By the time my bowl of chirashi – a variety of sashimi scattered over lightly sweetened sushi rice seasoned with salt and vinegar – lands on the table, I’ve already heard chef and owner Arnaud Laidebeur’s spiel about the dish twice. I’m seated in the centre of his six-seater and the diners on either side of me have already been served. But I don’t mind hearing it again. The way he talks about each ingredient shows his reverence for the fish and produce.

Ora King salmon from NZ is mixed with a special sauce. Hiramasa kingfish from SA with lime zest and spring-onion oil. Raw paradise prawn with miso and sesame. Fresh Hokkaido scallop, left as is. As for the rest, there’s snapper, bluefin tuna, pickled cucumber, Yarra Valley salmon caviar, roasted cashews, plus extras – Tasmanian uni (sea urchin) and otoro, or fatty bluefin tuna belly. We all watch on, transfixed, as head chef Rémi Abry prepares our bowls, meticulously placing each topping on the bed of rice.

The snug sushi-restaurant-within-a-cafe is called Uminono: “umi” is Japanese for the sea, and “Nono” was Laidebeur’s nickname growing up. And while he began his career cooking classic French cuisine at bistros and hotel restaurants in France and London, he’s been a fan of sushi for much longer.

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“You know how, as a kid, your parents would give you money for McDonald’s? I was saving my money so at the end of the month I could go have sushi. Looking back, [that place] was terrible, I’d never go back there,” he says with a laugh. “But it was the first time I had sushi rice – a bit sweet, a bit tangy – and I’ve loved sushi since then.”

In Melbourne, he prepared sushi at home for his housemates, who encouraged him to pursue it. Owning a business had always been his goal, so Laidebaur launched Uminono in 2018 as a private-dining experience, catering for small groups and bringing his sushi omakase to people’s homes.

“One day – it was my birthday – I went to dinner at Minamishima with my wife, and halfway through dinner I stopped and told her, ‘That’s it, that’s what I want to do,’” he says. “‘I don’t want to cook French cuisine anymore, I want to be doing sushi.’”

He started selling takeaway sushi boxes towards the end of 2019, and fully focused on them when lockdowns hit (Sunda and Aru’s Khanh Nguyen was a fan). In early 2021, the owner of St Edmonds offered him a spot inside the Prahran cafe, and the restaurant was born.

It’s bizarre at first, sitting at a sushi bar surrounded by other diners sipping coffee and enjoying their brunches. But when the fish comes out and the team starts carefully slicing each one to order, the cafe fades into the background.

There are only two other dishes besides the signature chirashi. The chirashi tartare sees diced salmon, tuna and kingfish each mixed with different sauces and accompaniments, such as pine nuts, chives and spring-onion oil. They’re all served on top of sushi rice with a 24-hour-soy-sauce-marinated egg yolk and sheets of nori – mix the rice, fish and egg together, then scoop the mixture into the roasted seaweed like a DIY handroll.

The other dish is seasonal: currently it’s uni with scallops, spanner crab and yuzu mayo. In the winter it was salmon chirashi with fresh truffle, and for summer the team is looking at scampi, lobster and crayfish.

“When I was doing private dining, every night I would get home with extra sushi rice and extra fish, so at 1am my dinner was beer and a bowl of rice with all the sushi scraps on top and it was so good,” he says. “What I’m doing now is exactly what I would have wanted to find for myself on my day off and have for lunch – sit at the counter, talk to the chef, watch him prepare my order.”

All the fish he uses is dry-aged for three days to enhance the flavour and treated with different sauces, marinades and garnishes. It’s the same for the takeaway sushi boxes, which make up the bulk of Uminono’s business. There are 11 to choose from, with the bestseller being the omakase box (22 nigiri and eight maki). This month there’s also a limited-edition box to raise funds for Movember, with all proceeds donated. The boxes are pre-order only; they sell out as fast as the lunch seats.

The drinks list is just as tight as the food: there’s a refreshing Roku G&T with fresh yuzu, Monsuta Okinawa Dry beer, Toji sake and a changing wine of the week – expect crisp whites such as chardonnay, chablis and riesling.

Uminono
Rear 154 Greville Street, Prahran
0481 112 235

Hours
Lunch
Wed to Sat, seatings at 12pm and 1.30pm
Takeaway pick-up
Wed to Sun 11.30am–12pm, 3pm–7pm

uminono.com.au