Tuck in the basement of an office building is one of the most obscure restaurant I have ever come across in Melbourne CBD. It is hard to find which makes it interesting. Like something out of Tokyo where every little space is used and not wasted. It is like a secret operative of an underground operation. The metallic artistic sign embedded into a silver flat metal beam flushed on a glass wall is so clever and smart that I mistaken it as part of an office building.
I am talking about “Den” or Izakaya Den – is a cool, hype and trendy Japanese restaurant and sake bar without any of the pompous attitude. It is far from a traditional Japanese restaurant serving fresh sushi and sashimi. Den’s focus is more on a small plate of tasty meal resembling Japan street food found in small eating places. The menu is small but creative and imaginative. The food is very good and down to earth. The drink list features a wide selection of sake, cocktails, spirit and wine.
There was four of us. We arrived there around 6:15 pm. We knew it is located at 114 Russel Street at the corner of Little Collins Street. Den can be easily missed if not for one of our friend’s sharp eyes. Walk through a pair of glass door. Still no visible indication of a restaurant. It was like entering into a foyer of an office. A few metres from us was a split black cloth hanging from the ceiling to the floor. We sense that must be it. With both hands, I gently pushed the middle part of the cloth to draw them apart. Behold in front of my eyes is a flight of steps leading down to a basement. That was so cool!
I love surprises – what will I see and find when I reached the bottom of the stairs? Each step I made, the sound and music grew louder. It was like entering into an underground nightclub. As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I looked towards my right. It opens up into a long, narrow passage with high exposed ceilings and over hanging aluminium ducting unit. It was dark and sexy.
There are three sections to the long room.
Immediately in front of us and towards the right was a long stretched cushion bench with blocks of small square table bolted to the polished concrete floor and loose hard wooden stools – for customers to lounge with a drink and snack while waiting for a table. The late comers most likely will sit here and eat, rather than waiting for the high table and stools. But, this seating was quite uncomfortable afer a prolong time.
The next section is ideal for those who loves to watch the staff and chefs in action. It was a long bar with several solid blocks of wooden bench wide enough for 3 people and evenly spaced by a foot between each of the solid bench. Behind the long bar counters are each workstations where the chef creates his / her dish. It is a systematic and well organised open kitchen making the hot, cold and grill dishes, desserts and cocktails and drinks.
The third section is ideal for those who must have a dining table. They are all high solid wooden tables with 4 high square wooden stools. We started our evening at Den in the casual lounge with drinks while waiting for a proper table for 4 of us. I would rather sit at the bar section, but our interstate visitors prefer a proper high table. For those who cannot sit long on a solid hard stool, you may want to bring your own seat cushion.
Den is definitely not for everybody. Those who prefer a nice, quiet place will find it hard to eat at Den. The same goes for those who prefer a soft and comfortable seat. But, if you are into good, unique and interesting Japanese food, Den is certainly the place to visit and a must. The service was excellent and there was free flowing water without us having to ask for a refill. This is very rare as most places like Den will be pushing the customer to buy more drinks.
I reserved the best part to last – the Food. We simply love it and kept ordering two to three meals at a time. We kept going and wanted to try more from the small menu. But we were getting full. Every single dish was well executed and delightfull in its own right. Each had its own flavour and texture.
We started with a glass of Sake Mojito each and Mussel “Saka-Mushi” ($15) to share while waiting for a table. The mussels were beautiful, fresh and tender. The broth, saka-mushi was subtle with a tint of sweetness and saltiness which made it obscenely delicious. I was enjoying them so much that I forgot to take a photo.
After an hour, we finally got a table. We ordered a bottle of Lucinda Pinot Noir and some cocktails, and moved on to one of the “Special” projected on the white wall – Tartare Tuna ($16) and selected another two from their menu, Den Fried Chicken ($11) and Zucchini Tempura ($7).
The tartare tuna was fresh and moist with a mild, nutty flavour of sesame oil. It was a nice cold dish that went well with one of Den’s most popular dish – fried chicken, and balanced by a slightly plain and mild flavoured zucchni tempura.
I have to say that Den’s fried chicken was one of the best I have ever tried. It was coated with the tastiest batter and deep fried without over drying the thigh meat. It was my favourite. Strange to say, but it was that good! On the other hand, the zucchini tempura by itself was bland. But accompanied by a generous dash of pickled ginger and a sprinkle of sea salt introduced another layer and depth to an otherwise bland vegetable.
We were so excited by the first four choices that we had to try something else. We selected another two from the A4 size one-page paper menu – Ox Tongue ($15) and Eggplant with Minced Chicken Chili Miso ($16) and two bowls of steamed rice ($3 / bowl).
My, oh my! They were both very good and delicious. Stronger in taste and flavour than the other three, and went well with a bit of steamed rice. The ox tongue came in thin slices, slightly chewy with a sweet and salty smoky flavour. The slices of steamed eggplant topped with minced chicken cooked in salted bean paste chili miso was a strong dish with lots of flavour and best accompanied with a bit of rice. It reminded me of a Taiwanese or Chinese homecooked comfort dish.
Determined to try something else as we saw them at a table behind us, we had to order the Sweet Corn Kaki-age ($8) – another of their home specialty, and Edamame and Prawn Crisp Roll ($12). We shoud have order these two small snacks when we were lounging with a glass of our PDD (Pre Dinner Drink). But, our interstate visitors may not get the chance to return to Den and they were keen to try them.
To end our Den’s culinary experience, we ended with a couple of desserts – Salted Caramel Fondue ($16) and Den’s Japanese Trifle ($16).
I am not sure why this dessert is called a trifle, which is different from what I know as a traditional English trifle containing sponge cake, jelly, custard and cream. Den’s trifle came with green tea mousse, ice cream, red bean mochi and dehydrated sticks of rhubarb.
Den is definitely on top of my list of favourite places to eat in Melbourne. It has all the right ingredients of a cool and happening place with good food.