Sushi and sashimi combo.
It’s easy to see the attraction of Ocha. Even though it can feel like an upmarket canteen, and even though we are seated beside the toilet, and even though we must have the coeliac menu because one of us (not me, mind) is gluten intolerant, the food is wonderful. And the energy of the place is unlike anywhere else in town.
The canteen vibe and the energy stem from the precision with which meals – and diners – are dispatched. Come 7.45, the 6pm sitting is billed and ushered out in readiness for the 8pm stampede, when it seems the entire eastern suburbs descend on Ocha’s slick new digs at the reborn Beehive Hotel. It’s like two tides – both high – sweep through the place each day.
There are twice as many tables here as at Ocha’s old home in Kew but they are still so over-subscribed that the reservations system works three months ahead. That is, you ring for a booking today and get one the following season. Extraordinary for a suburban restaurant.
Fans of the old Ocha will be more than pleased with the new. Out with the quaint wall hangings and retro fit-out; in with a sexy white cube, sheer, shimmery curtains and a bar area with six stools for extremely lucky walk-ins. Tables are clothed and papered beneath honeycomb wall sculptures that are, in fact, baffles (the waitress calls them "audio panels") to muffle the chatter that pings off floors and walls.
We let our waitress decide the menu. It seems simplest. The standard card is pages long, with a separate vegetarian menu and a wordy specials list – grilled eggplant with red miso topping, Tasmanian oysters with strawberry vinaigrette, grilled scampi with yuzu (Japanese citrus) sauce …. Yes, much better they decide.
The meal starts with a chef’s offering of green-tea soba noodles, julienned veg and sesame. As amuses bouches go, it’s faintly amusing but my bouche hankers for more.
It arrives in the form of another canapé, a "homemade" potato crisp with salmon, wasabi mayo, flying fish roe and desiccated nori dusted around the plate. It’s like swallowing a gulp of ocean with a potato chaser. They should name it Fish and Chip.
Our table beside the toilet (booked a month ago) turns out to be just fine. We are tucked away from the madding crowd and can get on with the thorough catch-up we had planned. Lubricated by a lovely Shaw and Smith M3 chardonnay, we tuck into flash-seared (tataki) porterhouse, sliced and fanned carpaccio-style and seasoned with ponzu dressing, a squeeze of lemon and wisps of Spanish onion. This staple of the Ocha repertoire sings all the right notes.
The restaurant is in full, manic swing now but the plates are sensibly spaced and each one is so impeccably presented we have to pause and admire chef’s artistry before tearing ruddy great holes in it.
Ebi dango, prawn dumplings crusted in Japanese rice flakes and served with green-tea salt, are a textural wow. They’re crunchy on the outside – like honey joys – but explode with juicy prawn meat. Sounds awful the way I describe it, but tastes terrific.
A black plastic platter laden with a sushi-sashimi combo is a study in the freshest, finest fish – tuna, salmon, kingfish, scallop, eel, snapper – all impeccably groomed and, barring the lightly seared salmon and kingfish, left to speak for itself. Diners can titivate to taste with lemon ponzu, ginger, wasabi, chilli radish, nasturtium petals and shiso leaves.
The plates keep coming. A wonderful barbecued beef, sliced over wasabi mash and steamed beans, with a soy reduction drizzled in Spirograph swirls around the plate. And pink, cushiony duck slathered in smoky teriyaki and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
We are as full as the restaurant by the time this last plate arrives but the duck pieces are so bite-sized and saucy, we keep forking more pieces in the mouth to savour those luscious flavours. And that’s precisely what Ocha is about – luscious flavours.
Ocha, 3 Church St, Hawthorn
Cuisine \ Modern Japanese
Chef \ Yasu Yoshida and Paula Lawdorn
Hip pocket \ About $75 a head, wine extra.
Open \ Tuesday to Friday noon-2.30; Tuesday to Saturday 6-10.30pm (sittings 6-7.45pm, then from 8pm)
Highlights \ The quality of ingredients, luscious flavours, the theatre.
Lowlights \ You have to book three months in advance.
Bookings \ Obligatory, on 9853 6002
Web \ www.ocha.com.au
We rate it 7.5 out of 10