Mel­bourne re­view

There’s drama in the look and on the plate at the new Kisumé, but does it all add up to good times? Michael Har­den puts it through its paces.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Contents -

There’s drama in the look and on the plate at Kisumé

Here are some

of the things I’ve eaten at Kisumé. Glo­ri­ously fatty otoro ni­giri, pre­ci­sion sliced that day from the belly of a whole bluefin. Wagyu meat­balls stuffed with moz­zarella and served with truf­fle mayo. Greasy pork and kim­chi gyoza be­wil­der­ingly topped with salad greens, discs of striped beet­root and a bal­samic re­duc­tion. Translu­cent King Ge­orge whit­ing dusted with golden-yel­low kara­sumi. Mar­i­nated olives, a pas­try fin­ger spotty with black truf­fles and truf­fled po­tato purée, com­pli­men­tary snacks in the top-level Ch­ablis Bar.

Try to get your head around that lot. Just what the hell kind of Ja­panese restau­rant is this?

For starters, Kisumé is a Chris Lu­cas pro­duc­tion, so get­ting your head around it is kind of be­side the point. No­body goes to a Lu­cas restau­rant – Chin Chin, Baby, Kong, Hawker Hall – in search of a by-the-book cul­tur­ally au­then­tic-sen­si­tive dining ex­pe­ri­ence. His genre has long been restau­rant as night­club, all crowds, thump­ing tunes, flashy de­sign and cock­tails built for thrillseek­ers.

Even given the head-spin­ning amount of time and money (12 months for the build alone and a price tag in the mil­lions) thrown at Kisumé’s de­sign, re­cruit­ment and pro­duce, and a reser­va­tions pol­icy that elim­i­nates the queue, it’s still very much a Lu­cas restau­rant. So the bet­ter ques­tion to ask is: are we hav­ing fun yet?

The an­swer is a def­i­nite yes. Though there are pearl-clutch­ing mo­ments along the way.

The first of these comes with the dé­cor.

Kisumé is carved out of a 1950s of­fice build­ing – lit­er­ally in the case of the el­e­gant Amer­i­can oak stair­cases link­ing the three lev­els punched through the build­ing’s con­crete floors. Ar­chi­tects Wood Marsh have de­signed the in­te­ri­ors with their trade­mark dra­matic light and shadow. The the­atri­cal light­ing, dark-hued pal­ette and leather, tim­ber, vel­vet and brass de­tail­ing give the place a self-con­sciously sexy, high-end club feel. Those of a cer­tain age may even flash back to the 1980s and the sim­i­larly three-level In­fla­tion night­club on King Street, an early en­try on the Wood Marsh CV that has an echo here.

The top level, called Kuro Kisumé, is like the VIP sec­tion of a night­club. It’s the home of the mir­ro­rand brass-de­tailed Ch­ablis Bar, two pri­vate rooms cur­tained off with dusty-pink vel­vet cur­tains and a glass wine wall con­tain­ing gob­s­mack­ing vin­tages of bench­mark Old and New World wines. There’s also a 12-seat kaiseki bar down one end, presently an empty stage wait­ing for the promised $175-a-head deluxe omakase menus from Kisumé ex­ec­u­tive chef, Kyung­soo Moon, to com­mence.

Kuro Kisumé also sports a row of spotlit ex­plicit bondage-themed pho­tos from Ja­panese artist>

Nobuyoshi Araki. It’s a bold de­sign move – provoca­tive, po­ten­tially con­tro­ver­sial, but taste­ful, col­lected. Per­fect for droll con­tem­pla­tion over a $60 glass of 2009 Do­maine Bil­laud-Si­mon Ch­ablis.

There’s more Araki in the base­ment, though the im­ages seem less im­me­di­ate on this bustling level, its open kitchen pump­ing out the restau­rant’s “hot menu” – a roll­call of tem­pura and dumplings and whole grilled fish in­clud­ing an art­ful-look­ing, su­perbly cooked mack­erel flavoured with gin­ger and a chilli and sesame ponzu.

The art on Kisumé’s street level, home to the restau­rant’s cen­tre­piece bam­boo-topped sushi bar, is the work of Aus­tralian pho­tog­ra­pher Polly Bor­land. Bor­land’s im­ages don’t fea­ture bound semi-naked women like Araki’s but, none­the­less, they’re fas­ci­nat­ing, well con­structed and slightly dis­turb­ing. Which also de­scribes some of the sushi.

There’s a cou­ple of en­try points for sushi at

Kisumé. Those af­ter a clas­sic ex­pe­ri­ence need to hold out for a book­ing at the sushi bar and opt for the omakase. Oth­er­wise the sushi is mostly about set op­tions and com­pli­cated rolls, many blinged and pimped with gold leaf, caviar and mi­cro-herbs. Boxes con­tain­ing the assorted sushi, or the tuna or salmon “fea­tures” ar­rive re­sem­bling trays of Lego where the maker has ditched the in­struc­tions and gone rogue – colour­ful, sculp­tural, com­pli­cated, of­ten for no other rea­son than en­ter­tain­ment.

It’s the same for most of the raw fish on the place­mat sushi menu. The toro tartare, for in­stance, ar­rives in a metal-fin­ish bowl sit­ting on a pile of ice in­side a larger ceramic bowl. Dainty mother-of-pearl spoons rest on the ice. The tartare, a disc of ex­em­plary but chilly chopped tuna belly, sits in a pool of wasabispiked soy sauce and is topped with caviar, salmon roe, finely chopped shiso and lit­tle pearls of Ja­panese yam. Purist-min­i­mal­ist sushi fans may need smelling salts.

But it’s a fun dish to eat. Dig­ging through it, you get pops of flavour and tex­ture, a flare of salt, a hum of umami, a back­ground wasabi burn ac­com­pa­nied by the thrill of pil­ing all those lux­ury in­gre­di­ents into your mouth at the same time.

It can be tempt­ing to get a lit­tle snooty about Kisumé’s push to make sushi great again, but the en­thu­si­as­tic show­man­ship of chef Moon is hard to re­sist with­out feel­ing like a stick in the mud.

But this is where Kisumé re­ally shows its met­tle be­cause, if you want to be a stick in the mud, they’ve got some­thing for you, too. Book your­self an omakase, clam­ber into a com­fort­ably up­hol­stered bar stool and ob­serve just how se­ri­ously chef Moon and Ja­panese broth­ers and sushi mas­ters Yo­suke and Shim­pei Hatanaka take their in­gre­di­ents and knife skills.

The sushi omakase might be­gin blingy – a po­tato chip topped with osci­etra caviar, tuna and gold leaf bal­anced over an eggshell filled with a sweet­corn purée that has a cen­tre of dark purple beet­root purée – but mostly tones it down af­ter that. The fish – and the skills – be­come the thing.

Akame zuki – bluefin tuna mar­i­nated in soy in front of you for about seven min­utes – ar­rives un­adorned ex­cept for some house-pick­led Tas­ma­nian gin­ger. Su­perb baby abalone gets a dust­ing of salt while a scampi and uni com­bi­na­tion is lifted with fin­ger lime and gin­ger. Mack­erel smoked on the bin­chotan grill comes rolled, Osaka style, around rice and flavoured with yuzu. There’s a mar­vel­lous otoro dou­ble, raw and just seared tuna belly bound to­gether on top of rice rolled with tiny sliv­ers of fresh wasabi.

Moon can’t seem to re­sist a bit of flash – there’s a prawn, toro and uni com­bi­na­tion ni­giri that gets the caviar and gold-leaf treat­ment, and the seared Black­more wagyu ni­giri ar­rives un­der a glass dome

filled with smoke – but his gor­geous miso soup with chrysan­the­mum tofu, the tofu sliced into del­i­cate ten­drils that wave like sea­weed in the broth, shows that he also has a tal­ent for more sub­tle show­man­ship.

There’s gold in the omakase drink pair­ing, too. For­mer Eleven Madi­son Park som­me­lier Jonathan Ross pulls to­gether a sleek and beau­ti­ful col­lec­tion of clas­sic things to put down that might start with Kisumé’s glug­gable on-tap house sake (Shiki Jun­mai) and then roam to a 2006 Fran­k­land Es­tate Iso­la­tion Ridge ries­ling, a 2009 Jean Chau­venet Nuits-St Ge­orge Les Vau­crains Premier Cru Bur­gundy, and a bril­liant smoky-rich umeshu by Osaka’s Choya Kokuto.

Sur­pris­ingly, given Kisumé’s clear am­bi­tion to ex­tend the Ja­panese ex­pe­ri­ence in this town, wine is em­pha­sised over sake. The pres­ence of wine guy Philip Rich – for­merly of Prince Wine Store – and the ex­is­tence of the third-floor Ch­ablis Bar make it a lit­tle less sur­pris­ing. Ch­ablis alone runs to four by the glass and more than 60 by the bot­tle. The sake of­fer­ing, on the other hand, oc­cu­pies just two of the list’s 20 pages.

The wine list chan­nels Kisumé’s demo­cratic, some­thing-for-ev­ery­body ap­proach with great en­try-level by-the-glass prices for the likes of Vic­to­rian ries­ling and Provençal rosé. At the other end of the spec­trum, there’s the wine wall on the top level, where buffs can browse gor­geously racked and il­lu­mi­nated bench­marks un­til their hearts are pound­ing and their palms sweaty.

Desserts will more likely calm the heart­beat than set it rac­ing. A lay­ered pineap­ple num­ber, how­ever, of soft white car­toon­ish-look­ing pavlova sprin­kled with matcha and set in a glass with a dried pineap­ple chip and quenelle of sor­bet sus­pended on top, gives it a bet­ter crack than most Ja­panese joints in Mel­bourne.

Kisumé is not like most Ja­panese places in Mel­bourne. Big­ger, flashier, it owes more to Amer­ica’s glam sushi palaces than it does to any­thing homegrown. It’s brash, sure, and not in­ter­ested in the hushed-tem­ple-of-peace­ful-min­i­mal­ism model.

But there’s an ap­plause-wor­thy com­mit­ment to great in­gre­di­ents, tal­ented pro­fes­sion­als, sharp ser­vice, good de­sign and de­li­cious things to drink. It’s a Chris Lu­cas restau­rant, not con­cerned about step­ping on a few toes and tra­di­tions on the path to some fun. But one thing’s for sure: Kisumé will show you a good time.

A BIG­GER SPLASH Clock­wise, from top left: (from left) Kisumé’s Chris Lu­cas, chef Kyung­soo Moon and som­me­lier Jonathan Ross; otoro dou­ble ni­giri.

MAS­TER STROKE Clock­wise from above: chef Kyung­soo Moon at the kaiseki bar; Kisumé’s street-level sushi bar; miso soup with chrysan­the­mum tofu.

CLEAR CUT From left: lay­ered pineap­ple pavlova.

Left: sushi chef Yo­suke Hatanaka. Right: Kisumé’s Flin­ders Lane en­trance.

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