The Saké kitchen: From within, there's a passion for precision.
The burning question this week is, since when did Melbourne become a third-fiddle food city, after Sydney and Brisbane? It’s a question raised by the belated arrival Yarra-side of Shaun Presland’s mod-Japanese franchise Saké, which debuted in Sydney in 2009, then branched out to Brisbane and, about a month ago, finally opened its doors at the revamped Hamer Hall.
Presland is a seriously good chef, a sushi master and devotee of Japanese culture who distinguished himself in Sydney by creating the harbour city’s finest raw bar at Sushi-e in The Establishment Hotel. He then did a stint at Nobu in The Bahamas (how nice) before signing on as executive chef at Saké and rolling out the concept along the eastern seaboard.
There’s more than a hint of Nobu here at Saké Melbourne, from the chorused “Irasshaimase!” on entry to déjà vu menu dishes such as kingfish jalapeño (cf. Nobu’s yellowtail), sashimi tacos and beef tataki with garlic chips. But even while Saké can sometimes feel like Nobu Melbourne Mark II, I much prefer the space here than the one down the river at the casino.
Set over two floors riverside at the concert hall, Saké’s sharp lines of polished concrete and glossy timbers are softened by cut orchids, kitchen shelving stacked with warm ceramics and a sculptural cherry tree festooned with bud-light blossoms.
We take our seats inside a slatted, izakaya-style booth, which is lower lit and more convivial than the tables on centre stage. From here we can’t see the tops of the CBD skyscrapers across the river, just a wall of glittering lights. It’s quite striking.
Another Nobu alumnus, Singaporean Rose Ang, is running the kitchen while Presland oversees the empire and she obviously shares his passion for precision in taste and plating. Even a simple bowl of edamame is a study in the freshest, greenest soybean pods, lightly dusted with sea salt.
They’re followed smartly by a sashimi of kingfish lightly cured in yuzu (citrus) soy, with the kick of jalapeño and the zing of coriander. It’s mouth-jinglingly good, but soon eclipsed by a plate of white soy snapper.
The diaphanous, pink-edged fish flesh is seasoned with yuzu and white soy, nutty sesame seeds and chopped chives, and there’s shredded daikon on top. With the exception of the daikon, which for me always has a slight smelly-sock aroma, each ingredient shines through bright and true. This is almost faultless fish.
Tonkatsu pork is a weak link in the line-up. Four nuggets of panko-crusted pork belly and spring onion sit in lettuce cups smeared with mustard miso and barbecue sauce. The minced pork texture is pappy and the sauces seem cloying after our elegant starters.
Grainfed wagyu teriyaki has a marble score of 7+ (I’m sure this means something to someone) but, more importantly, arrives lightly seared at the edges and shiny with sweet soy marinade. A bed of buckwheat, shiitake and soybeans amps up the savoury scale and does pleasant things texture-wise too. As with all the dishes, it comes on a beautiful glazed earthenware plate – like something out of Eltham circa 1975, when the hippies were at the height of their pottery powers.
There are more melting moments with the popcorn shrimp, a cute concept (again imported from Nobu) of prawn pieces delicately battered and then smothered in “creamy spicy dressing”, and in the salt-and-pepper Moreton Bay bug tails with bitey yuzu mayo.
It’s great drinking food, and Saké does an excellent line in drinks. The booze list features top-shelf spirits (hello Patrón Añejo) and a comforting selection of decent, mostly Australian wines. There’s even a saké sommelier who proves blindingly knowledgeable about the rice wine selection.
When we ask about a baked apple and pear-scented drop called Yuho junmai, he launches into a comprehensive report on its provenance. Yuho is a “beautiful little brewery” on the north-west coast, about four hours by train from Tokyo (the slow train, not the bullet train, he clarifies). And the toji or master brewer is a woman – one of only a handful in Japan – so the style is very floral and delicate. “So yeah, that’s a beautiful one to start with.” He’s like the Rain Man of saké.
If only all the staff were as sharp. The Sydney restaurant has had a hat since opening and it’s possible, if the service here shapes up to match the polish of the food and the setting, that Saké Melbourne could earn one too. Not that giving out hats is any of my business. Just saying.
Meanwhile, for sweets we pick something called bubblemilk tea, a bland muddle of tapioca, Chantilly cream and pistachio crumbs that will do nothing to dissuade Western palates that Japanese desserts, even contemporary ones, can be a bit average. You might be better off summoning Saké Guy for another shot of seishu.
SAKé RESTAURANT AND BAR
Hamer Hall, 100 St Kilda Road, Southbank
Cuisine \ Contemporary Japanese Chef \ Rose Ang
Hip pocket \ Bank on parting with $100 a head for a feast with wine and sake.
Open \ Daily noon-3pm, 5.30pm-late.
Bar open from noon daily.
Highlights \ Super food Lowlight \ Not-so-super staff
Bookings \ Yes Phone \ 8687 0775
We rate 7 out of 10