Stepping through the ostensibly ho-hum glass doors that guard the entrance to Minamishima, you could be forgiven for holding an incredulous attitude at claims that this is Melbourne’s best sushi restaurant and indeed, rivals even the best Sydney has to offer.
Of course, despite the back-street entrance to what appears more to be an innocuous block of apartments than a restaurant, you wouldn’t turn back now. Be glad you didn’t, because Minamishima is everything they say it is, and quite possibly a bit more.
Say hi to my favourite sushi restaurant in Australia!
Date Last Visited: 21/1/2017 (4 visits to date)
Address: 4 Lord St, Richmond VIC 3121
Highlight courses: aburi flounder, ootoro nigiri, anago nigiri, sakura ice cream & adzuki yokan
Like most coming-of-age stories worth telling, Koichi Minamishima didn’t have beginnings marking him to be a master of marrying fish and rice – he started out as a dishwasher. But fast forward a quarter-century, and he’s turning tables as the head sushi chef at Kenzan, another high-end sushi-ya* in Melbourne.
*in Japanese, ya in this context refers to a restaurant
However, Minamishima’s potential was destined to carry him to even greater heights. It’s the ultimate dream – his own sushi counter restaurant, eponymously bearing his name. Boy, what a beautiful dream it is. The restaurant itself is impeccable, elegant, meticulous. Fine wood accents draw the eye, with perfect grain, impeccably positioned fixtures, clean lines everywhere. Bloody hell, it’s beautiful.
The style of sushi is omakase, i.e. – you leave it up to the chef. Apart from dietary requirements and the suggested inclusion of several optional specials of the night, it’s a ride where the only decision you make is whether you want a sake pairing or not (well, and a few optional courses). Minamishima will take over the rest – bringing you on a journey consisting of roughly 15 pieces of sushi, with extras – various starters and desserts pad the meal. This is essentially a Japanese sushi degustation, and it is the purest, most enjoyable way to enjoy sushi.
If you’re going in a group of two, you would be missing out a huge chunk of the action if you didn’t book a seat at the 12-seater bar. They are quite possibly the hottest seats for a Japanese restaurant in Melbourne right now, where you can witness Minamishima’s knife skills in action. Omakase sushi is as much about the anticipation on what to receive next, as it is watching the sushi chefs prepare it. Minamishima in action is truly a sight to behold.
I’ve visited Minamishima three times now, once seated at the bar, and twice on the tables. Trust me – the bar is where it’s at. That said, if you do end up being seated tableside, you will be treated to a slightly different food experience, where you will receive several additional, small, non-sushi courses. If you intend to be a regular (and I definitely do, even as I live in Sydney), give both experiences a go and take your pick.
Regardless of sitting, a meal at Minamishima will set you back $150, and $22 per additional piece, regardless of type. This is very expensive, but this is exactly why we work to earn money. Seriously worth it.
Minamishima @ The Table (1st & 3rd visits)
For the record, my first visit (for three) to Minamishima were for table seating, not the bar. Caution: you are not allowed to book the bar for any more than two people. Three and above inevitably means talking over each other as you are all seated in a line. I agree with the assessment.
Another reason to sit at the bar over the tables? Lighting for taking good photos, assuming you care for it. But while I was here, I had to admire just how comfortable I felt. Despite being in near total darkness, and despite the photos turning out rather trashy, everything seemed…just right. While I always try to come in with as little expectation as possible, sitting in a restaurant with such refinement that it’s almost tangible tends to elicit a hope for greatness in the food to follow.
We start off with a teaser starter of grilled broad bean & shiitake salt, served on a beautiful, flecked marble plate. It’s about as delicious as a broad bean is going to get. Extremely meaty for a bean, it does well to whet the appetite when paired with the earthy shiitake salt.
A simple start, like all good Japanese meals.
The roller coaster slowly builds, with spanner crab & snow crab chawanmushi up next. Chawanmushi is best described as a Japanese egg custard that’s made with dashi. Any number and variety of condiments can go on top or within. I’m going to go out on a limb and say crab is a pretty darn appropriate choice. Fleshy, refreshing, and embossed within utterly silky-smooth egg, this dish takes both umami and textural interest up a notch. I also particularly like the sticky, jelly-like texture of the dish.
At this point in the meal, I was already sold.Yes, you read that right – fugu tempura. In Japan, only licensed chefs can serve puffer fish, with good reason. Most of its body is highly poisonous, and one fish has enough to kill 30 people, and there is no antidote.
Scary, huh? Thus, it’s offered as an optional course, but as if I was going to miss out on a dish I didn’t even get to try in Japan!
I’ve had it twice now, and yes, I’m still very much alive, thank you. The meat itself is very soft and tender, almost like a poached chicken in texture. The tempura batter is very light, airy and crunchy. It leaves almost no oil on the paper; about as clean as tempura gets. Flavour is subtly enhanced by the acidity of the yuzu salt, it’s all that was required.
Up next is a refreshing serve of Mt Cook (NZ) salmon carpaccio w/shiso, yuzu & spring onion. It’s bursting with citrusy flavours, supported by pops of ikura (roe) and an unusual but strangely attractive earthiness towards the end of each piece.
So far, so good – it’s all rather familiar territory, sprinkled with just enough intrigue to keep me guessing. First-timers to omakase might be a little more bamboozled, but hopefully it’s a learning experience the whole way!
Portions in an omakase aren’t known to be big, but imagine how much of a tease is when the smallest cube of wagyu ox tongue w/akamiso (red miso) is plated before me, more so when I find out just how tasty it is.
The teeny cube of beef is served with “young beans” (what?) and asparagus. The optimal texture for both veg components is perfection, and adequately take on much of the akamiso’s flavour. This type of miso is more potent versus the vanilla version, due to a longer fermentation resulting in a more concentrated, sweet & pungent flavour.
The beef itself is at baby cheek-level tenderness, delivering a burst of flavour and buttery texture for all too short a time before it disappears.
Like most courses so far, I wished for so much more.
The introduction of the palate cleanser of strawberry shiso sorbet marks the end of the starters, but this mini dessert is fully worthy of its own merit. When I ate it, I immediately took down the following two words as my tasting note on the dish: tub this.
If only I could – it’s as refreshing as palate cleansers get.
As a table booking, Minamishima-san can’t serve you personally. As such, you receive sushi in sets. If you’re an experienced sushi connoisseur, you would rightfully feel that this isn’t completely appropriate, however, that is a product of table seating.
On the other hand, one argument that has merit is that you’re not left waiting between each and every piece. In this first visit of mine, sand whiting, John Dory & scampi make up the first trio of nigirizushi (nigiri sushi – fish on rice).
All previous dishes could be utter hock but the meal would be saved by superior sushi. Similarly, the best fillers in the world cannot make up for sub-standard sushi. In this department, Minamishima impresses a level of skill that, upon first bite, sealed the deal – this is likely the best sushi Melbourne has to offer.
The rice, ever slightly acidic and sweet, is practically perfect. It doesn’t overpower the flavour of the fish, nor does it taste like a bland ball of carbs. It’s just about sticky enough such that it holds together well enough.
Minamishima will brush an optimal amount of soy sauce on most nigiri, so no further saucing is required by the diner. This is how I prefer it also, as there’s always a little risk in over-saucing. You will be informed as to which pieces require DIY saucing, and which are pre-brushed.
The Sand whiting is like squid, surprisingly tough in texture but yielding to a buttery mouthfeel after a lot of chewing. The Dory is surprisingly fatty and soft, while the scampi is an explosion of flavour and quite jelly like in texture. All the fish are deftly cut, with the scampi being particularly noteworthy as a “whoa, now that’s a tasty piece” kind of piece.
The flounder fin is one of my favourite pieces at Minamishima. Serving the rarely-used fin part of the fish and then torching it like aburi, the flesh curves up in response and tastes virtually like a fish butter. It’s brilliant, and a piece I re-ordered at the end.
The geoduck is so rarely seen in Australia, it’s the first time I’ve had it. Laughingly ugly as a mollusc, Minamishima’s knife skills turn it into yet another work of edible art. It goes down with a rather jellyfish-like crunch, which I quite enjoyed – oddly as I don’t like jellyfish all that much.
The scallop is probably the most underwhelming nigiri of them all, but the bar has been set very high to begin with. It’s a nice, soft scallop, but the torching of it left it rather dry and burnt-like to my taste.
The champion of almost any sushi omakase, tuna belly or ootoro, is usually the go-to piece. Pieces, if you’re lucky. At Minamishima, you’re always lucky – you’re given a fresh piece, as well as a piece served aburi-style. As tuna season is over in Australia, Minamishima sources these (and many other fish) directly from the Tsukiji market in Japan, which goes to show just how important supplier relationships are to running a high-class restaurant.
As you would expect, this is melt-in-your-mouth goodness. Ootoro is essentially as fatty as tuna gets, and it’s as rich as it gets. More please, right now.
I have to say, while any high-end sushi-ya serves ootoro, Minamishima’s the first that actually serves a piece as aburi. Definitely a unique twist, and equally delicious. You bet I ordered these pieces again.
Another uncommonly seen sushi topping is anago, a type of saltwater eel. It’s got a better texture than the more familiar unagi, and retains all of the flavour. This was also a piece I re-ordered. It’s too delicious to pass up.
The ikura was a more average piece. The roe itself was more separated from the rice, so the textures didn’t quite go together as well as they should have.
With the nigirizushi done, the focus turns to dialling the palate back down before dessert, and for this particular visit, it was done with a diamond clam dashi.
The clam is chewy, juicy and sweet. The dashi is extremely light, almost to the point of imperceptibility. It’s almost like a tea in lightness.
Bloody hell, who’d have thought they’d have also figured out dessert? This is a cherry blossom ice cream w/green tea powder & red bean jelly. The sweetness of the red bean yokan (like a jelly) wagashi (Japanese sweet) is almost intoxicatingly rich, with a texture that’s in between a jelly and firm tofu. The ice cream is flowery, slightly rosey in taste and very refreshing. It’s a beautiful dessert.Sure, the Japanese Garden might be noted as an optional dessert, but after seeing it do you really think that it’s going to be a mere option? Give yourself a smack, fool – like me, you’re ordering this.
There’s a rice milk pudding base, a dark chocolate & matcha soil, topped w/black sesame ice cream & avruga. The rice milk pudding is perhaps just a little too bland for me, and the matcha soil a little too bitter, but the black sesame ice cream makes this dessert worth getting all by itself.
Well, maybe not – the previous dessert is tastier. However, if you’re here, you might as well…
Extra: new dishes from my latest visit (4/12/15)
It’s been a few months between my first and third visits, and in that time, some dishes have changed – new, old and returning. I didn’t take photos of every course on my third visit, deciding to focus on enjoying the meal. I did however, capture the new stuff – reinforcing the fact that Minamishima’s constantly evolving the menu, in line with what’s best in season.
As I was absorbed in the company, I didn’t pay full attention to the name of this dish, other than realising it includes prawn, okra, and a rather thick cube of what appears to be a rather tough tofu (perhaps momen tofu). Like all of Minamishima’s starters, the emphasis is on fresh, clean and subtlety. I love prawn and I love tofu, so this dish was an easy win for me. I’m still wondering just what that tofu was – it had a rather peculiar firmness that was almost meaty in texture. All I can say is the unprofessional yummy!
Another more recent starter you may receive is nasu dengaku, i.e. a miso-grilled eggplant. Think the thick sweetness and pungency of miso, but applied to an eggplant that’s been cooked such that there’s a chewiness on the outside, whilst remaining smooth and buttery on the inside. I used to dislike eating eggplant until I had my first experience of nasu dengaku, and I never looked back.
The flavour is quite potent, so strips of daikon (white radish) are provided on the side to serve as a cleanser after this rich, but undoubtedly tasty morsel.
I’ve covered ootoro before, but what’s the harm in another picture? It’s beautiful to the eyes, and positively sings on the taste buds!
A piece I did not get during either my 1st or 2nd visits is a long-time favourite – uni. If ootoro tuna belly is the butter of the sea, this is the cream. Uni doesn’t have too much flavour in itself, but its texture is well and truly unreplicable. You could be fed sea urchin blind and you will know that uni is exactly what you’re eating. It’s one of the creamiest, smoothest things you can eat, and with just a little dash of soy applied, it is a choir of pleasure.
It was difficult to resist re-ordering this one, that’s for sure.
An extremely rare nigiri ingredient to be found in Australia, this was my first time taking in an akagai (arc shell clam) in person. The aka in akagai refers to red in Japanese, as the clam is bright red when raw. It has a deep flavor that you can taste for some time after chewing. However, it’s not overpowering. Texturally, it’s very chewy, but eventually yields when enough resistance is provided. To newcomers, it’s definitely a stranger nigiri to have, but over time it becomes many a sushi connoisseur’s favourites.
I’m not quite there yet, but I’m very glad to have tried this scarce clam for the first time.
A new dessert on Minamishima’s menu which seems to have replaced the adzuki yokan described earlier, this black sesame ice cream w/yuzu jelly is itself no slouch. The ice cream is a standard affair, sweet, roasty and revitalising. The jelly it sits on is a little forgettable – it’s pretty much a sweet jelly with hints of citric yuzu, albeit made a bit more interesting by what appears to be grapefruit.
It won’t replace the sakura ice cream & red bean yokan for me, I await the day when that’s brought back, or a better dessert brought out!The optional dessert for my third visit was changed from the Japanese Garden to the above-pictured sakura mochi & matcha ice cream. A pocket of Kyoto-style cherry blossom mochi tastes just like what I’ve had in Japan, with chewy, slightly grainy pastry encasing a sweet, fruity cherry filling. The green tea ice cream comes next, thank goodness bringing with it a strong matcha flavour that too many green tea desserts lack. The chewable (but ultimately flavourless) balls of mochi round the dessert out. It’s pretty fun, but not strictly a must-order.
Unless it’s your first time, of course.
Indeed, after my first visit, I made another booking right there on the spot. Minamishima is that kind of restaurant – it’s that good, and hey, I already had another Melbourne trip lined up, so why not?
Minamishima @ The Bar (2nd visit)
The bar doesn’t seat many, and just as well – it’s a small restaurant, though several times bigger than high-end sushi-ya in Japan, which routinely seat only single digit numbers. I for one am glad that there is even a double-digit number of bar seats. Try to book well in advance – as I’ve said many times already, you do get a view:
There’s just something zen-like about watching itamae* in action. Perhaps its the fluidity of their hands, which captivates as well as astounds. Or maybe it’s the sight of seeing raw ingredients – whole chunks of (possibly aged) fish, bowls of wasabi, fresh herbs, being turned into something that resembles a work of art. Perhaps it’s just to see a blaze torching a piece of tuna. You get it all, really.
*in Japanese, an itamae is a term generally used to describe a Japanese chef specialising in a high-end cuisine. Sushi chefs overwhelmingly dominate the usage of the term. Basically: a sublimely skilled cook
An optional course offered on this particular visit is quite possibly the epitome of decadence. The most prized and expensive part of tuna – yep, that’s ootoro – paired with what frequently places as the most expensive caviar in the world. With such a pairing of ingredients, the $45 asking price almost seems reasonable. Almost – where’s the gold leaf? All I’m missing here is a thick cuban and being dressed to the nines in a bespoke suit. That’s the image, right? /sarcasm
This is a dish where you should just swallow the budgetary pain if you’re even halfway curious, and haven’t had it before. It’s worth a try once – if only to sample what richness incarnate is like. Uber fatty, tuna, uber pungent caviar. It’s actually a bit too rich for me, which does prove I have limits, right? Honestly, all I’m missing here is a thick cuban and being dressed to the nines in a bespoke suit. That’s the image, right?
A delicious dish, though not one I have the budget for on a regular basis! For those with the means and the palate, it does justify its taste.
A beautifully furrowed plate carries with it a single spear of tempura asparagus cut in two, served with a simple side of yuzu salt. Deliciously crunchy, not oily at all and refined are my adjectives of choice. While not a game-changing dish, it’s a welcome showcase of skill that extends beyond sushi.
Minamishima is not just a one man show. His trusted second pair of hands Hajime Horiguchi takes care of ancillary duties, showing deft finger work just like Minamishima himself. It truly is a struggle to decide who to watch at the counter #barseatingproblems.
This is the same fugu tempura I’ve mentioned in the above section – it was most certainly worthy of my second order. Just as delicious as before, and yes, still quite like a really tender chicken!
To illustrate the point I made prior, check out how little oil is left on the paper. If I was going to eat something deep-fried anywhere, it would be here.
And now, the commencement of the sushi itself. This post is long enough already, so I’ll keep descriptions very brief – a more detailed rundown on the rice and neta* can be found in the previous section.
*in this context, neta generically refers to toppings on sushi
King George Whiting is always a beloved fish of mine, and this one’s got a fruity, sour kick with pops of sweetness. It’s clearly one of the more complex flavours on display, but it all lovingly comes together in the mouth.
I haven’t had many chances to experience king dory before, but Minamishima affords me the opportunity. Gingery, soft, and light on soy. In actuality, it was a bit too light, and I would have wanted to put more on – alas, when the itamae brushes sauce on the nigiri, you do not apply more yourself. It’s just sushiquette.
Another whiting rears up wearing a different skin- a skin of kelp, as it were. It tastes somewhat spicy, and the kelp is not too overpowering in the seaweed taste. A gingery finish ends the piece, much to my satisfaction.
Blue eye is a particularly lean fish, which lends itself well to being naturally flavoured by the radish/ponzu mix on top. It’s acidic and refreshing, almost like a savoury palate cleanser. Not one of my preferred pieces, but virtually faultless nonetheless.
An exceptionally tasty nigiri of calamari, it’s flavoured with shiso & ponzu. The impeccable knife scoring technique used on the cephalopod fully realises its innate ability to be texturally almost like butter. You’ll have to eat it to see what I mean.
But of course, when it comes to an explosively rich mouthfeel, calamari can’t stand up to scampi. This is a “meatsplosion” of sorts, and it is incredible. There was a slight bitterness near the end which didn’t play well with my palate, but overall it’s an ace piece.
The scallops served at Minamishima are imported directly from Japan. I didn’t really taste anything particularly exceptional about the meat itself, finding it to be a bit bland – that is until I dipped it in the soy sauce. You know the restaurant is serious when they make their own soy sauce – it’s slightly sweet, and far less salty than usual. Really tasty, and breathes life into an otherwise ordinary shellfish.
One of my favourite pieces at Minamishima, the flounder fin is a somewhat unique piece, as it’s not often used. Here, it is torched, where it curls up, and the texture is incredibly buttery, chewy and rich. There’s also a fresh seaweed aroma that’s highly enjoyable. It’s good enough to make it into my re-order list. Truly, I did reorder the flounder.
Medium tuna, or chu-toro is leading up to big dog ootoro. A lovely piece, this bridges the gap between lean tuna, and ootoro. For those who find the latter too rich, chu-toro is where it’s at.
But for me, there can be no replacing ootoro. I’m not even going to bother and let this one speak for itself. Why? Because I like to maintain my dignity and not drool all over my keyboard as I type this.
Ah crap, there goes that promise.
So. Damn. Good. I don’t need to say ootoro is worth reordering right?
You can’t really top a top-class (dual!!) ootoro course, so it’d be almost unfair to say that I didn’t think much of the gunkan maki. It’s referred to as battleship sushi as the shape resembles such a boat (apparently?). In any case, naval warfare wasn’t on my mind as the umami bursts of salmon roe were.
Another piece that made it onto the reorder list, anago, or conger eel is basically what you wish you were eating when you’re chowing down unagi. It’s softer, richer and tastier than its unagi cousin. These properties lend itself well to being torched.
It torched its way to my heart, alright.
If you’re still feeling hungry, like I was, the ootoro temaki is perhaps worthy of your optional order. Be warned, this is a very rich dish, and in fact you can visible see the oil in and around the roll.
Don’t be put off if you’re still raring to try it – it’s an even better dish than the ootoro + beluga caviar combo, at half the price. The flavours are intense, and well…it’s ootoro, goddamn it.
While it might seem pretentious by some, Minamishima definitely deserves to brand its tamagoyaki. There are several ways to go about this, ranging from light and fluffy, to dense and rich. Minamishima took the latter route, and the result is a real bitey egg roll with a pleasantly sweet finish.
A refresher broth of diamond clam and chrysanthemum ends the savouries on a light, and very clean note.
This is more or less the same red bean dessert as described in the previous section – so you know it’s damn good and why. The difference with this particular visit is that there is no matcha powder, and the ice cream is instead houjicha – a Japanese green tea. Wait what? It’s clearly brown!
Bear with me – Houjicha is a green tea that’s been roasted in a ceramic pot over charcoals, and so you get a much more caramelly-roasted flavour, which lends itself perfectly to desserts.
While I’m not 100% a fan of the Japanese garden, I did feel compelled to reorder it again, because there are still many redeeming qualities – particularly the ice cream. Plus, it just looks darn pretty 😛
Pictures from additional visits to Minamishima can be found below. Skip to the bottom to read my conclusion.
Koichi Minamishima is a master at his craft. Even if you’re not able to sit at the bar watching his handiwork, you can definitely taste it. It’s something else, on another level. Immediately after this first meal, I was already comparing it to Sydney’s best – Sokyo. I love Sano-san’s sushi, and I thought he and Minamishima were neck and neck. With my next two visits however, the winner became clear – Minamishima takes the edge, becoming the best sushi restaurant in Australia as far as I know. The fact that the ambiance is just so much more Japanese vs Sokyo’s loudness sealed the deal.
There is little doubt about it. This guy knows how to serve fish on rice.
This post is based on three independently paid visits to Minamishima
I’ve hyped up Minamishima a lot, but I myself was skeptical in going in for the first time. What do you think, dear reader? Let me know in the comments below!
- The sushi is as good as you’re going to get in the Southern Hemisphere
- One of the most beautiful restaurants in Melbourne, with an ambiance matching the style of food
- The bar is so high, inferior pieces stand out like sore thumbs
- The price for additional pieces is really pricey
- Sydney, you’re up
I have a new scoring system! Read all about it here.
Most important takeaway – three separate scores for food, service and ambiance to give the final score. The new system is not compatible with any score given prior to 11/11/2014.
F8 | S4 | A3