, Japan and 5 dishes to start with.
The first dish, the salmon sashimi, came out quickly and arrived even before our sake. The salmon was delicious. Nine slices of fresh, soft, pink flesh beautifully presented. I could have eaten that sashimi all night. It was a great, light start to the meal. I only wish that we had been given our sake as well. It would have been nice to enjoy the two together.
By the time our next dishes arrived there was still no sign of the drinks. We were itching for them, eyeing every waiter that walked past our table. No luck. What we did get though was a plate of pork gyoza and gorgeous little takoyaki balls.
The pan fried gyoza were nice. Plump and slightly crunchy, as they should be, with a hint of vinegary goodness. The takoyaki however were the absolute stand out. Delicious deep fried octopus balls, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside with bits of gorgeous octopus in the middle. The balls were topped with mayo and what they described as ‘special sauce’ (okonomiyaki sauce). The mayo and sauce were delicious, we mopped up every last drop. It was the perfect snack to enjoy while chatting, laughing and drinking…if only our drinks had arrived.
The sake was served after we had finished the takoyaki and gyoza. We had let the waitress choose and she had chosen well. It was fantastic, not too strong and went down easily (maybe a little too easily).
Next on the food agenda was a dish we had been waiting all night for- okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a Japanese style pancake traditionally filled with seafood, vegetables, bacon and in some parts of Japan, noodles. It is topped with mayonnaise and oknomiyaki sauce (a blend of tomato, worcestershire and soy sauce). My Love and I die for them. A good okonomiyaki is something to cherish. Izakaya Jiro’s okonomiyaki was average. In my humble opinion, they skimped on the mayonnaise and the special sauce. The portion was small and I could not detect any seafood in there. There was definitely no bacon. Although mildly tasty this okonomiyaki was disappointing, and worlds away from the okonomiyaki we had in Japan.
Our final dish of the five was the soft shell crab. The crab was delicious, deep fried and crunchy. We enjoyed the sweet sauce on the side which had just a slight chilli kick to it. Good deep fried fare for lining the stomach. By this time I found that the restaurant had started becoming a little louder. I felt like it was a little more boisterous, a little more fun. Although, that may have just been my carafe of sake talking, getting emptier and emptier as the minutes went by.
We finished the crab and needed more. Not dessert, something substantial. Something that would prevent our stomachs from keeping us awake that night with their gnawing and deep growling. We went for the grill. A beef skewer, chicken ball skewer and a sizzling teriyaki chicken main dish.
The chicken ball skewer was, according to the menu, “recommended”. It was three nice balls of chicken mince. The beef skewer was lovely and had been cooked well so that it was a little pink in the middle. The beef had been very lightly marinated giving it a slight sweetness. We enjoyed it and wished we had ordered two.
The chicken teriyaki came out last, spitting and sizzling on a hot stone plate with the thick brown sauce bubbling around luscious plump bits of chicken. I could hardly contain myself. I thought this would be it, this would be the dish of the night. I was wrong. The morsels of chicken and the teriyaki sauce were like a love affair that had run its course. They were there, they were sharing the plate, but for me, they just weren’t working together. It didn’t matter how much I ran bits of chicken around the edge of the hot plate, trying desperately to sponge up the sauce, the chicken was plain and that sweet teriyaki flavour punch that I have enjoyed so many times before just wasn’t there in the sauce.
We didn’t even consider a glance at the dessert menu, we were full. Not basketball belly stomach pressing against our jeans full, but full enough (and we were feeling very relaxed thanks to the sake). I probably wouldn’t run back to Izakaya Jiro. It was a pretty good Japanese restaurant out of Melbourne’s CBD but for me, it didn’t have any particular special spark to it.
Izakaya Jiro- 830 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn Melbourne