Sydneysiders have little to be envious of when it comes to breadth of food experiences, such is the diversity of our cuisine.
Yet, the term “underground dinner” may be unfamiliar to most. The concept is as enigmatic as it is enjoyable. Either by the happenstance of word of mouth, or you stumble on the website, you find out about one. Then, you have to try and obtain the chance of a booking. If you can get the booking, you will be kept in suspense until the day before, when you are finally made privy to the location.
Such is the process for the Minus 8 Underground Dinner. It’s only a pop-up, in the sense that it will end in October. So if you’re interested, be quick!
Date Last Visited: 25/7/14
Recommended Dish(es): N/A – menu changes
Minus 8 Underground Dinner is hosted by Anton Verplak, of ex-Nobu (London) pedigree. Here, you will find Japanese cooking of exacting skill and authenticity. With that kind of ability behind the kitchen, paying $90 for a 5-course meal is a no-brainer.
A mystery dinner has to remain a mystery, after all. Thus, the location will not be disclosed. The menu also changes each time, so this post is more indicative of the quality of the experience. That said, expect the food to be quite the sensation.
We ring the doorbell, say the secret password (I’m not kidding), and we’re on our way. The room is quite warm, prompting jackets and sweaters to come off almost immediately. It does get very close to being uncomfortable, but I have a low tolerance to heat, so it should be fine for others.
The table is laid out with a genuinely Japanese feel to it. I’m a bit nitpicky with this one – but I take issue with Japanese restaurants that don’t have proper hashiokis – a chopstick rest. That Minus 8 has them, and in zen-shape is very gratifying.
Anton introduces each dish with a little bit of backstory. It’s a nice touch that I really appreciate, especially as I learnt something with each dish’s narrative. Speaking of the meal as a whole, the theme is “Hokkaido in Winter”. Expect some heartiness!
Further, the calligraphy in front us are all individually drawn by Anton’s wife, who is there on the night as a server. No two looked exactly the same, and it’s quite beautiful. The character means “winter” in both Japanese and Chinese, befitting the theme.
I think it’s time I stopped talking, and get on with the eating!
Before the meal officially starts, we’re presented with some snacks of konbu rice crips. As these hit the table, I was immediately reminded of the crisps I had at Tomislav (sadly closed now). Crispy, a tad oily, but that moreish texture that keeps our great nation addicted, and thus supplied with great love handles.
The wasabi was a bit concentrated in some areas and sparse in others, so at times my nose did catch fire, but hey – no regrets!
Our first dish, ruibe of salmon, comes with a story of the Ainu – the indigenous people of Japan (much like how the Abroginal people of Australia are our indigenous population).
The Ainu method of eating salmon in winter was to catch whole salmon, leave them hanging outside in the freezing cold, a process which hardens the fish. They are then brought inside and sliced up like sashimi, and in older times, were eaten without any seasoning at all.
Anton remarks that he’s not exactly a fan of this either, so the version he presents us (which is also how it’s done now) is one that’s dressed with some aged soy sauce, and delicious salmon roe. There’s also green konbu at the base of the dish, which is for presentation purposes only. This konbu is used to make dashi and can’t really be eaten. The red stuff on top is…red konbu. Mind is blown.
It’s a really flavoursome salmon dish – I don’t even know where it’s coming from, as there isn’t a visible pool of soy sauce. It’s almost like the fish is cured in it, yet retains its colour.
Anton remarks that many of the ingredients in this meal are acquired directly from Japan. I can’t comment on whether red konbu tastes different in Japan that it does here, but the atmosphere, plus his way of spinning a story for every dish, achieves the desired effect. I was practically in Japan – the futon was the only thing missing!
I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that even something as deceptively simple as tempura has many variations depending on the locale. We are served Kansai-style tempura of cuttlefish.
Kansai tempura is commonly described as “snowy” tempura, due to a whiter, thinner and delicate batter. Kanto-style tempura is what most of us are familiar with – thicker, yellower batter.
Despite the thinner batter, there’s still a wholesome, oily crunch as you bite through that batter, well-seasoned and revealing the (piping hot!) cuttlefish within. The singular portion really gets my cravings going. Oh how must I be teased with only one piece!
I’m not sure which kind of tempura I prefer – I’ll just have it all!
When I heard that our next course was a konbu tea, I was a bit puzzled. I hadn’t read the menu which spells dashi, so I was expecting something that was, well, tea. My surprise when it tasted like an umami dashi!
If you cannot get enough of the soup in udon noodles, then you’ll love this. Otherwise, it’ll just be an umami, fishy shot. My boxes? Fully ticked – and there’s a bonus (but really) salty piece of konbu at the bottom to eat.
At this point, Anton is torching some bark for the next dish, introducing a heady, woody aroma into the room. In fact, it got fairly strong, necessatating the opening of the doors.
When I heard the description of this dish, I was reminded of a similar potato dish at Attica. The reality of the potato cooked in its earth is more like a baked jacket potato. Skin on, with a velvety butter that’s supported by deliciously salty chunks of charcoal salt.
Seriously, don’t forget that salt – if you do, the potato will get bland real quickly. With the salt, it’s a delicious beast. Perfect for winter.
My one regret? Wished there was something else in that bark I could eat. I’m used to the “everything on the plate is edible” mantra, so it was very difficult to resist chewing that smoky bark. Weird habits die hard.
My favourite savoury dish of the night, the Burrawong duck breast delivers duck on a level that really makes me question the potential of how good duck can taste. This is probably one of the best ways I’ve ever had the bird, outside of Peking Duck (special place in my heart – sorry).
The fat is rendered extremely well, giving away easily with a toothsome crunch, releasing bursts of flavour on another level. The meat itself is not overdone. Of course, isn’t undercooked either.
Anton has set a new standard for grilled duck. His mastery of the binchotan grill speaks for itself.
I think of the blue swimmer crab in miso to be exactly that – a teaser leg of crab served with miso soup. I’ve honestly had way too much miso soup on my culinary adventures, so I wasn’t blown away by this one. That’s not to say it’s bad – it’s great – but it’s hard to impress with such a staple these days.
That said, it’s practically a mandatory dish, given the winter theme, and it definitely supports with its hearty umami.
I felt a bit uncomfortable with the small amount of crab that we get – there was practically no meat on it, so it acted more like decorative filler. It didn’t stop my friends from breaking in the legs though!
That binchotan makes another delicious dish with the binchotan-grilled salted salmon w/ikura. The salmon tasted seriously good, and makes for a close second to the duck. That said, a serious deficiency is a saucy element, or something of the like that tied the salmon together with the rice. I felt that there wasn’t enough flavour to fully season the rice – several flavourless bites resulted.
While I’m all for the way this dish tastes, I’m puzzled, as it’s the second time salmon was served for the night. Perhaps another meat would have done as well? Or perhaps salmon is a major staple of Hokkaido.
For a pre-dessert, we receive a spoonful of kumquat sorbet. Anton mentions that if you love tart, tangy flavours, then this will hit the spot.
It completely destroyed the proverbial spot. Kumquat sorbet – I can’t believe I haven’t had this before. It’s refreshing to an almost ridiculous degree, truly living up to the name of a palate cleanser.
It’s just a spoonful of sorbet, but don’t underestimate it.
As much as I love my sweets, I am at heart, a savoury guy. I surprised myself, declaring the Hokkaido chiffon cake to be my favourite dish of the entire meal.
It’s the crunch of the popcorn, with the delicious caramel glaze delighting with every bite. It’s the buttery smooth milkiness of macadamia ice cream, its nutty flavour delicately dancing around your palate. It’s that piece of dark salted chocolate, adding a rich, delicious kick to the sweeter notes of the dessert. It’s the airiness of the chiffon cake, tender, fragile, delightful.
It’s not perfect – the popcorn was really difficult to chew at certain points, but other than that, I struggle to fault this dish.
So if I told you that Minus 8 finishes in October, would you rush to get on the mailing list? Dear reader – decide for yourself – minus8.com.au.
As usual, feel free to leave a comment or three 😀
- The food is a joy to eat, befitting the theme
- Highly authentic cuisine
- A unique experience you can’t easily find in Sydney
Not so Awesome:
- Limited time only
- Room is quite warm; it can get uncomfortable after awhile
- Minor nitpicks in meal choices
No score left as this is not a restaurant visit.
- Rated 3.5 stars
- Very Good
- Minus 8 Underground Dinner
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