There’s a 12-seat bamboo horseshoe on the top floor of Kisumé, Chris Lucas’ new three-storey Japanese restaurant on Flinders Lane.
This curvilinear bar is called The Table, and it’s partitioned off from the rest of the floor – called Kuro Kisumé – by a heavy blush velvet curtain, on the other side of which are two private dining rooms and a space called the Chablis Bar.
Kisumé’s South Korean senior executive chef Moon Kyung Soo runs the show here. He steps out into his small cooking cockpit from behind a solemn black curtain. Over the next few hours he will be part chef, part teacher, as he guides 12 diners through a 15-course Japanese degustation known as kaiseki. He garnishes each course with precise slices and scoops of this and that, and with all sorts of facts and anecdotes.
Lucas is here too, and he sits proudly at the head of the table.
“We never set out to try to replicate what is effectively a traditional practice in Japan,” says Lucas, who, as far as he knows, claims to be the first and only person “crazy enough” to do kaiseki – a centuries-old Japanese haute cuisine tradition – in Australia.
The only “real rule,” Lucas says, “is the food should be from the local environment.”
Another rule is excellence – kaiseki is all about superlatives: the best ingredients, the best presentation, the best service. (It's also worth noting that kaiseki, which mixes raw, steamed and grilled dishes, is different from omakase, a multi-course chef's selection of sashimi and sushi.)
Chef Moon is evidently having a love affair with our local goodies. Especially seafood.
“I hope you’re proud of your own product,” Moon says as he pulls out a wooden box full of wriggling, mostly still-living seafood – abalone, urchin, mud crab, crayfish – plus some fresh Tasmanian wasabi stems.
Lucas has spent a considerable amount of time in both Japan and South Korea and says “the Japanese are far more conservative, far more rigid and less adept to change” when it comes to kaiseki. “Whereas the Koreans are quite the opposite.” So Moon, who has worked in a number of top kitchens in Japan, Singapore and Dubai, is able to give this ambitious project a necessary contemporary touch. His cooking is bold and precise and yes, maybe even a little mad.
As he hands out a round of mud crab and sea urchin (served inside a dark, spikey urchin shell, and topped with a little mound of caviar, with a garnish of gold flakes), Moon explains how he got the inspiration for the next dish: sliced abalone and sea bream fish tofu in bonito broth. He’d seen coffee syphons for the first time while on an outing to Lygon Street, so he bought a bunch to flash-boil bonito flakes – Katsuobushi – for his broth, a theatrical process conducted during the meal. Think gurgling bunsen burners, for foodies. The Katsuobushi is among the few non-domestic ingredients used at Kisume, and comes from the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.
For another course, Moon and his assistants serve hollowed out eggshells that are filled with custard and small slithers of pearl meat from the Northern Territory – they look like little modernist sculptures. The top of the eggshells are so precisely truncated that you have to wonder if there’s a large pile of failed attempts out back. (Or maybe there’s just a device that get’s it done in one slice?) It’s served on top of a big glistening pearl shell, and with a delicately placed wafer with cuts of raw abalone and caviar trapezing over the top.
Scampi sashimi is sweet and dense with sour pops of finger lime; a roll of toro, foie gras and black truffle is rich, decadent and one of the highlights; a gooey, sweet pineapple, lychee and passionfruit dessert comes served in a tube – it should be sucked back in one amusing slurp.
Overseeing the liquid side of things, Lucas has imported sommelier Jonathan Ross, from Eleven Madison Park, in New York (currently ranked number one on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list). His pairing options include a 1993 Bannockburn Estate pinot noir, a Nathalie Oudin Les Serres chablis from 2014 and Nigori Umeshu (sweet unfiltered plum wine). Sake from Ishikawa in Japan is served in heavy, gold-encased pewter goblets.
Lucas says this is, in culinary terms, “a pretty important moment for Melbourne.” With the exception of Masa in New York and Urasawa in Los Angeles, there isn’t a lot of kaiseki outside of Japan.
Why? “Because they’re un-economical," he explains. “Melbourne is effectively on the world stage here.”
The Table costs $175 per person for food, and $175 for a wine pairing. Bookings essential.
175 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
(03) 9671 4888
Wed to Sat: Dinner only – start time varies based on booking