Friday, August 28, 2009


Well, it's been a long time between drinks, not to mention High Street food, and in the last couple of months we've had the long distance runaround between Melbourne, Adelaide, Coober Pedy, Alice Springs, Darwin, Rockhampton, Fraser Island, Sydney etc... Now we're home again and the High Street odyssey is underway some more.

Tonight we start at Otsumami, an elegant minimalist Japanese restaurant on the leeward side (OK, the west side) of High Street, high on Ruckers Hill. Minimalist in decor, but this being Northcote on a Friday night there was an encouraging buzz without being too noisy. This is important to me - although I practice that quizzical smile that is attentive while still projecting, "I can't hear a word you're saying but I am interested" - I'm not very good at it yet.

I'd booked only 45 minutes before we sat down and ordered and we'd been squeezed in, but only on the proviso that were out by 8.30 and we'd eat at a sitting-on-the-floor-table. As we were dining with a four-year old, time was never going to be a problem.

We ordered swiftly and food was delivered quickly with low fuss and high efficiency.

The Moriawase, a platter of mixed sashimi and sushi, was beautifully presented. The sashimi was sliced perfectly (I'm not into the thick cuts of tuna), although the tuna/salmon/kingfish trio is getting a bit too familiar. The Unagi Nigiri (a personal favourite) was luscious without being cloying and even Mr Four Year Old wolfed down some salmon.

The Tori Niku Gyoza, made with chicken and allegedly five-spice, were the one disappointment. The filling was bland and the dumpling wrappers were slightly underdone and chewy. One disappointment, but the only one in an otherwise wonderful meal.

I can never go past Nasu Dengaku, grilled eggplant with miso, when I see it, and this was great. Soft, sweet and unctuous without being heavy. When it's as good as this, it's hard to remember that, to me at least, eggplant is a predominately Mediterranean vegetable.

The Tempura prawns and vegetables were good. Not outstanding, but still very good.

The stand-out dish of the night, however, were the soft-shelled crabs. Stunning, and not a scrap was left. They were served fried in an ethereal tempura batter and a simple mayo-based sauce. I've never had soft-shelled crabs before, and when they came out was a bit surprised they were cooked whole, appendages akimbo. That the shells were entirely edible was fantastic, at least for us. Less so for the crab, who had popped his clogs* probably regretting he hadn't been born a hard-shelled crab. But no regrets, eh? Well, not from the humans. The meat was soft and the gentle scraps of batter did nothing to interfere with the soft flavour. Spongebob can keep his crabby patties - I'm having these.

The sake was good, which I put down to Otsumami having a short but good list, and luck on my part. My approach to sake is the same as my approach to substituted phenethylamines: I don't know much about them, but I know what I like and I'm probably not very discriminating.

The dessert menu is short with no surprises. (Insert former Prime Minister joke *here*.) The green tea ice cream was pretty good, but Emmy's cheesecake was a textbook Philly cheesecake. It was OK, but nothing special. The black sesame ice cream, on the other hand, was the standout dessert, with a rich nuttiness highlighted by sweetness.

Otsumami has the beautiful, light touch I associate with great Japanese food. The menu (divided into Sushi & Sashimi, Small Food, Medium Food and Big Food) meant we took a punt on quantities, but we did well. The service is quick and attentive, and although we knew we had been squeezed in we never felt rushed.

Japanese food is hitting that part of the fashion curve in Melbourne where proliferation is well upon us. Within 250 metres of my office (in the CBD) I can get a nori roll from one of a dozen places. Some of them are even good, although the average quality (across the board) is falling. With that in mind, I think we're pretty lucky to have a Japanese restaurant of Otsumami's quality this close to hand. Otsumami offers a gentle touch, a zazen approach to food which sets it apart from proliferating nori rolls. Lucky us!

*F points out that the crabs hadn't in fact, popped their clogs. They were still wearing them when we ate them.

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