The sashimi at Misuzu’s.
Phoenix analogies are always tempting when a business re-emerges from a destructive blaze. Misuzu’s was gutted by flames in December 2007. Cellophane (for effect) wrapped around a light fitting caught fire when the light was left unattended, causing damage of about $800,000.
The substantial renovations took two years and the family-owned restaurant reopened earlier this year. Misuzu’s, the restaurant, is on the beach end of Victoria Avenue, the takeaway kitchen is in the centre, beside Umami, the sake bar.
The entire package has been reborn bolder and brighter, with a freshness that belies its 16 years of operation. There’s recognition of the trend to the izakaya (ee-zah-KAH-yah), or Japanese tapas and pride in serving quality regional sakes.
The restaurant’s food, overseen by executive chef and owner Misuzu Kawano, continues to be a blend of traditional and boundary-pushing Japanese-style cuisine that’s suited to modest budgets and convivial times.
Its wine menu is compact and considered, mostly Australian, with a short list of quality regional sakes and Japanese beers that pay homage to the food. There’s a bit of “Aussie” influence in some dishes, strong use of seasonal ingredients and the occasional dabble with international favourites. Vegetarians are well catered for. A Malaysian seafood laksa is given a Japanese makeover with the use of silky udon noodles and generous offering of quality seafood. Its mellow coconut milk base contains a gentle bite of back-palate heat, without tongue-burning fire and it finishes fresh and light.
Outside: lanterns light the way.
More traditional entrees, such as the plump prawn and crab dumplings, the velvety dengaku (roasted eggplant swathed in rich, miso sauce) and the isobe age calamari (calamari in a roasted seaweed batter), are well executed and elegantly presented on handmade plates. The calamari is a textural, delicately flavoured experience, while the dengaku is bold and luxurious. A teriyaki duck, a daily special, however is a little dry, its sauce scant and thin and its vegetables uninspiring.
Desserts include a pleasant and refreshing, but definitely unsweet, green-tea ice-cream. Next door, at Umami (the Japanese word for the fifth taste, or savoriness), the evening menu runs from rice paper rolls or fried calamari and scallop cakes to marinated pork spare ribs and oven-baked mushrooms stuffed with vegetables. Lunch includes noodle soups, sashimi platters and finger food such as vegetable pancakes or sweet potato balls.
The décor is slightly more modern here, the lighting less intimate and the mood more suited to conversation over drinks – just the way an izakaya should be.
The Misuzu’s package is a complete experience. You won’t feel you’ve understood this Albert Park institution until you’ve tried each part of this self-styled village, set in a converted townhouse: the restaurant, the sake bar and the takeaway sushi kitchen. Service is pleasant, suited to each venue, the atmosphere is soothing and stylish and the Japanese-influenced fare is mostly fresh, bright and inspiring.
Misuzu's, 3-7 Victoria Avenue, Albert Park
Cuisine \ Japanese
Executive chef \ Misuzu Kawano
Head chef \ Hari Gurung
Prices \ Entrees $9-$15; mains $12-$30; desserts $9-$11
Open \ Tuesday-Sunday 6pm-late; Umami daily noon-10pm
Bookings \ 9699 9022
Misuzu’s is intimate, inviting and elegant. There’s a Japanese village feel that begins with coloured lanterns swinging from trees on the footpath and culminates indoors with soft lighting, burgundy and deep green tones surrounded by warm wood and traditional timber screens. Owners Warwick Lobb and Misuzu Kawano designed the moody, imaginative interior, using objects salvaged from warehouses or created to order by craftsmen. Leadlight windows, etched glass, mist-green walls and the graceful, curved counter evoke whimsy, while the vivid colours of fresh sushi and sashimi on offer at the bar illustrate commitment to quality food. There are three elements to the operation: Misuzu’s, the main restaurant; Umami, the sake bar; and the central takeaway kitchen. Efficient but seemingly unhurried staff bring the separate components to a unified whole.