28 November 2010
Tempura Hajime @ 60 Park Street, South Melbourne
Tempura Hajime is an intimate 12 seat restaurant devoted to serving deep fried battered seafood and vegetables, a popular Japanese dish otherwise known as tempura. Erstwhile chef and owner, Daisuke Miyamoto put Tempura Hajime on the map with his famed tempura banquets which ultimately earned the restaurant one-hat status in The Age Good Food Guide. Mr Miyamoto departed the restaurant earlier this year, and regrettably, it appears that his successor has failed to uphold his legacy.
Unfortunately, on account of Tempura Hajime’s no camera policy, this review will not be accompanied by photos, other than the one below that we surreptitiously took when the staff left the room. The menu justifies this policy as being necessary to minimise disruption to other diners – a perfectly legitimate explanation. However, this justification was called into question when we were asked to retract our camera when no other diners were present – presumably the non-existent diners found our camera distracting.
In terms of food, we opted for the $92 set menu which consisted of a sashimi appetiser, a ten piece medley of tempura and a plate of assorted sushi.
The sashimi plate included fresh cuts of salmon and kingfish and slivers of gurnard. Generally, the fish had an enjoyably firm yet soft texture, but the two latter varieties were particularly tasteless. Ironically, the highlight of this sashimi appetiser was the accompanying salad of moist chicken breast pieces and finely sliced cucumber that had been dressed with an invitingly aromatic sesame and peanut paste.
The tempura however, was a brazen mockery of the traditional Japanese dish. The cornerstone of tempura is its batter – quality batter should be ethereally light and crispy. Here, the batter coating the seafood and vegetable morsels was limp, lifeless and completely devoid of any crisp crunch. The textural flaws were further exacerbated by the soy and mirin dipping sauce – the batter would completely absorb the liquid so as to have the consistency of unpleasantly soggy bread. Put simply, the tempura was a culinary abomination.
On a positive note, the ingredients inside the batter were fresh and generally pleasing - the zucchini with spicy salmon, the prawn mince with Swiss brown mushrooms and the sweet potato were the most memorable. An overcooked scallop with sea urchin did make an appearance however, as did an uninspiring piece of King George whiting – one suspects that the output a local fish and chip shop would compare favourably. In any case, not even the finest ingredients would salvage this tempura from its fatally flawed batter.
During the tempura showcase, a tangy ponzu-dressed salad was served to cut through the rich oiliness. The velvety seaweed and garden-fresh vegetables - crisp shreds of iceberg lettuce, sliced cucumber and sweet cherry tomatoes – provided a refreshing interlude between the tempura pieces.
The banquet followed with a sushi platter of assorted nigiri sushi - raw salmon, grilled fish (salmon, kingfish and eel) and grilled wagyu - which were accompanied by a sweetened egg omelette and a piece of salmon and avocado maki sushi. The fish and wagyu were fresh, but the grilled items lacked the tenderness generally exhibited by high quality produce.
Desserts at Japanese restaurants are by and large mere afterthoughts. The yoghurt panna cotta with muscat juice and Cointreau was a welcome change from the prosaic green tea ice cream, but the flavours were nevertheless muted and uninspiring.
While the ambience and décor of Tempura Hajime bears a resemblance to that found in eateries in Tokyo, the food certainly does not. As an establishment that specialises in tempura, one can overlook average sushi and sashimi, but substandard tempura is inexcusable, especially if premium prices are being charged. It is difficult to see any reason to visit Tempura Hajime, particularly when, for a fraction of the price, Shoya, Kenzan and Shira Nui offer superior tempura, sushi and sashimi.
Food - 4
Service - 6
Value - 3
Overall - 3.5