There are two cartoon-like illustrations of husband-and-wife duo and Ilza founders Han Oh and Erin Kim on the fridge behind the counter at the CBD’s new Japanese spot, Ilza. “I used to have short hair, and he used to be that skinny,” Kim jokes.
The illustrations were designed by one of Oh’s friends when the couple opened the first Ilza location in Docklands just under five years ago. The pair, who met while working at Nobu’s Melbourne location – Kim in the kitchen where she started as an apprentice and worked her way up to sous-chef, and Oh on the floor and as a junior sommelier – opened their fourth location just last month.
The Little Collins Street shopfront has just 25 seats including the outdoor area. Kim, who has an interest in interiors, designed the space herself and matched the white square subway tiles and the wood grain and colour from the next-door restaurant, 11 Inch Pizza, which used to also occupy the new Ilza space.
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The restaurant in both its decor and atmosphere is decidedly more casual than the Japanese fine diner where the couple met. “I had only fine-dining experience, but once we opened our own business, I wanted to be more casual to serve more people,” says Kim. “If you’re only in fine dining, only a few people can afford it, but we both had good experience and we both love dining, so we started to make our food more casual.”
The couple are Korean, but Kim’s culinary training is Japanese. At Ilza, Kim says the ingredients and technique are mostly Japanese, but she brings in some Korean ingredients, too. One example is in spicy teriyaki sauce, in which Kim “twists” Japanese teriyaki sauce with Korean gochujang.
Fans of the couple’s other Ilza locations in Docklands, Box Hill South and Nunawading will be familiar with the lunch offerings at the city outpost. There’s Kim’s corn cheese harumaki, a Korean-American dish combining canned corn, mayonnaise and cheese, which she wraps in a rice paper roll and fries. There’s also her signature hamburger curry udon, a Japanese curry served with a hamburger patty that is filled with cheese, battered, and then fried.
But dinner at the Little Collins Street location is filled with new dishes largely inspired by the izakaya restaurants Kim visited on trips to Osaka. There’s hibachi-grilled yakitori, raw dishes like kingfish crudo and salmon tartare, and croquettes filled with mozzarella and served with jalapeno mayo to “give it a little kick," as Kim says.
Kim’s food is made to pair well with Oh’s cocktails. “I like to mix and match things, but not too fancy,” he says of his drinks style. Popular alcoholic offerings include the Peach Hana, which mixes lychee and peach soju with Cointreau and house-made strawberry jam, the Vodka Highball and the Yuzu Margarita. There’s also a small selection of sake and Japanese beers on offer.
While working at Nobu, Kim used to bake as a form of meditation and relaxation on her days off. Now, she uses her sweet skills at work and develops all the recipes for Ilza’s dessert offerings. These include strawberry shortcake; orange, matcha and black sesame Basque cheesecakes and matcha tiramisu.
While the couple builds their mini Ilza empire together, Kim hopes the next spot will be more of a “Erin’s Sweet Shop”-type concept, where she’s able to get creative with desserts.
Ilza Izakaya and Snack Bar
Shop 5, 353 Little Collins St, Melbourne
0430 712 234
Mon to Sat 11.30am–3.00pm
Thurs to Sat 11.30am–3.00pm; 5.30pm–9:30pm