When Korean-born chef Hansol Lee started working at revered Melbourne restaurant Kenzan, he didn’t know a single word of Japanese. He stayed on for a decade, including five years working the tempura station. This experience is evident at Matsu, the four-seat Footscray restaurant he owns with business and life partner Elly Hong. Hansol means pine tree in Korean – and matsu means the same in Japanese. So the restaurant is named after him, just in the language of his adopted culture.
Together the couple serves kaiseki, a traditional Japanese multi-course meal format that involves small, intricate seasonal dishes, following a specific order and structure. Matsu is only open for two seatings four nights a week, with new slots released on a month-by-month basis (at midnight on the final day of each month). The rigid format also means the duo can’t cater for dietary or allergy restrictions.
When Broadsheet 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.
Later, nigiri sushi with tenderised squid, duck fish, otoro (tuna belly) and blowtorched 9+ marble score wagyu were placed on the counter in rapid succession. Then came a main rice dish, cooked in rock lobster stock, with crisp Korean seaweed and mentaiko (spicy cod roe), a nod to Lee’s birthplace.
Apart from the one-man show of prepping, cooking, slicing and serving sashimi and other dishes from Oceania seafood, Lee doesn’t miss a beat interacting with his diners. Sake pairings are optional, but if you’ve gone to the effort of securing a booking, something we emphatically suggest.
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