Highly evolved Japanese cuisine with origami-esque flavours is afflicted by poor desserts and apathetic service.
Spring is ushered through the bleakness of winter in many different ways. Spring in Japan brings the soft alluring scent of cherry blossom fluttering with disappearing flakes of snow. Spring in Melbourne brings the puffy congestion of wattle amid the coolness of rain. Opening just as winter drips and drizzles away, Saké is the second dining establishment at Melbourne’s refurbished Hamer Hall (the other being, a new favourite of ours, Trocadero). It is located on the river’s edge, affording another postcard view of the CBD skyline particularly when dining at night. Be forewarned, ground-level position does not mean rock-bottom prices. On the contrary. Through glass fronted doors, the entrance directly faces the bar. A colourful array of taiko drums are suspended from the ceiling, their bodies wrapped in bright linen stencilled with calligraphy. Drink here first so to numb the inevitability of pocket pain, but don’t drink so much as to bring the onset on that dreaded head thumping. Move onwards, pass a square fish-bowl cubicle where dedicated food-inistas who have a penchant for watching their food being prepared may seat and stare at the chefs. The main dining area is split-level — we recommend the ground-level, for the views and for the attention. The dining area is elegant in its sparseness, grey concrete framing dark wood chairs curved like the eaves of Shinto temples, blue-green-grey booths contrasting with the delicate pinkness of singular orchid blooms upon each table. There’s a certain irony in the dimness of the lighting in a space inspired by the Land of the Rising Sun.
MoMo & Coco visited Saké twice, both for after-work dinners. Keeping in mind our general aversion to raw foods, we gingerly negotiated the a la carte menu divided into “starters, mains, sushi & sashimi, sushi maki, and extras.” But you can’t eat Japanese food without at least indulging in the raw. You could start with the Sashimi Tacos ($17), a fancy canape of tuna and salmon each in a soft taco crescent to be tossed in with a shot of sake. It was fun, but that was about it. The other starter options were superb. The Silver Cod Lettuce Cups ($20) were essentially ubiquitous san choi baos, re-rendered with a single parcel of miso-marinated silver cod topped with a tangle of white kaitafi slivers. It was slightly sweet, slightly rich, and we prefer it to the similar, but porcine-focused Tonkatsu Cups ($16). The Steamed Prawn Dumplings ($17) were miniature Medusas, dumplings cocooned in tendrils of white noodles that guaranteed to mesmerise your attention, but were just bare murmurs on the palate.
We sampled the so-called Saké signature, the nine fin-shaped slices of Kingfish Jalapeno ($22) doused in yuzu soy and embellished with an eye of jalapeno chili. That chilli really needed to be more volcanic. No, we think that the sashimi signature of Sake was the White Soy Snapper ($18), slightly salty medallions of opalescent snapper arranged in a beautiful garland and dressed with white soy, seasame, yuzu and chives. It cured our raw fish aversion…temporarily. It is the epitome of idiotic food obsessiveness to pay $15-$20++ for sushi, but the titillating-sounding S Express deserved an exception to be made. Pale flagpoles of witlof leaf were anchored with tight sushi curls containing scallops, seared salmon and cucumber. It is a must-try.
There were five sweet irresistibles available at Saké, of which we sampled four and bypassed the chocolate fondant. We simply cannot fathom how the heaviness of chocolate could be compatibly juxtaposed against the characteristic lightness of the Japonesque savouries. No no no! The first dessert to be sampled at Sake was the “Dessert Bento Box” ($22). It was a demonstration why big (or most expensive) does not necessarily mean better. With a theatrical fling of the lacquered cover, a most disappointing quartet of miniature desserts was revealed. An orb of green tea ice cream crusted with little praline rocks; a fried, thick-skinned gyoza enveloping a soft heart of pear (think failed apple pie) to be dipped in an insipidly sweet passionfruit sauce; a bitterly dry chocolate cupcake with a careless plop of fairy floss; and a careful arrangement of egg scrolls barely infused with the alleged matcha apple essence. Divide $22 by 4. We want a refund.
The second dessert to be sampled was the “Baked Yuzu Tart” ($17). No. It was a stumpy cylinder of something trying desperately to be a Japanese twist of the beloved lemon tart. The use of too much gelatin or some other stiffening agent meant that the tart itself was smooth in texture, but akin to eating glue. Very little taste. Its flat disc of pastry compounded the tragedy — it was neither soft nor crispy. The accompanying slash of salted soy caramel (yes, you read that right) was most strange and its alleged yuzukosho icecream projected the tones of plain, icy vanilla ice cream rather than anything else….certainly lacking the characteristic piquancy of yuzukosho. We absolutely hate it say it but this dessert has to go on MoMo & Coco’s list of one of the very worst desserts that we have ever had.
The third dessert adhered to a more traditional Oriental agenda. Two mini tumblers of “Black Sesame Pannacotta” ($17) were alternatively presented with layer of white chocolate mousse to temper its nutty, savoury accent. Its soft creamy texture was punctuated with the crunch of sesame tuile. Although nothing particular to fault, this dessert was somewhat too savoury for these Dessert Correspondents.
The fourth dessert is the reason why we bother with a review of Saké. Referencing East and West, the “Bubble Milk Tea Trifle” ($17) just saved our visits to Sake from the close disasters of the preceding desserts. Radiating a warm golden colour, the trifle was bisected with layers of white chocolate mousse, milk tea anglaise and Chantilly cream, and folded with little tapioca balls and a crunchy dusting of sweet biscuit crumbles. There might also have been a swirl of caramel too (?). Quite lovely.
Service at Saké needs attention. Attention to taking food and drinks orders promptly (ie not averting eyes), attention to missing dishes, attention to clearing dishes between savoury and dessert course before setting down the desserts. It might actually alleviate their seeming obliviousness if management did not dim the lights so much. A positive? The wait staff we experienced had very comprehensive knowledge of the food and drinks menus.
We love Shoya for traditional Japanese, Izakaya Den and Hihou for izakaya style and we would love to recommend Saké for modern Japanese. Well-established and well-loved in Brisbane and Sydney, Saké almost demands ojigi (bowing) in conformity and or a kampai (ganbei/toast) in celebration. But MoMo & Coco cannot just yet do so. Saké’s savoury menu is indeed blessed with a distinctive sophistication, sympathetic to its Japanese heritage, but of course, as evident in the liberal use of soy, not “authentic” nor traditional Japanese. Rather, it offers highly evolved cuisine with refined tonal flavours and textures. It’s very memorable. But a single incorrect fold can disfigure an origami creation. The affliction of all desserts bar one and the apathy of the service standards derail an otherwise excellent dining experience. Like origami, two aspects of Saké need to be re-folded, requiring greater contemplation and attention. Keep it in mind until then.
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destination: Saké Restaurant & Bar, Hamer Hall at the Arts Centre, 100 St Kilda Road, Southbank, Vic 3004.
- ☑ Budget: $$$$.
- ☑ Sweet irresistibles: Restaurant dessert. Modern Japanese.
- ☑ Must-eat: The “Bubble Milk Tea Trifle.”
- ☑ The short and sweet story: An origami of highly evolved Japanese cuisine is afflicted by poor desserts and apathetic service.