It’s no easy feat to get into Minamishima. The Japanese fine diner has been around for a while, but admission to dine within its hallowed walls has remained airtight – on the first day of each month, reservations open at midday. Most people know the drill by now with seasonally changing omakases: there’s no menu and no à la carte options, which is not to say there’s no element of choice. We’re told dinner will be a seven-course meal – with the sixth and seventh course being dessert and one of the courses a selection of 10 sushi that arrives between the other courses – but there are also specials you can tack on to your $265 experience. Ranging from bluefin tuna toro (the fattiest part found in the belly of the tuna) wrapped in gold leaf and oscietra caviar (a prized delicacy second only to beluga caviar in price) to the addition of shaved truffle on wagyu and jellyfish sushi with shiso herb, the specials are expansive and somewhat practically for a fine dining institution, delineated by price in our incredibly knowledgeable waitstaff’s spiel.
Starting us off is the abalone broth with winter melon and nameko mushrooms, one of the most popular fungi used for culinary purposes in Japan and known for its medicinal properties. Aromatic and light but deeply complex in its different layers of flavours, our broth is served to us in a glass funnel-like contraption wedged in a quaint wooden base – picking it up to drink the broth only adds to the allure of this winter warmer as we feel the heat radiating out to our fingers. Submerged towards the bottom of the funnel is a floral surprise – yuzu lime shavings.
Caviar lovers who can’t afford the oscietra special are catered for in the next dish, with caviar garnishing a scallop and crab ‘dumpling’. It takes us a while to realise the delicate, crunchy dumpling wrapper is made not from flour, but a thin layer of turnip. The soft and pillowy steamed scallop and crab have hints of sweetness from the latter, and the pleasantly gelatinous broth the dumpling is served in is almost like a shark fin soup (or the more commonly encountered imitation shark fin soup – I can’t say I’ve tried a real one) in its consistency, owing to the inclusion of crab jelly.
Our first three of ten sushi arrive to much fanfare and excitement. Despite the stuffiness typically associated with western fine dining institutions, Minamishima encourages diners to pick their sushi up with their hands, so much so that we’re bestowed a wet towel.
Creamy and smooth, the scored calamari nigiri – so fresh you can see the disparate strands of calamari conjoined together – with charcoal salt and lime juice is the most surprising, and unlike any previous iteration of calamari we’ve enjoyed previously. The miso-cured King George whiting nigiri is slippery and savoury in the best way possible, and the only one we’re advised to dip in our accompanying soy sauce. The seared sea perch nigiri garnished with grated daikon and ponzu has the fattiness of seared wagyu with a smoky char and a distinct earthiness from the citrus soy. It’s a revelation.
Palates cleansed from sharp pickled ginger, we’re ready for the warm and soothing chawanmushi embellished with pieces of firm Japanese snapper and bathed in a yuba sauce, with the discernible threads of dried tofu skin evident in the steamed egg custard.
The next serving of three sushi is perhaps the most memorable of the night. Known for their sweetness, paradise prawns from New Caledonia dusted with prawn powder nigiri are plump and fragrant, with the heat from the wasabi sandwiched between prawn and rice coming through strongly. The highlight of our night, however, is the engawa (sea flounder fin) – one of the most sought-after delicacies in Japan – with the fat carrying an unparalleled depth of flavour, the texture melt-in-mouth creamy.
Punctuating the increasingly luxuriant cuts of fish is the shabu shabu-style cooked A5 Kagoshima wagyu with a black shichimi pepper sesame sauce. What’s more tantalising than the incredibly tender, moreish beef – almost raw in appearance but cooked just the right amount – is the square of chrysanthemum tofu served alongside. An agedashi tofu-reminiscent batter gives way to a mousse akin to mochi – we’re told the tofu is first steamed and then pan-fried – with the floral notes of chrysanthemum complementing the richness of the meat. It’s a dish that plays with texture in novel and interesting ways.
After a Japanese mandarin and ginger sorbet cleanses our enlivened palates, we’re served the fattiest cuts of fish. The soy-cured bluefin tuna nigiri has a richness that culminates with every bite – so soft, so fatty. But the crowning glory is the bluefin tuna toro nigiri, with a butteriness that melts on our tongue. Almost as a reprieve from the first two is the pickled Japanese yam nigiri, which is almost like a chip in its savouriness and lightness.
The last two morsels in our immensely pleasurable sushi journey are traditionally steamed eel sushi (hakozushi) in bamboo leaf, with the fragrance of the bamboo leaf evocative of Chinese sticky rice served in such leaves in dim sum restaurants, and the traditional end to omakases the world over – the fluffy, moist and slightly sweet tamagoyaki.
Dessert is a colourful affair. Unsheathed from its lacy wrapper like a present, the snow white mochi is sticky, stretchy and soft. Kinako (roasted soybean), matcha (green tea) and anko (red bean) squares of Japanese chocolate are the bittersweet denouement to our meal.
Exquisite dishes notwithstanding, Minamishima is a masterclass experience in excellent service and meticulous attention to detail. As we turn from one dish to the next, the table is meticulously constructed around us with different ceramic saucers and implements taking centre stage. Everything is elegant and artful, right down to the zigzagged wet towel for us to dampen our hands with between sushi eating. A convivial quality is present in waitstaff. Minamishima’s genuine warmth and affection for what they do is matched by the sushi, the best we’ve had in Melbourne.