While our city is filled with a labyrinth of outstanding and historic establishments, few really deserve the coveted title of being a Melbourne culinary institution – an overused and often meaningless phrase. However, after experiencing a meal in the tranquil yet dynamic dining room at Kenzan, the Collins Street restaurant that has been serving traditional Japanese fare since 1981, you leave with the feeling that there aren’t many ways more apt to describe the place.
The restaurant's modest nature begins with the nondescript glass entrance within the Collins Place food court. A carpeted dining room gives away its age, and while there isn’t much going on in terms of décor, the gentle touches of low-hanging lanterns and traditional Japanese flower arrangements help create a grounded and serene space within which it feels wrong to be wearing your outside shoes. Its fitout, or lack thereof, is an undeniable part of Kenzan’s charm.
Arriving for the early sitting on a school night, the quiet is almost jarring; having become so used to the distraction of riotous playlists and chaotic fitouts in modern restaurant spaces, it is a welcome reprieve to engage in old-school dinner conversation as we sip on a cold semi-dry Sho-un Junmai Daiginjo sake. The service is impeccably understated; there is not much in the way of conversation, but you are never left wanting, or waiting. The drinks list is extensive, and the menu is self-explanatory: rotating specials such as scampi sushi and lobster miso soup supplement hot and cold entrées, sushi and sashimi, mains and nabe ryori (shabu shabu or sukiyaki cooked tableside).
Given the miserable evening outside, we begin with a number of hot entrées. The agedashi tofu is a lesson in simplicity and seasoning: the succulent squares of tofu undergo a textural transformation as they sit in the viscous and salty sauce, gradually morphing from crisp and light to sticky and delightfully chewy. Testament to the delicateness of the mixed tempura is the fact that there is barely a blip of oil on the paper it’s presented on. The charred and caramelised exterior of the grilled butterfish marinated with special miso encases soft and flaky flesh, living up to its buttery name. Each of these dishes exemplifies the ethos that at Kenzan every element, and even each garnish, has a considered purpose and a place: the subtle addition of mushrooms and carrots imparts a depth of flavour and unctuousness to the tofu, whereas a spritz from the single adorning lemon wedge cuts through the richness of the butterfish with a welcome acidic tang.
By the time the sushi arrives, the restaurant has come to life; like an old dog waking up from a slumber, it creaks and cracks as the tatami rooms fill with business people in suits and the private dining areas bubble over with the excitement of families here to celebrate an occasion. The noise level rises to a comfortable hum of joyous chit-chat, and you realise why people keep coming back for this pleasing, good-for-the-soul, kind of dining experience.
The ‘deluxe’ sushi platter may not scream deluxe at first glance: no dry ice, caviar, gold leaf or truffle in sight. However, as you work your way through the carefully curated line-up of nigiri – delicate snapper, fatty, rich salmon, lightly blowtorched, sweet and caramelised kingfish, oily tuna, sticky and charred unagi – you understand that deluxe in this instance describes the quality, the craftsmanship, the undeniable precision. Things the eye may miss, but the palate cannot.
Kenzan knows its audience as well as they know it in return. Guests aren’t coming here for theatrics or TikTok content. They aren’t scouring the menu for nori tacos, chicken teriyaki sushi or deconstructed ramen. They are here to be treated to luxury in the most understated and authentic way possible. To feel cared for, and nourished, and to show respect and gratitude to a place honouring tradition and culture, and upholding customary cooking methods, with the utmost integrity. The restaurant's namesake, Ogata Kenzan, was an Edo-era potter renowned for impeccable artisanship. It's clear in every bite that this same quality underpins and defines this culinary institution.