When a mixed entrée of sushi and sashimi arrives at our table, the waitress smiles as if I’m about to discover a great secret. “Please enjoy,” she almost whispers before silently disappearing back through the kitchen door.
Before me, strips of vibrant salmon and glistening tuna sashimi rest softly on one another alongside two varieties of maki-sushi (California rolls). It’s all so artistically arranged with swirls of wasabi, bamboo mats, and decorative green leaves, that I pause before thrusting my chopsticks forth to dismantle the pretty picture.
It doesn’t take long to understand why the waitress was smiling. The sashimi is brilliant. A dab of fiery wasabi pinched between chopstick and tuna causes moments of heat against the delicate butter-soft meat.
The salmon is equally elegant, its richness pared back when coupled with ribbons of pickled ginger. The sushi doesn’t disappoint. The rice is light and sticky and each of the six slices is filled with salmon, cucumber and avocado. Tiny beads of flying-fish roe cover half the sushi like a blanket and burst with the flavours of the sea. The other half have been rolled through a salty crushed mix of roasted seaweed, sesame, and rice crackers that deliver a fantastic crunch.
I later discover that Oishii chef Jo Hum is a sushi and sashimi master. Trained by a Japanese master in Hokkaido Sapporo, he has honed his skills in Singapore, New York, and Melbourne. When this site (formerly Riviera on Yarra) in Geelong became available last year, owners Ellen Li and Eric Han headhunted Hum from Melbourne (previously at Shoya) to lead their team.
It was a good call. Hum’s dishes are confidently executed and his strict training has resulted in uncompromising quality and precision.
The menu presents a dizzying choice. For those undecided, there are four banquet options with a solid selection of Japanese favourites. Upstairs at night, food is married with theatre and Hum’s second speciality – teppanyaki. I imagine it would be fun but this time we’ve opted for the dressed-up downstairs option, where waitresses whizz plates of tempura and wasabi beef to the dining room’s many tables.
Sake is the centrepiece of the wine list and there are a dozen on offer. Descriptors under each image help navigate but a good starting point is the house sake that’s served chilled or warm by the jar. It’s a great match with tataki beef. A dish of thinly sliced beef that’s been lightly seared, topped with white and spring onions, and doused in a zingy citrus, soy and miso sauce. The waitress encourages me to tip the accompanying raw quail egg onto the dish and I’m surprised at the resulting creamy finish.
Six plump gyoza impress almost as much. The dumpling skins, while golden on one side and translucent on the other, could have benefited from one more roll of the pin to thin out the skin. But the pork mince inside is wonderfully heady with ginger, garlic and chives.
The mixed tempura was spot on. The thin coating of batter snaps under the slightest pressure and gives way to juicy eggplant, zucchini, sweet potato and meaty prawn centres. The secret to Hum’s terrific tempura he tells me – aside from technique and timing – is that he changes the frying oil daily and uses a small single-batch fryer.
He uses the same fryer for the soft-shelled crabs that arrive next, but they don’t match the tempura standard. The batter is thick and rich and clings roughly to the crab, overpowering the meat.
I’ve had my eye on a 180-gram eye fillet topped with wasabi mash, which is being ordered around me at an alarming rate, but I’ve had my quota. I return for lunch instead and a bowl of Japanese soul food – ramen.
The base is an unapologetically rich pork stock that Hum boils overnight. Sweetcorn, fried pork, sautéed greens, half a boiled egg and seaweed are placed atop the broth and a tangle of soft egg noodles. I love it.
I have a bit of a crush on Oishii Japan, too. Eat this Oishii Japan – Japanese Restaurant and Teppanyaki Bar, 73 Yarra Street, Geelong Cuisine
Jo Hum Owners
Ellen Li and Eric Han Prices
Entrée $6-$18; main $16-$28; dessert $5-$14 Open
Daily, noon-10pm Phone
5223 2808 The verdict
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At night when the open fireplace clicks into action, a soft glow lights crisp linen-dressed tables and padded high-backed chairs to give Oishii Japan a polished air. The long dining space has dark tiles, dim lighting, carpet and embossed walls, and the room is separated by woven hanging dividers. By day, robust wooden tables, rows of elegant sake bottles lined up along the central bar, and the flittering of red flags around the rectangular kitchen window bring a playful edge to the space. Upstairs at night, a teppanyaki bar fires up, along with theatrics.