Izakaya Den

12 November 2010
Izakaya Den @ 114 Russell Street, Melbourne

A nondescript building, a basement location and long drawn curtains lining an unmarked entrance - clandestine headquarters or a Japanese bar? Izakaya Den is in fact the latter. Ironically, this aura of exclusivity gives Izakaya Den a chic appeal which draws the crowds in rather than keeping them out.

I was a regular at Izakaya Den during its early days as I found it difficult to resist the consistently high quality and innovative food, the great range of Japanese drinks (the Ume no Yado and the Yuzuko plum wines are delicious), the upbeat atmosphere and the friendly service. At the time, there was no doubting that Izakaya Den had earned its award as Best New Restaurant in the 2011 Age Good Food Guide. However, much to my dismay, since my last visit flaws have emerged and forced me to question whether Izakaya Den is still the experience it used to be.

We began with a beautifully presented plate of dainty salmon rolls. Wrapped inside each slice of delicate raw salmon was an avocado matchstick and pickled kombu (edible kelp). Saturated in ponzu sauce, the grated daikon on top of the salmon roll provided a refreshing subtle tang.  Although the salmon was very fresh, it was ridden with stringy sinew that would persistently wedge between my teeth. 

Drop the name Izakaya Den and the sweet corn kaki-age immediately comes to mind. With their crunchy golden brown exterior, these corn tempura nuggets of deep fried batter and succulently sweet corn kernels will certainly bring pleasure to your taste buds. Add a touch of green tea salt and the ultimate appetiser is born. On this occasion however, these morsels of battered corn lacked the flawless execution of previous visits with the nugget centres polluted with undercooked doughy batter. 

The Wagyu tataki was an unforgettable dish, but for less than ideal reasons. Seared on the edges, the slices of raw Wagyu were beautifully seasoned with a fragrant truffle and yuzu sauce. Concealed beneath the slices of Wagyu was a dollop of wasabi cream and an insidious mountain of fresh horseradish. Caught off guard, the lethal horseradish sent violent shockwaves through my nasal cavity before filling my head with pulses of excruciating heat - it took a couple of minutes for the pain to dissipate entirely. Action packed perhaps, but this misguided and somewhat negligent use of horseradish singlehandedly destroyed a potentially wonderful dish.

Izakaya Den’s deep fried chicken has crisp outer skin and mouthwatering juicy flesh. The chicken is served with a wedge of lemon and a velvety Japanese mayonnaise which possesses a distinct depth of flavour that is far more alluring than your run-of-the-mill mayonnaise. Gingerboy’s deep fried chicken reigns supreme in terms of taste and crunch, but Izakaya Den’s version is definitely worth a try.

The Wagyu porterhouse dish contained slices of medium-rare Sher Wagyu, served with a beautiful dashi sauce and a side of sea salt. The accompaniments worked wonderfully to draw out the robust beefiness of the Wagyu and enhance the meat with extra flavours. However, manifestly absent was the melt-in-the-mouth texture that had evoked deep reverence on previous visits. Further, Izakaya Den would be well advised to omit the pickled okra as the okra’s slimy lining is particularly unpleasant to eat and has the texture of nasal mucous fluids which is, as you can imagine, slightly revolting.

For dessert, we ordered the dark chocolate and yuzu fondue which was served with ten walnut-filled glutinous rice balls. The combination of tangy yuzu (a relative of the lemon) and dark chocolate is a delightful adaptation of the orange and chocolate classic. Flavours aside, the palpable meagerness of the dessert was unforgivable. Advertised as a dessert for two, it is confounding how five pea-sized chocolate coated rice balls could be deemed sufficient as dessert for one. 

Given the steep pricing of dishes at Izakaya Den, the substandard execution of its dishes is inexcusable. The consistency of staple dishes such as the corn kaki-age and the grilled Wagyu appears to already be in decline, with other dishes failing to attain the benchmark standards set during previous visits. While Izakaya Den is currently still in vogue, one questions whether it has lasting appeal. Only time will tell. 

Food: 6.5
Service: 6.5
Value: 6
Overall: 6.5


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