Sake Corner #7

‘Celebrity’ is the buzzword of the 21st century. We are accustomed to the rock stars, the royals, the models and the sports stars but now, aided and abetted by reality TV, chefs are the latest members of the cult.

Executive Chef at Saké Restaurant Melbourne Shaun Presland joins the ranks as Australia’s first Caucasian sushi chef. Saké Melbourne, on the river at Hamer Hall, is the sister restaurant of Urban Purveyor Group’s Sydney and Brisbane restaurants, and Chef Presland commutes between the three sharing his extensive experience in Japan with Rose Ang to deliver a menu of original and contemporary interpretations of Japanese cuisine. Presland learned his art in a 350 year old ryokan in Yamagata under the tutelage of Jeanie Fuji and brings to Saké the invaluable experience he gained working at Unkai at the former ANA Hotel, now the Shangri-La, in Sydney. Unkai was a favourite of all at LKG and remains the country’s only truly fine Japanese dining experience. How we wish for a resurrection.

The house special and worthy of the name is kingfish sashimi with yuzu sauce and thinly sliced jalapeno peppers. This has been on our selection of dishes on each of now many visits. Other favourites are salmon with quinoa, enoki mushrooms, kombu and dashi; lightly seared Wagyu beef, hot oil, ginger, chives and yuzu sauce; crunchy tempura scampi tails with sweet ponzu, coriander and peppers; sashimi tacos filled with tomato salsa served with a short, salt rimmed, glass of Sake, and we have to confess to a weak spot for the tonkatsu cups, Saké’s version of everyone’s favourite pork cutlets and sang choi bao. Regulars such as edamame, nasu dengaku (eggplant with miso paste), crispy chicken, beef tataki and various sushi and sashimi platters are there too. Each dish is delivered in an order determined by the kitchen (so far this has been a great experience).

True to its name, Japanese Sake is an important part of the restaurant’s identity.  Saké has an exclusive arrangement with the Nakashima Brewing company’s signature label Kozaemon, and a particular brew has been created exclusively for the restaurant. There are over 10 different brews covering the full spectrum of Sake grades from Honjozo to Daiginjo as well as some more boutique varities such as Umeushu (Plumb sake), Koshu (Aged Sake) and some blended Sake (mixing sake with fresh juices during the brewing process). There is also a premium sake which is made with ‘King Rice’, the best sake making rice in Japan. Some of the more exotic blended Sakes are an ideal complement to Saké’s dessert menu. The special dessert tasting plate, a truly artistic creation, adds a Japanese twist to familiar European treats.

The restaurant was designed by award-winning interior design house Luchetti Krelle. Taking full advantage of the river and city views, Saké is contemporary with a hint of Japan, a sophisticated venue with a familiarity that suggests it’s always been there. In acknowledgement of its place at the heart of Melbourne’s arts precinct, selected works by Shumei Kobayashi and Mitsuo Shoji from Lesley Kehoe Galleries enhance the cultured vibe.

Shumei Kobayashi sitting in front of his work in one of the private dining rooms

A glaring omission from restaurant reviews and something I feel is a serious oversight, are restaurant bathrooms. The bathrooms at Saké have been given the same level of attention as the rest of the restaurant and are beautifully designed, I would suggest at the top of a list were there one for Melbourne’s restaurants. Nothing ruins a dining experience more than a bathroom that resembles crude public facilities, is dirty, smelly, an afterthought in design and customer service… and unfortunately this applies to some of Melbourne’s ‘top’ restaurants.

Online reviews mention high prices and occasional bad service, something that we have not encountered. Prices would certainly not be regarded as cheap but are not inconsistent with the overall level of quality and Melbourne market. If there is a caution, it is that consistency of the quality of the dishes has not yet been achieved. We assume this is part of the evolution of the restaurant and perhaps an inherent weakness of the celebrity chef cult. After all, the celebrity chef can’t be in each restaurant all the time.

We recommend going with a large group, as most dishes are shared plates, providing the opportunity to sample more of the menu – most importantly, to do justice to the dessert tasting plate.

Left to right: Artists Jun Inoue and Shumei Kobayashi with Lesley Kehoe

Other media reviews of Saké:
The Age Good Food Guide : read here
Urbanspoon Consumer Reviews : read here
Sydney Morning Herald – Japan Insider : read here
Sydney Morning Herald – Restaurant Review : read here

All images (except images of Shumei Kobayashi) courtesy of Saké restaurant.