The English language is a big fan of appropriating foreign words. It’s obvious with French, but Japanese is also a language for which loanwords are common.
One that has seen a bit of a usage increase is “izakaya”, a term decribing a Japanese-style bar that serves food to boot. A Japanese pub, essentially. In Japan, izakayas are frequent haunts of Japanese businessmen when they get off from a day at work.
And so it is here in Australia as well. One of Melbourne’s most famous examples of these Nippon staples is Izakaya Den. With an appropriate amount of hype surrounding the place, even by Melbourne standards, it was only a matter of time before a visit was due.
Date Last Visited: 29/11/13
Address: 114 Russell St Melbourne, VIC 3000
Recommended Dish(es): egg rolls, spicy tuna tataki, cone bay barramundi, miso pound cake
By implicit definition, a “den” is probably not the first place you see when you look down a street. Izakaya Den really takes this to the next level. Suffice it to say, we attempted to find the place for ourselves for nearly 10 minutes. That was embarrasing! The key, it turns out, was to look for the faux-Braille in the picture above.
There is no other external indication that Izakaya Den exists, other than that. Don’t miss it.
I’m not sure about the floor plan, but given that it is underground, the layout could be odder. A long rectangle was not quite what I expected, but it does resemble a classic izakaya – the bar is where all the action is.
Specials are displayed on a projected screen, which is pretty useful, and presumably saves paper. Though how would people at the other end know?
Menus are presented as scrolls, and fortunately, the selection isn’t ridiculous, being confined only to one page. I’m always a fan of smaller, more refined menus. 10 pages is only impressive if all of it can be executed with finesse. That’s almost never the case.
Egg rolls: a Japanese stalwart dish. Is it a sweet or savoury dish? That’s the beauty of a good egg roll. That, and a killer, moist-but-not-gooey texture.
Izakaya Den’s egg rolls succeed on my simple criteria: do I want to eat another 5? Yes.
I’m getting to it a bit early, but the spicy tuna tataki is assuredly the best dish I’ve tried on this visit. It’s spicy tuna, after all. Do it right, and it’s delicious. Izakaya Den does it oh so right – the tuna is at a good temperature (close to room), the spicy seasoning leaves you craving for more, while the tuna’s natural texture takes care of the rest. Aww yeah, this is sweet.
The second dish being the best does unfortunately mean the rest cannot be as good. The crumbed sardines were a decent attempt to get a bit of deep-fried action going on, but there was a distinct lack of kick from the morsels.
More crunchy texture would have been appreciated (despite its appearance) , and a stronger base flavour would have helped greatly. I was tempted to eat more but purely because they were deep-fried. It’s the age-old oil addiction talking, for sure. Other than that though, something to pass on.
Seafood served within a leaf has always been kind to me, and the baked cone bay Barramundi fillet continues the delicious trend.
It’s the usual suspects that make seafood cooked like this so delicious – the soft, almost butter-like tenderness of the fish, the cooking process allowing the flavours to infuse into the fish, with excellent results.
It was a bit messy to eat, and several parts of the fish were inedible due to some weird bone action going on. That’s concerning, but time to put on the ignorance cap.
A difficult one to share!
I love ox tongue, but I didn’t take to Izakaya Den’s char grilled ox tongue. They were grilled well, but lacked enough seasoning. I’m too used to ox tongue at Korean BBQ, where flavour is king, so this kind of treatment was not quite to my palate. An unfortunate pass.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the wagyu rump steak is a reflection of my last paragraph. It’s a bit more flavourful, but overall, I didn’t feel “mmmmm” coming on when I taste. Good rump will always provoke such a response. Dang, this is the first time I didn’t particularly like a cut of wagyu!
Ok, so the savouries were a bit of a hit and miss, but what about the sweeter things in life? A more unique experience starts off with the Den coffee jelly. I don’t have coffee-based desserts very often (affogatos notwithstanding), so this was a rare experience.
In the end, it tasted of a jelly that happens to be coffee-flavoured. If you were expecting much more, you’re not getting it. Uncommon at best, a passable order at worst.
The miso pound cake is best described as the antithesis to a chiffon cake. While the latter is light and fluffy, a pound cake is quite dense. I really liked it, it’s very different, but in a good way. The density also imparts extra flavour, but it’s not like a heavy chocolate cake where it gets overwhelming – lightness of flavour is still retained, but there is enough of it to go around.
Not something I would eat all the time, but I wouldn’t hesitate to consider this cake again next time I come across it.
I didn’t get to try much of the black sesame brulee, but I was pleased with the little I did manage to taste. This dessert already scores points on being a departure from the usual brulee, and extra points for it being black sesame. Equal award if it were matcha *hint hint menu option hint hint*
Possibly the prettiest dessert and an oft-instagramed dish of Izakaya Den, the apple millefeuille is indeed a tower of pretty. It tastes very refreshing, as expected of a cold, apple-based dessert. Definitely eat this last, or as a palate cleanser.
What’s not so impressive is the texture – it was a bit chewy, to the point where I wasn’t sure whether the chefs intended for the apple pieces to be chewy or crispy. Sort of tasted like half-blended apple. Awkward middle child, you strike again!
I tried to like Izakaya Den, but for the most part, there was a lack of kick, whether it was for flavour or for texture, that really got to me over the many dishes we had. When set on such a slippery slope, it’s hard to bounce back. Perhaps I should have had a drink or two, that may have changed things.
Most people I know have had more positive experiences than mine. What about you, dear reader? Sound off in the comments below!
- A small selection of great-tasting dishes
- The food menu does not stand by itself. Perhaps things change with drinks
- I had thought I could survive off the food in a bar, but it turns out drinks are likely necessary
F4 | S3 | A3