“I started as a kitchenhand in Kenzan not knowing a single word of Japanese. I was on the tempura station for five years,” Korean-born chef Hansol Lee explains as he pours me a welcome drink flavoured with sudachi, a Japanese citrus variety akin to lime. The flower petals on the inside of the shallow cup change from light pink to red. “My Korean name means ‘pine tree’; ‘matsu’ in Japanese. So Matsu is me, I am Matsu.”

It’s also the name of the tiny four-seat restaurant he opened in Footscray this month with business and life partner Elly Hong. Together they’re serving kaiseki, a traditional Japanese multi-course meal format that involves small, intricate seasonal dishes, following a specific order and structure.

“We’re trying to offer something more than sushi in Melbourne,” Hong says. “Four seats is the number we feel comfortable [with] to deliver the best kaiseki experience to our diners, like those little shops you wander into Japan."

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Yet one does not simply wander into Matsu. It’s only open for two seatings, four nights a week, with new slots released on a month-by-month basis. The rigid format also means the duo can’t cater for dietary or allergy restrictions.

When I visited, the first course was a Tasmanian oyster topped with inky Siberian caviar, followed by a cup of chawanmushi (steamed egg custard) with a prawn the size of a baby’s fist in it, then a seasonal platter with cured octopus, delicate pearls of Yarra Valley salmon roe and crunchy smoked kazunoko (herring roe) served under a glass cloche.

Aside from the one-man show of prepping, cooking, slicing and serving sashimi and other Oceania seafood dishes, Lee didn’t miss a beat interacting with his diners. A clear soup with scallop and fish meatball was as honest and interesting as his Japanese cooking tips and historical anecdotes.

With another course, rock lobster tempura, I feverishly worked my chopsticks to extract the remaining flavour before more food arrived in rapid succession: nigiri sushi with tenderised squid, duck fish, otoro (tuna belly) and blowtorched 9+ marble score Wagyu were placed on the counter in rapid succession.

The main rice dish, cooked in rock lobster stock with crisp Korean seaweed and mentaiko (spicy cod roe) topping, was a nod to Lee’s birthplace.

Dessert was black sesame ice-cream, peach, red bean paste and datemaki (sweet egg roll) containing finely minced prawn and fish.

“The final dish of most fine-dining meals is always a Big Mac [afterwards] because we are usually left hungry. I hope you are full tonight, but just in case,” Lee says, handing guests a goodie bag containing an onigiri (rice ball). “For supper, or breakfast tomorrow, so you will think of me one more time.”

Bookings for Matsu open on the first day of each month at 10pm and can be made via Matsu's website. Dinner is $210 per person with an optional $85 alcohol pairing.

Matsu
157A Barkly Street, Footscray
No phone

Sittings
Wed to Sat 6pm & 8.30pm

matsuxbar.com
@matsu_footscray