IMAGES DARRIAN TRAYNOR
When we were on our way to review a neighbouring restaurant late last year, he worked hard to gain our custom, standing out front of this modern Japanese restaurant and bar, touting for business in Lygon Street fashion.
His method was to spruik the venue’s popularity on a well-known dining website. I remembered my promise to return and note that, six months later, Machi still has a 95 per cent approval rate on that site.
This location was a considered move by chef and owner Tatsuya Yamazaki, who travelled from Tokyo to Barcelona and London, then spent three-plus years at Aya in Armadale and a further two at Chocolate Buddha in Federation Square before opening his own restaurant.
He says he sold his Port Melbourne restaurant, Moshi Moshi, after four years to take on, with partner Larni Bishop, “a more competitive area”. The neighbourhood includes Karen Martini’s Mr Wolf and chef Paul Wilson’s Californian-influenced Newmarket Hotel, owned by the Melbourne Pub Group. But it also boasts oodles of new apartment dwellers, who cannot live on pizza and Hispanic-inspired food alone.
I could survive, however, for a long time without boredom and in rudely excellent health by feasting daily on a menu that includes traditional Japanese dishes and imaginative mod Oz creations. The chef offers some cultural classics, but his international influences show in many ingredient combinations.
Sesame yellowfin tuna takaki
The texture alone of Yamazaki’s pork gyoza is not only superior to many around town; the delicate meat is excellent and there could be no possible harm in consuming these plump flavoursome parcels daily. Same goes for nasu dengaku (eggplant in miso sauce) – it’s a vegetable after all – and Yamazaki’s team chars it gently, scores its flesh and bathes it in an intense, grainy layer of luscious, dark sauce. It’s almost a meal in itself.
Yellowfin tuna tataki – lightly seared, finely sliced pieces of superb flesh ringed with sesame seeds and served on a handmade dark ceramic dish – is one of the chef’s nods to tradition. The lightly marinated pieces of fish are carefully placed along the oblong dish and served with a terrific ponzu; a thick, glossy sauce made of soy, vinegar, citrus infusions and pickled onion. It’s scattered with hair-fine slices of spring onion prepared by the trio of intense chefs working in the open kitchen.
Baked scallops, still attached to their shells and treated to a dressing of creamy aïoli peppered with chilli and garlic, are the chef’s own invention. The foursome arrives on a patterned glass plate, each mollusc coated in a generous layer of the golden sauce that has been baked to a cheesy consistency and topped with a whisper of tiny, smoky tobiko. This dish is a fabulous balance of creaminess, texture and spice, enhanced further by the delicate crunch of the Japanese fish roe.
Black sesame ice-cream sundae
There’s a “machi maki” list that includes some great-looking rolls and sushi that passed by us. Next time. Service varies, but is relatively formal and unfalteringly efficient. Some staff seem to speak little English; others fill the gaps. When we are told chocolate pudding is the best dessert, by one of the former, we don’t get the message it is one of the chef’s fusion dishes. The pudding is infused with green tea and served with black sesame and green-tea ice-cream. Next time.
Not that we were disappointed with the kurogoma ice-cream sundae, which arrived in a tall glass vase, atop a rich, red-bean custard, dressed with a house-made wafer, strawberries and a scattering of icing sugar.
It’s not hard to see that this six-month-old restaurant will hold its own despite the competition.
14 Inkerman Street, St Kilda
Chef Owner Tatsuya Yamazaki
Prices Small dishes $6-$22; large dishes $24-28; desserts $9-$16
Open Tuesday to Sunday 5.30pm to late
Phone 9534 5000
The verdict Somewhere special
Low ceilings, modern black furniture, polished grey floors and subtle lighting create an austere backdrop to the vividly lit kitchen at this L-shaped diner. Uniformed chefs with impassive faces move with studied precision under its clinical fluorescent lights. There’s seating around the bar, with a close-up view of the action and closely spaced tables that wrap around the walls. Sci-fi artwork adds interest, as does a black “fence” along the front window; it acts as a privacy screen and brings in splashes of red in outdoor umbrellas that pick up feature walls and light shades.