It’s probably one of the worst-kept secrets in the Melbourne dining scene, but chef and (former) owner Tomotaka Ishizuka left Ishizuka right after it was awarded two hats for the 2019 Good Food Guide. Ishizuka walked away from his 16-seater, hidden kaiseki (degustation) restaurant commanding $235 a head, moved up the street to a narrow, neon-filled shop front and opened an izakaya with food revolving around the bincho tan- a grill fuelled by premium, dense Japanese charcoal.
As with most izakayas, the aim of the game at Bincho Boss is to drink and soak up all the drinks with outrageously delicious booze-friendly snacks. Seating is all at bar height and on stools, even when you’re not at the bar, so feel free to put elbows on tables, eat with your fingers and double-park your drinks. Classic cocktails receive Japanese flourishes like the Mandarin Sakegroni, a citrus-inflected Negroni with the addition of sake and none of the bitterness, or the Matcha Highball, which combines cinnamon whisky with regular whisky, green tea and soda to make a sweet, bitter and fiery Highball. High-quality junmai and junmai daiginjo sake (premium sake made from rice polished down to 60% and 50% its size, respectively) come in single serves, 300mL pours or 720mL bottles, destined for lone, couple or group drinking. You can decide which sizes suit your needs; we don’t judge. Wines are a concise and considered collection, celebrating conventional and newer styles of Australian winemaking, sitting around the $70 sweet spot so as not to break the bank. Oh, and Asahi and Asahi Black are on tap, meaning anyone indulging in the fried section of the menu (everyone) has a frosty, 400mL handle in front of them. Who are we to buck the trend?
Speaking of fried things, Bincho Boss turns out expert examples of tako (octopus) karaage where the bitey nuggets of tentacles are outstandingly crisp, even after the necessary squeeze of lemon. The deep-fried Japanese fishcake is unashamedly trashy but tasty, stuffing tubes of chikuwa fishcake with cheese before frying and seasoning with seaweed, resulting in an additive snack we’re almost embarrassed to admit that we couldn’t stop eating.
On the more elegant spectrum, chilled, house-made tofu comes set in a shallow bowl, topped with grated ginger, chives and Yarra Valley salmon roe, where the naturally sweet soybean base is tickled by hints of heat, salt and crunch to make you rethink everything you ever thought you knew about tofu. The ubiquitous and often abused chawanmushi (steamed egg custard) is equally delightful, scented with bonito and wobbling like the most delicate pannacotta, studded with chicken, prawn, shimeji mushrooms and okra. Salmon sashimi comes in six- and 15-slice serves and is a mix of fillet and fatty belly meat, accompanied by real wasabi (rather than that dyed mustard and horseradish concoction out of a tube) and pickled fennel. Chilled duck might not sound appetising, but Ishizuka’s blush-pink, lightly smoked slices of breast sitting on top of a dollop of intense, sweet miso, punctuated by mustard and the sharpness of sorrel, will be filed in the ‘Dishes You Come Back For’ folder in your brain. If you must have a salad, make it the white fish salad, which on this occasion is slices of raw kingfish nestled between lengths okra cooked just enough to preserve its crunch rather than release its slime, blanched Brussels sprout leaves and a fan of deliberately unripe tomato, under a ceremonious, table-side flooding of sweet Japanese mustard dressing. Technically a salad? Yes. Healthy? Nope.
And what of the bincho tan? The main event. Well, if you have the stomach for it, eat it all. $15.50 for five grill-kissed Hokkaido scallops cooked rare and doused in garlic butter with King Brown mushrooms is both a bargain and a treat, even if the carbon footprint gods are crying. The eight score Wagyu porterhouse arrives at the table under a salt crust, requiring the waitstaff to release its fatty bovine delights with a mallet and a bit of chopstick gymnastics to reveal pre-sliced, charcoal-cooked steak, which is, after all the theatrics, a touch overdone and finished off with a soy, garlic and butter sauce. If you’re a fan of meat on sticks, the turkey meatball is Ishizuka’s take on tsukune (traditionally a chicken meatball): soft, fluffy and studded with black pepper and leek, teriyaki glazed with hints of bincho-tan caramelisation.
Bincho Boss is a giant deviation from the revelatory kaiseki dishes Ishizuka is known for, but his izakaya is miles above what we know in Melbourne and booze is kept at relatively cheery prices. Strap in, order up, get rowdy and prepare yourselves for the inevitable hangover in the morning.