Maguro tataki (seared tuna)
PICTURES \ DARRIAN TRAYNOR
On a wintry Saturday the new South Wharf precinct would have all the gritty, steely charm of Copenhagen if it weren’t for the fugly skyscrapers (ours, not theirs) that blight the view. There’s a familiar surliness to the Yarra; directly across the river stands the eclectic architecture of the Flying Angel Club, where homesick sailors go for solace.
This area, south of Jeff’s Shed and past the Polly Woodside, has been zhoozhed up recently, its heritage sheds converted into what the developers hope will become Melbourne’s new destination dining hub. All the precinct’s promotional material shows the site in full sunshine, but it’s rather less appealing when bathed in Melbourne grey.
The bones of the riverfront eating houses are old-school, the fit-outs are funky and there’s obviously some good food on offer – the South Wharf chefs' collective includes Mark Briggs (ex-head chef at Vue de Monde), and Justin Dingle-Garciyya, who’s worked with Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc.
There is also Kengo Hiromatsu, formerly head sushi chef at Nobu. He’s now running the show at Akachochin, our izakaya-style lunch spot created by veteran restaurateur Paul Mathis (ex-Taxi).
Akachochin’s waitresses are surefire antidotes to the weather. Without meaning to sound condescending, they are incredibly sweet and cute and smiling and also very good at what they do – they know the copious menu by heart.
I also like the way one of them talks me remedially through the sake selection. I’m still no wiser about Japanese wine but I do know the first nine sakes are gutsy enough to withstand heating. So we have 300mls of number nine, Kazuma, described on the menu as full bodied and “great for beginners”.
It arrives in a beautiful ceramic vase heated to the temperature of the sun. After allowing several days for it to cool, we swig the sake and find it has a warmly numbing effect. So we order another flask. Those who insist on wine can choose from the list at The Sharing House, which is under the same roof.
In the interests of rigorous research I watched a YouTube video of Paul Mathis explaining Akachochin’s interior design – the minimalist Japanese look, the feature wall of pale wooden tiles, the “hand-chosen” Calacatta marble bar and the original timber floors, now lacquered black to fit the Oriental theme. He didn’t mention the aluminium-foil insulation on the roof that, for me, makes the place feel temporary, like a demountable classroom.
The food quells any doubts about the seriousness of this place. We kick off with maguro tataki, half-a-dozen squares of tuna, seared at the edges only and fanned diagonally across a square plate. Finely cut chives, microblobs of ponzu jelly and a light anchovy dressing complete the picture.
The fish is super fresh. The glassed-in contents of the sushi bar along one side of the room confirm most of the seafood has a just-caught shimmer to it. The ponzu pairing works a treat with tuna and there’s a welcome chilli heat in there, too.
I misread the description for shiromi senbei as fish and chips, assuming some cubist Japanese variation on the Friday-night staple. But there is no “and” on the menu – these are simply fish chips, fried, salty and totally addictive. The waitress explains they are made from a “mash” of the meat of different white fish. Whatever. We’ll have another, please.
Wagyu yakimono is grilled beef and oyster mushrooms, both charred from the grill. The meat is tender, tasty but quite sparse, as you’d expect for $18 worth of prime wagyu. A spicy teriyaki sauce livens up proceedings.
The most avant-garde dish we try is a covey of quail comprising a deep-fried potato cake that looks like a greasy bombolone but is starchy inside and veined with quail meat. Beside it is a more-ishly moist breast seasoned with star anise, peppercorns and soy. A soft-boiled egg sliced in half reveals a golden heart.
I hadn’t realised I was a fan of savoury custard until I tried the chawan mushi, Akachochin’s signature egg custard filled with prawn, crab, scallop, chicken and pleasantly chewy gingko nut. It is artfully presented, the surface decorated by a star carved into the back of a shiitake mushroom. Delicate shavings of lemon zest balance the
Asian dessert is so often an oxymoron but here they even manage to turn something as unappetising as sweet potato brulée into a triumph. The vegetable’s strongest contribution is texture, not taste, resulting in a dense, creamy mash of a pudding that’s sweet with caramel from the brulée (really more a spun-sugar coating than a cracking crust).
By the time we finish we are the last ones in the house. The other diners have all plunged back into the retail purgatory of DFO or, more wisely, scuttled home out of the elements. But it’s a pity there aren’t more people around. Akachochin deserves a broader audience.
33 Dukes Walk, South Wharf
Cuisine \ Japanese
Chef \ Kengo Hiromatsu
Hip pocket \ $60-$70 a head should do it. Sake extra
Open \ Tues-Sun noon-4pm, dinner from 6pm
Highlights \ Smart and sassy mod-Japanese food
Lowlights \ The location
Bookings \ Hai
Phone \ 9245 9900
The Verdict \ 6.5/10