This area, south of Jeffs Shed and past the Polly Woodside, has been zhoozhed up recently, its heritage sheds converted into what the developers hope will become Melbournes new destination dining hub. All the precincts promotional material shows the site in full sunshine, but its rather less appealing when bathed in Melbourne grey.
The bones of the riverfront eating houses are old-school, the fit-outs are funky and theres 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, whos worked with Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc.
There is also Kengo Hiromatsu, formerly head sushi chef at Nobu. Hes now running the show at Akachochin, our izakaya-style lunch spot created by veteran restaurateur Paul Mathis (ex-Taxi).
Akachochins 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. Im 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 Akachochins 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 didnt mention the aluminium-foil insulation on the roof that, for me, makes the place feel temporary, like a demountable classroom.
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 theres 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. Well 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 youd 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 hadnt realised I was a fan of savoury custard until I tried the chawan mushi, Akachochins 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 vegetables strongest contribution is texture, not taste, resulting in a dense, creamy mash of a pudding thats 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 its a pity there arent more people around. Akachochin deserves a broader audience.
33 Dukes Walk, South WharfCuisine 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