Kisumé, though? It needs a paternity test.
We visited on a Friday night. There’s no thumping music. No deafening noise. No waiters dressed in casual clothes. No riotous colours on the walls. And this may come as a shock, but you can actually reserve a table. So no lines.
This is how it’s going to be from now on – high-end. The Lucas Group’s next two Melbourne projects are an unnamed Italian restaurant with Harry Lilai and another with Martin Benn and Vicki Wild, two of the most respected names in Sydney fine dining.
“I’m hoping to redefine higher-end dining,” Lucas says. “I don’t want to call it fine dining. I want to call it sophisticated dining, right? But I want to make it fun, youthful, fresh and exciting, just like I did with casual dining.”
The three-storey Kisumé (“ki-soo-meh”) is our first glimpse of that vision.
On the top floor, there’s Kuro Kisumé, a restaurant within a restaurant. Here, you can book a 12-seat, $175 per head kaiseki-style omakase (Japanese fine dining degustation, for lack of a better translation) with sushi master and senior executive chef Moon Kyung Soo at the centre of your table all night. There are also two private “rooms” sectioned off with curtains, and a waiting room-slash-bar simply called “The Chablis Bar”. It offers 80 varieties of chablis by the bottle, and a rotating selection by the glass.
“Chablis has a particular set of characteristics that are certainly not available in any other type of wine, or even sake,” Lucas says. “It has a mineral, flinty, steely character to it that’s perfectly matched with seafood.”
The next floor down, at street level, contains “a really big-city, New York-style” sushi bar with an intimate view of Japanese brothers Yosuke and Shimpei Hatanaka carefully slicing bluefin tuna, salmon, prawns and sea bream from Australia and New Zealand.
In opposition to Minamishima and its Tokyo Fish Market fish, nothing at Kisumé is flown in from elsewhere. Behind the brothers, there’s a long alcove displaying an impressive collection of knives – a statement of intent if we’ve ever seen one.
The windowless basement is the most bustling part of the restaurant, containing a hot kitchen, a large semi-private nook and tables packed more densely than anywhere else.
As the two kitchens suggest, the menu is largely split between hot and cold dishes.
Some cold choices include three types of oysters; a very simple salmon sashimi paired with a little mound of marinated fennel; and a neat puck of Wagyu tartare. It’s topped with a thin layer of the mint-like herb shiso and a trembling quail-egg yolk. Then there are various sushi rolls and sashimi.
This type of food would never fly at Chin Chin and family. It’s too refined. As much as those restaurants were built on a fun atmosphere, they were built on shareable, smashable dishes made for everyone. Dishes fast to make, and fast to eat. Hawker Hall’s curried potato cakes spring to mind.
In some sense Kisumé is the aloof intellectual in a family of likeable jocks.
Which is not to say it doesn’t know how to have fun. In the hot section, the triangular prawn and foie gras “potstickers” (the American term for pan-fried dumplings) are utterly smashable, especially after a few yuzu cocktails; or a house pinot noir or riesling made by Yabby Lake’s Tom Carson. There are also house beers and sake under the Shiki label, the latter made by Nehoni near Yokohama.
The grilled hiramasa kingfish has a meaty bite and umami hit thanks to the bonito broth it’s splashed with. Kakiage is a leaning stack of whiting, prawn, mushroom, asparagus, eggplant and corn, all muddled up, tempura-battered and fried. It comes with three flavoured salts. Nearly everyone will get a kick out of sprinkling a little on each bite to compare the in-mouth results.
But when it comes to the primal and moreish, it’s the maple- and soy-glazed Berkshire pork ribs that will get tables trading greasy, satisfied smiles. In light of this and the placemat-style menus, it’s clear Kisumé has more Lucas Group DNA than it first appears.
“I don’t want to create cookie-cutter restaurants time after time,” Lucas says. “I want to be able to surprise the market, I want to be able to engage the market. It’s about creating something unique, with its own fingerprint.”
When it comes to Kisumé, that fingerprint is international. At the door, you’ll be met by general manager Markus Tschuschnig who comes from Masa, one of New York’s top omakase restaurants (and certainly its most expensive).
New sommelier Jonathan Ross will be floating across all the Lucas Group’s restaurants, including Chin Chin Sydney, to improve the wine culture. His last job was head sommelier at Eleven Madison Park, crowned number one at last month’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards.
Executive chef Shaun Presland is Australian, but he’s spent so much time making sushi in Japan and at Nobu in the Bahamas that he may as well be “an international”.
And then, of course, there’s the Hatanaka brothers and South Korean chef Moon, who’s worked in Tokyo, Dubai and Singapore.
Even apart from the team, Kisumé does look and feel like a New York restaurant – the kind you’d find in mid- or lower Manhattan, in scale, design and diner, and its bustling city location.
“I wanted it to be beautiful and of an international status,” Lucas says. “Having lived in Japan, having experienced and got to know and understand the culture, I knew that to execute Japanese and do it properly, on a world-class basis, it really needed a broad set of skills and a really high level of dedicated talent. I wasn’t prepared to do it until I had the capability.
“It’s been a two-year, very long and intensive process which involved a lot more time and effort than any of my other restaurants. It’s something I’ve really enjoyed. It’s been really stimulating to do something as beautiful and ground-breaking as Kisumé.
“The feedback we’ve been getting from everyone is that it’s something they haven’t quite seen in Melbourne.”
He’s right – we haven’t seen many things this physically large and conceptually ambitious in Melbourne. It makes the Lucas Group’s other restaurants seem modest. Even Hawker Hall.
But can it redefine high-end dining? We’ll have to wait and see.
175 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
(03) 9671 4888
Hours (May 15 to May 21)
Mon to Fri 5pm–late
Hours (May 22 onwards)
Mon to Fri 11am–late
This article was updated on July 7, 2017.