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Where To Find Melbourne Japanese Food?

Japanese food can satisfy any craving. As an example, karaage chicken can be as mild as a side dish or as robust as a main course.

Sushi and ramen joints sit alongside izakaya and sake bars in Melbourne's extensive food scene. Our guide to Melbourne's finest Japanese restaurants in 2021 has something for every kind of diner, from those on a tight budget to those looking for a truly memorable fine dining experience.

Is it a celebration meal or a lunch on the cheap you're after? Are you in the mood for some light fare and drinks at an izakaya, or would you prefer a multi-course meal that exemplifies the refined simplicity of Japanese cuisine? We've compiled a list of the city's finest Japanese dining options to suit any taste or budget.

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Top Japanese Foods In Melbourne

The unrivalled quality of Japanese cuisine ensures that it will never become a fad in Melbourne. Even so, it's a plus in the colder months when noodle soups and ramen are prefered, and in the warmer months when sushi and sashimi are the only things you can think about eating.

These restaurants are the best in the city for Japanese cuisine. So, whether you're looking for a cosy inn café or a place to rub elbows with the A-list at one of Melbourne's many excellent Japanese restaurants, you've come to the right place.

Minamishima

Picking Melbourne’s best Japanese restaurant is no walk in the park. At least half a dozen restaurants could lay claim to the title. But in 2021, this one is still rightly deserving of a spot at the top. Minamishima in Richmond serves the omakase of Chef Koichi Minamishima. 

He’s got 30 years of experience in preparing A-grade sashimi. You get one piece at a time, made lovingly with incredible attention to detail. We don’t throw around terms like ‘Melbourne’s best sushi’ lightly, but we’re doing it here.

And it’s right here, hiding shyly on a quiet, mostly residential street in Richmond. Talk about hiding a light under a bushel. Not even so much as a press release when former Kenzan sushi master Koichi Minamishima opened in October.

It’s been a two-year labour of love, says Minamishima’s veteran sommelier Randolph Cheung (Azalea, Flower Drum). They wanted to get it right. And how. It seems strange to talk about fireworks in a restaurant so elegant, mannered and meticulous.

 Minamishima is a world away from the sound and fury of so many modern restaurants. The soundtrack is jaunty if unobtrusive jazz piano. The service is impeccable. Cheung couldn’t be any smoother if he were on rollerskates. His sake matches are inspired.

Such things do not come cheap. It’s $150 for the 15-course omakase selection, which puts you in the hands of Minamishima and his offsider Hajime Horiguchi, formerly of Noosa-notable Wasabi. No choice, just whatever they’ve selected from the market. You get what you get, but you definitely won’t get upset. It starts with a palate-cleanser of smoked and pickled vegetables and then romps through 14 pieces of nigiri sushi: all seafood, all exquisite.

It’s said good sushi is all about the rice (and the rice at Minamishima is indeed perfect in temperature and form), but it’s the proteins that will leave you gasping. First, you’ll try two types of toro (tuna belly): one like raw prime beef, the next seared and almost like foie gras in its richness. Then there’s the buttery flounder fin – all slippery, textural bite – and some incredible, delicately scored calamari, which brings to mind clouds that have been turned into noodles. 

There’s scampi with a little burst of finger lime and funny, frilled Japanese cockles. Then, there’s the smoky umami blast of lightly torched sea perch with uni (sea urchin) and spring onion. The penultimate course is a finely minced puck of calamari in a fragrant fish broth, which soothes the way towards dessert.

So Japanese desserts aren’t your bag? The yuzu granita on a sake jelly moulded to the bowl, so it comes away with a satisfying squelch, might change your mind. It’s a bracing, citrus-sweet and the bad thing that gives the meal a worthy finale.

It’s a serene fit-out, all crisp cabinetry and perfectly aligned edges, with a lit grooved stone wall backgrounding the chefs and subtly nudging them centre-stage. You’ll want one of the 12 seats along the counter, all the better to watch the knife skills and quick-draw rice work, although if you choose a seat in the dining room, a handful of non-sushi hot dishes open up.

 Next time. Most people will file Minamishima under ‘special occasion’. Make sure you also flag the file ‘worth it.

Ishizuka

If you’ve got a bit of a penchant for the finer things in life, look no further than Ishizuka. This is one fancy restaurant with food that backs it up. The menu changes seasonally and daily with eleven unbeatable dishes with a revolving nightly set menu. 

And here’s the kicker: they only serve sixteen diners each evening. So, book ahead if you’re planning to get in 2021—spots fill up weeks in advance. 

Ishizuka is a new Japanese restaurant specialising in a kaiseki menu. It’s also a rabbit hole, both quasi-literally (the ordeal of finding it through a nondescript door, along an arcade, down a level via a keypad and elevator and through another nondescript door, can feel a little daunting, which is probably the point) and figuratively, thanks to chef Tomotaka Ishizuka performing the food equivalent of needlepoint. It’s certainly no wham-bam izakaya. No rousing chorus of “irasshaimase!” greets each diner as they enter, slightly discombobulated after the elevator and keypad ordeal. 

In a commitment-phobic world, it almost requires a session with a therapist to sign up for a 10-plus-course, two-plus-hour procession of miniaturised dishes for $220 a head, sans drinks. But Ishizuka is worth the time, expense, and trouble of finding it.

The room lurking underneath Bourke Street is haunting in its sparseness. Concrete columns are roughly textured to resemble tree trunks. Fake foliage hangs overhead—a hot air balloon-sized, white fabric lantern sections off a bar area like a beautiful hallucination. Chef Ishizuka, who perfected his craft in Kyoto (home of the kaiseki) and most recently headed up Crown’s Japanese glamourpuss Koko, maintains a gentle quiet in his kitchen. 

His attitude is mirrored by the small team of white-jacketed Japanese waiters who discuss the differing properties of saké with a sincerity bordering on reverence.

The comparisons with Minamishima are flying around the inhabitants of the 16 seats around the kitchen. To a point, yeah... but Nah. 

Australians have embraced sushi with the enthusiasm of Captain Ahab, but this is different. A kaiseki meal is a Japanese riposte to French gastronomy: a multi-course journey saturated in technique, peppered with luxe ingredients and served with the kind of ceremony that would satisfy any inhabitant of the Chrysanthemum Throne. 

Of course, sushi and sashimi will play their part, but so, then, will something simmered, something grilled, something rice-based, something pickled, something soup.

A ceremonial bowl of sweet, stomach-warming ginger tea signals kick-off before the first of many teeny-tiny things composed with an artist’s eye for detail and served on a covetable parade of Kyoto-made crockery. There’s a creamy puck of edamame tofu with sweet tendrils of scampi, a spoonful of real caviar and a dab of wasabi that packs plenty of flavour punch into its small dimensions.

 A glass tray of exquisitely formed little things, like savoury petit four, include cream cheese-centred smoked salmon orbs imitating cherries, complete with fake stalks, that gives a moment’s Godzilla complex about destroying something so pretty.

The soup course sees crayfish pitching its native sweetness against the gentle umami and herbal hooks of a yuzu-spiked dashi broth dotted with the gelatinous, tadpole-like water vegetable known as junsai. Simmered duck breast in a viscous slick hovering somewhere between soup and sauce and served with meticulously turned vegetables and star-shaped blobs of gluten (it’s a textural thing, apparently) goes furthest down the rabbit hole for Western palates.

 Perhaps it’s merely confirmation bias that the sushi and sashimi courses are the standouts. Snapper sashimi with a burst of bottarga powder and wasabi stem is one-bite transcendence; so is the pale toro sushi and nine-score wagyu, scored and just-scorched to release the buttery fats into a rich palate-coating flood.

The Japanese have a word, betsubara - literally “extra stomach” – for the feeling of suddenly discovering you’re still hungry when dessert comes out. Whether this will apply to Ishizuka’s kuzu nankin relies upon a visceral response to a rather scholarly presentation of a red bean centre lurking inside a glossy, yolk-like pumpkin hood. Maybe. Maybe not.

 But for every course receiving a pattering of light applause, another is getting the full roar (like that wagyu, for instance, and word to the wise, Chef Ishizuka doesn’t mind if you order another). So sit back and enjoy the beauty, the sheer, time-consuming pride of the kaiseki process, and open the door to a new world of culinary possibility.  

Kisumé

kisumé

Kisume, which literally translates to "a pure obsession with beauty," is an apt name for this stunning location. There's a sushi restaurant on the ground floor, a bar/omakase area on the second, and a hot kitchen in the basement.

The staff is just as outstanding; led by chef Yonge Kim, they know everything there is to know about sushi and sake.

Izakaya Den

Gyoza is iconically Japanese, and Izakaya Den does it best. The restaurant is not only aesthetically pleasing, with its chic wooden bar, open grill and concrete floors, but it offers a treat for your tastebuds, with an incredible range of traditional offerings like grilled octopus, agedashi tofu and salted edamame. 

There’s also a new vegan menu for those less into the fish dishes. We suggest booking ahead—this place gets pretty rammed on Friday and Saturday nights. 

Bincho Boss

It’s probably one of the worst-kept secrets in the Melbourne dining scene, but chef and (former) owner Tomotaka Ishizuka left Ishizuka right after it was awarded two hats for the 2019 Good Food Guide. Ishizuka walked away from his 16-seater, hidden kaiseki (degustation) restaurant commanding $235 ahead. Instead, he moved up the street to a narrow, neon-filled shop front and opened an izakaya with food revolving around the bincho tan- a grill fuelled by premium, dense Japanese charcoal. 

As with most izakayas, the aim of the game at Bincho Boss is to drink and soak up all the drinks with outrageously delicious booze-friendly snacks. Seating is all at bar height and on stools, even when you’re not at the bar, so feel free to put elbows on tables, eat with your fingers and double-park your drinks. 

Classic cocktails receive Japanese flourishes like the Mandarin Sakegroni, a citrus-inflected Negroni with the addition of sake and none of the bitterness, or the Matcha Highball, which combines cinnamon whisky with regular whisky, green tea and soda to make a sweet, bitter and fiery Highball. High-quality junmai and junmai daiginjo sake (premium sake made from rice polished down to 60% and 50% its size, respectively) come in single serves, 300mL pours or 720mL bottles, destined for lone, couple or group drinking. 

You can decide which sizes suit your needs; we don’t judge. Wines are a concise and considered collection, celebrating conventional and newer styles of Australian winemaking, sitting around the $70 sweet spot to not break the bank. Oh, and Asahi and Asahi Black are on tap, meaning anyone indulging in the fried section of the menu (everyone) has a frosty, 400mL handle in front of them. Who are we to buck the trend?

Speaking of fried things, Bincho Boss gives expert examples of tako (octopus) karaage 

where the bitey nuggets of tentacles are outstandingly crisp, even after the necessary squeeze of lemon. Likewise, the deep-fried Japanese fish cake is unashamedly trashy but tasty, stuffing tubes of chikuwa fish cake with cheese before frying and seasoning with seaweed, resulting in an additive snack we’re almost embarrassed to admit that we couldn’t stop eating. 

On the more elegant spectrum, chilled, house-made tofu comes set in a shallow bowl, topped with grated ginger, chives and Yarra Valley salmon roe, where the naturally sweet soybean base is tickled by hints of heat, salt and crunch to make you rethink everything you ever thought you knew about tofu. 

The ubiquitous and often abused chawanmushi (steamed egg custard) is equally delightful, scented with bonito and wobbling like the most delicate panna cotta, studded with chicken, prawn, shimeji mushrooms and okra. Salmon sashimi comes in six- and 15-slice servings and is a mix of fillet and fatty belly meat, accompanied by real wasabi (rather than that dyed mustard and horseradish concoction out of a tube) and pickled fennel. 

Chilled duck might not sound appetising, but Ishizuka’s blush-pink, lightly smoked slices of breast sitting on top of a dollop of intense, sweet miso, punctuated by mustard and the sharpness of sorrel, will be filed in the ‘Dishes You Come Back For’ folder in your brain. 

If you must have a salad, make it the whitefish salad, which on this occasion is slices of raw kingfish nestled between lengths okra cooked just enough to preserve its crunch rather than release its slime, blanched Brussels sprout leaves and a fan of deliberately unripe tomato, under ceremonious, table-side flooding of sweet Japanese mustard dressing. 

And what of the bincho tan? The main event. Well, if you have the stomach for it, eat it all. $15.50 for five grill-kissed Hokkaido scallops cooked rare and doused in garlic butter with King Brown mushrooms is both a bargain and a treat, even if the carbon footprint gods are crying. 

The eight score Wagyu porterhouse arrives at the table under a salt crust, requiring the waitstaff to release its fatty bovine delights with a mallet and a few chopstick gymnastics to reveal pre-sliced, charcoal-cooked steak, which is, after all the theatrics, a touch overdone and finished off with a soy, garlic and butter sauce. However, suppose you’re a fan of meat on sticks. In that case, the turkey meatball is Ishizuka’s take on tsukune (traditionally a chicken meatball): soft, fluffy and studded with black pepper and leek teriyaki glazed with hints of bincho-tan caramelisation. 

Bincho Boss is a deviation from the revelatory kaiseki dishes Ishizuka is known for. Still, Melbourne’s izakaya is miles above what we know, and booze is kept at relatively cheery prices. So strap in, order up, get rowdy and prepare yourselves for the inevitable hangover in the morning.

Ikkoryu Fukuoka Ramen

Established in 1970, this ramen chain has gone global, including in Melbourne. Australia’s first Ikkoryu Fukuoka Ramen is the perfect place to get a bowl of Japanese noodle soup just how you like it. 

There are oodles of options, including several types of broth, noodle textures, extra toppings, and even vegetarian and vegan versions. You can even bring the kids long for the adorable five-dollar lunch special!

Yakimono

If you like your Japanese grilled to perfection, then you’re going to love this new restaurant specialising in all things fire. Opened in the back end of 2021, Yakimono is the brainchild of owner Chris Lucas, who spent three years living and working in Japan and exploring their late-night izakaya bars. 

Located over two floors with an outdoor terrace, this Japanese eatery is nestled in the heart of Melbourne’s fashion district and certainly packs a stylish punch—food and decor alike. 

Robata Japanese Grill

The San Telmo Group are stepping into Japanese territory for the first time with their new venture, Robata Japanese Grill. 

From the end of Melbourne’s lockdown, they’ll offer two set menu options for dinner and one for lunch, featuring fresh sashimi, grilled skewer-based dishes, pork katsu, wagyu beef, pork belly and plenty more. As for drinks, we’re keen to try their toasted sesame whisky highball.

Don Don Japanese Restaurant

Specialising in simple rice and noodle dishes, Don Don Japanese Restaurant is a top option for quick, nicely priced meals. Maybe a tofu, chicken or beef Japanese-style curry, or soup with udon or soba noodles. 

Spend loose change, leave with tight pants (still on the lookout for the two guys called Don).

Izakaya Chuji Japanese Restaurant

It opened in 1989 when few Melburnians knew that izakayas are Japanese bars where drinks and food are enjoyed in equal measure. Izakaya Chuji Japanese Restaurant hasn’t changed much since then (the major exception being the addition of sister bar Nihonshu next door). 

Whether you want some quick noodles or lots of bites to share, it’s tried and true, from sashimi to Japanese-style chicken wings.

Supernormal

Supernormal is Andrew McConnell’s crown jewel and home to Melbourne’s most famous lobster roll. Although, of course, the Supernormal menu is changing all the time. Still, it’s always designed to be shared, so grab a couple of mates (or that date you’re trying to impress) and get yourselves a serve of duck bao, a whole snapper with burnt butter sauce, wild watercress and shaved kombu, some beef tartare, and whatever else you can fit in.

Affordably fancy

A brand new addition to Elgin Street, Ima Project does things differently. From their ‘ugly vegetable’ mascots to the sustainable chopsticks, this little Japanese spot in Carlton is unlike any other. 

Head in for a delicious Japanese style breakfast – featuring fish, pickled veg and miso soup – or opt for indulgence with their signature fried chicken, kimchi and soft boiled egg bowl.

Kazuki’s

Dateline: Lygon Street. Toto’s Pizza House is just to the south; Universal Café is just to the north. So we’re in the Italian heartland where spruikers induce passers-by into their red sauce fiefdoms. And into this kingdom of carbs and cheese comes Kazuki’s. Yes, the Japanese-ish, French-ish modern restaurant from Daylesford has swum against the tide of real estate refugees moving to central Victoria and upped stumps to the city.

So what would induce two successful restaurateurs such as Kazuki and Saori Tsuya to reopen in the big smoke after seven years in the country? (Incidentally, there’s still reason to seek them out at the Daylesford address, now a more casual Japanese diner called Sakana). Luckily our task at hand is not to enter the fevered minds of those folk but to judge their actions. And the augurs for Kazuki’s – and indeed for Lygon Street itself - are good.

It’s an evolution of the Daylesford mothership in every regard. A startlingly zen-like fit-out courtesy of the Design Office has banished every layer of surplus detail. The grey-blue walls are boldly bare. The soft yellow-gold carpet is blissfully sound-quashing. Two supersized paper lanterns, one of the few decorative flourishes allowed, adroitly carry the Japanesque theme, as does the parade of wabi-sabi (perfectly imperfect) ceramics.

The aesthetics are just as keenly realised on those plates. Kazuki-san remains executive chef but has stepped onto the floor, mostly leaving kitchen duties to head chef Anthony Hammel, whose mentee status to Mark Best can be seen in the precise approach to the food. A “make everything count” ethos means even two-leaf chicory garnish to a nicely gamey slice of aged duck breast with shiitakes, radicchio and black garlic is there for its bitterness and not just its pretty red-stemmed green flourish.

There are two ways to tackle Kazuki’s, starting at the option of five courses for $130 per person and heading northwards to the menu of seven courses for $160. Our advice: go to the five-course menu, if only to confiscate the four snacks as the first course. Your quartet might comprise meaty little Goolwa pipis on the shell, a mouthful of ocean heft with a ginger and soy backing track. 

A fat profiterole filled with the holy union of chicken liver parfait and thick Davidson plum and umeshu jam gets an extra sweet/sour edge from the plum dust sprinkled like icing sugar over the top. Think of your favourite French starter running headlong into a doughnut from Queen Vic Market, and you’re halfway there. A thin nori crisp is topped with a creamy line of taramasalata and salmon roe soaked in sake for extra alcohol-popping roundness. The only duff note in a winning snack salvo is the underplayed salt in the house furikake that covers bouncy little duck hearts grilled on the hibachi.

Even salmon – yes, boring old salmon – justifies its place at this table thanks to the velvety swatches of lightly kombu-cured NZ King Ora getting its semi-salad on with pomelo, radish and cucumber. The skin is fried into crisps, a handy vehicle for ferrying everything from plate to mouth. 

A bit is going on – whispers of ginger oil, buttermilk dressing, lime zest – without really going from exceptionally pleasant to transcendent. But that duck? Killer, thanks to the bold gaminess from being hung for seven days in the Kazuki’s coolroom meeting its bitter match in radicchio puree and black garlic powder. As for a Skull Island tiger prawn, the shellfish supermodel of the Northern Territory is grilled on the hibachi with a shio koji glaze for subtle umami factor then doused in sake beurre blanc dotted with salty flecks of avruga.

Go the booze matching, if only to cut down on oceans of choice across 19 extravagant pages with their heart in Victoria and hands wandering across the globe. A yuzu sake served with dessert – a yuzu curd/ANZAC biscuit/mango/yoghurt ice-cream reconstructed number – is remarkably like limoncello. 

That isn’t enough to prevent a little culture shock when you step from this rarified little island of zen out to the pastoral Lygon scenes of people sitting under plastic awnings eating pizza off metal trays.

Hihou

To make the most of your time in Hihou, put on your nicest pair of socks. There is a sultry sake den on the second floor, accessible via a hidden entrance on Flinders Lane not far from the intersection of Spring Street. In the front room, where there are padded bar stools and tiny, shrunken tables for two and a leafy view over Treasury Gardens, you can dine with your gear on. However, if you have reserved a table in the elegantly carpeted upper dining room, you will be required to remove your shoes before squeezing under one of the low-set tables.

The risk of toe-exposure is worth it for the exceptional Japanese cuisine at Hihou because it was founded by Simon Denton and the team behind Kappo (Time Out's 2015 Restaurant of the Year) and Izakaya Den. The Hihou hot dog is a must-have; it's a smoked arabiki pork sausage on a sesame-dusted bun with sharp pickled onions and bottles of wasabi mayo and tonkatsu (barbeque sauce) for dipping. Another popular item is the "Cuban" spicy tuna cigar, which is a cylinder of crisp brik pastry stuffed with a fine dice of tuna sashimi and seven-flavoured shichimi pepper.

Black rice and the crisp, cooling cucumber are rolled up with some teriyaki-sweet anago (eel) and served in nori. Beer is complemented wonderfully by golden lotus root chips.

You could easily make a meal out of these bite-sized snacks, but you might as well sample some of the entrée options while you're at it.

Try the swordfish sashimi with a splash of citrusy ponzu, or stuff slices of pork belly or duck breast into hearty buckwheat crêpes. Premium Japanese whiskies and sake are the featured libations, the former served over hand-chipped ice and the latter in highly desirable ceramic ware.

Even the cocktails, which may include such Japanese ingredients as yuzu citrous, umeshu (plum wine), and shochu (grain spirit), are treated with due reverence and are meticulously mixed in laboratory beakers with stirrers and fine Riedel glasses. It's classy rather than rowdy, and that's to Melbourne's benefit.

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Akachochin

South Wharf’s modern izakaya serves delicious little Japanese dishes perfect for nibbling with drinks by the water as the sun goes down. 

Team Akachochin is as serious about cocktails as they are about crab croquettes, with a refreshing selection inspired by Japan. They’re just $12 during the daily 3-6 pm happy hour. Another good deal that will see you living it up for less than expected is the $66 six-course meal. Kanpai!

FAQs About Japanese Food In Melbourne

From elegant sushi bars to izakayas, Melbourne has it all. Of course, Japanese food will never be a trend in Melbourne, thanks to its deliciousness. However, it is desirable in winter when noodle soups and ramen are the order of the day and in summer, when sushi and sashimi are all you want to eat.

Sydney and Melbourne – the home of MasterChef Australia – provide several options for eating out, from fast-food restaurants to high-end establishments. An average basic meal can cost anywhere between AUD 15 and 20. However, a good meal at a nice restaurant will cost at least AUD 40, while a McDonald’s value meal will cost between AUD 8 and 11.

Sushi Hotaru Up the escalators in MidCity Centre is Sushi Hotaru, a not-so-well-kept Melbourne secret for sushi lovers on a budget. There’s almost always a line, but it moves quickly; the average wait time is about 20 minutes. Once you get inside, it’s clear why.

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