Taking my first steps into Kisumé required ambulating down a one-way path just managing to qualify as a street. With a plethora of eateries, graffiti’d sub-alleyways and purveyors of culture all around, it’s ‘oh so Melbourne’ to find the biggest restaurant opening of 2017 in Flinders Lane. A strikingly beautiful, minimalist work in moire by Fabio Ongarato Design is the first greeting, an object of interest, with more photos here than even the food served at the restaurant within.
Date Last Visited: 23/12/2017
Address: 175 Flinders Ln, Melbourne VIC 3000
Highlight Dishes: ‘unicorn’, storm clam & bonito dashi, 3-mushroom rice
Price Guide (approx): $165 lunch, +$95 5-drink pairing (dinner is $195)
A few more steps, through a door with a big red button handle – as if to say ‘GO’ – Kisumé reveals itself from the darkness. Spanning three levels, the dark, moody and secluded fit-out is ‘money talks’, that it is.
But to rewind just a little bit in case you’ve somehow missed the deluge of media covering Kisumé: it’s the Lucas Group’s latest and most ambitious project, a gastronomic temple combining several of Japan’s finest expressions of its cuisine under one roof. The basement plays host to a generalist Japanese restaurant (not unlike Sokyo or Sake), serving a la carte. The ground floor is dedicated to sushi omakase, while heading upstairs reveals Kuro Kisumé, featuring a chablis bar, two private dining rooms and the focussed, intimate, bespoke experience that is The Table. Executive chef Moon Kyung Soo acts as the ‘culinary director’ for Kisumé in its entirety, ensuring that all the pieces that comprise the restaurant fall neatly into place.
It’s exciting to be here. Truly. While Kisumé tries a bit hard on the high roller vibe, it’s unapologetic in doing so: dining at The Table is not a cheap affair. At least the money feels well-spent, even before taking a single bite of food. We were led up to the Chablis Bar to have a drink before our reservation at The Table was due to commence, which is as much a clever design decision to co-locate the two spaces, as it is a sign of good service.
If you’ve been getting into some of my Japanese content (especially more recent pieces), you’ve probably figured out the one word that is the cause of my excitement: kaiseki – Japan’s answer to the Western degustation before degustations were even a thing. I won’t mince words: for all of Sydney and Melbourne’s Japanese clout – our wellspring of ramen, tempura, and sushi restaurants – kaiseki is a culinary art form that remains almost as rare as hen’s teeth. So yeah, excited.
Cue an increase in adrenaline when I beheld The Table itself. Minimal trappings were expected, but look closer and the expected detail is there. Engraved rikyubashi chopsticks, forged gold sake cups so heavy they could be a paperweight, and bespoke light fittings by Wood Marsh architects.
The Table’s kaiseki – changing on a daily basis – spans a gut-busting 15 courses over 3.5 hours, which while seemingly immoderate, is the standard getup. More recently, Kuro Kisumé opened up for lunch, producing a shorter, 9-course affair that shaves off an hour off dining time. While I originally intended to book The Table for dinner (representing the ‘full’ experience), a cheeky detour to Minamishima meant that the complete performance would have to wait for another day.
Speaking of performance, that is what kaiseki is, and Kitak Lee was the solo lead & producer for this particular lunch. With experience in many other excellent restaurants – Momofuku, Cho Cho San and even the legendary Bilson’s before it closed. Lee may not be Japanese, but never has that mattered so little.
To be frank (when am I not?) the meal started off a little awkwardly. There was a speech that – while I understood and appreciated being in the name of hospitality in kaiseki – was somewhat long-winded, and peppered with a few remarks that, were I to have thinner skin, would have been considered a tad racist. While that dissipated thankfully quickly, the extra generous storytelling prior to the serving of each dish was ever-present for each and every dish, and we noted even the other guests got to a point where they would just begin eating before Mr Lee would stop talking.
So yes, it was a little awkward, and perhaps more so when it’s a group of 12 strangers gathered intimately around a horseshoe made out of bamboo.
But the initial unease quickly made way for what we came for, and here is where I began to understand why Lucas forked out a guaranteed fortune to bring Lee to Melbourne: the food.
The short of it? It’s worth writing home about. Despite kaiseki’s relative rigidity as a culinary style (have you read my primer yet?), Lee
, and many other great kaiseki chef finds space in each individual course to express his own flair, his own twist on what goes on the plate. A sakizuke starter of sweet Queensland spanner crab flesh wrapped in a low-salt dashi jelly is beautified with an array of borage flowers and snowed on with freeze-dried apple. It’s good, I became more awake. But it was only the beginning.
Then there’s the dish that’s sure to grace your Instagram feeds soon if it hasn’t already (yes, I’m going to become a part of the problem) – the affectionately-named ‘unicorn’. A portmanteau of Port Philip Bay uni (sea urchin) and corn mousse is topped with cauliflower foam. This was a standout. I’m no stranger to uni, but here we go – I’ve discovered a new way to eat it; a true unicorn I never expected.
The lab equipment came out, with Lee using a vacuum siphon to infuse storm clam juice with the powerful savouriness of bonito flakes. This was the central element of the suimono soup course, a full-flavoured, multi-dimensional broth with a sweet, fleshy Cloudy Bay storm clam on which to cut my teeth, plus a few chunks of moreish sea eel to boot. The only letdown here? ‘Twas a bit too much on the salty side. Doubly diluting the soup would have done wonders.
A scampi, perhaps another sakizuke-style starter arrived plain and undressed. Then Lee asked the question: ‘what’s the colour of the sky?’ Already knowing the answer, I spoiled it for everyone at The Table when I blurted out ‘scampi roe!’ Indeed, scampi and its eggs reunite in a dish of Western Australian scampi sashimi on a bed of thick, umami-rich nori puree, topped with crunchy daikon and scampi roe. Again, creative; however this time, the nori puree’s saltiness ended up taking the shine from the scampi.
The meal then shifted gears into the second act, with a more substantial John Dory served w/maple teriyaki and soramame (broad beans). The agemono (fried) dish in kaiseki, Lee sizzled the dory on just one side, which he claims allows both crispy and fleshy textures of the fish to be discerned. I agree, but what I liked even more was just how flavourful the dish was. Along with the light salad to which it’s paired, this was a winner.
A single sliver of Blackmore wagyu, theatrically seared in front of diners by a red-hot binchotan coal was overlaid on a thumb of rice. Lee should have stopped here. But then out came a spoonful of bluefin ootoro tuna, resulting in overreach. More simplicity, less discord please – it would have been better if the wagyu & toro had never met.
The penultimate savoury dish of the meal was the magnum opus, as far as I’m concerned. Kaiseki’s most important dish – the one that must never be skipped lest a meal be stripped of the title – is Gohan (rice). Lee may have overextended with the last dish, but the mushroom rice quickly supplanted any prior reservations.
If I could only use the word ‘umami’ one more time in this post, this rice has earned it. With morels, shiitake and golden enoki, this was consummate pleasure of the highest order: loud moaning was unavoidable. The dish was further amplified by a scoop of first-milk Yarra Valley ikura (salmon roe), which was tenderised and desalinated by baptism in sake & mirin.
Perfect. This is how you service rice. Don’t forget the burnt bits.
Gohan often signifies the second act’s completion before moving onto dessert. Not if the David Blackmore MBS9 wagyu has anything to say about it. Cooked on the binchotan and served with raw, crunchy white asparagus and freshly-grated Tasmanian wasabi – the heady flavour of real wasabi filling the room – this was the wagyu dish we all deserved. A wagyu with MBS beyond 9 was deliberately rejected, as the fat content would adversely affect our taste buds, up till now which has been sensitised to mostly delicate flavours. It was a good call.
We finally reach dessert: vanilla & chocolate mousse equitably balanced, as if the inspiration were drawn from the light and dark sides of the force. Shards of meringue and black sesame rice paper are jutted throughout, the contraption redolent of a post-modernist sculpture. It’s good, the theme was well-suited, and hints of yuzu and black sesame still harks back to Japanese roots. However, for a meal that’s traditionally quite light, this was a particularly conflicted choice, and perhaps still a bit too ‘western’.
The Table at Kuro Kisumé is a roller coaster ride with expected highs, sometimes followed by completely preventable lows. There’s a common saying I usually trot out when describing lavishly expensive meals that I consider worth the money – the quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten. While Kuro Kisumé’s price can’t be forgotten quite that easily and nor is its quality without faults, it’s certainly earned the right for Chris Lucas and Kitak Lee to say a seat at The Table is now one of Melbourne’s defining haute Japanese experiences. Opening a restaurant with the scale of Kisumé is hard. Chris Lucas made it seem like a walk in the park.
At this rate, Kuro Kisumé is making a good offer to move to the cultured city: and the deal was done at The Table. I’ve already made a second booking for dinner (update: yep, went! My thoughts are mostly unchanged :D)
This post is based on two independently-paid visits to The Table at Kuro Kisumé
- In less than one year, Kuro Kisumé went from nothing, to the thing in Melbourne
- Using locally-sourced produce is a big boost for showcasing more of what our country is capable of
- Creative and delicious cuisine without breaking too many rules of traditional kaiseki
- I didn’t talk about within the post, but the drinks pairing is seriously nice and matches the food well
- Some dishes go a little bit over the top
- The chef tends to ramble a little bit, it was awkward in the beginning
- It’s a Japanese restaurant with a Japanese name, so why is the ‘e’ in Kisumé accented?
Would I return: already made a second booking!
I have a new scoring system! Read all about it here.
Most important takeaway – three separate scores for food, service and ambience to give the final score. The new system is not compatible with any score given prior to 11/11/2014.
F7.5 | S3 | A3