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Yūgen Restaurant

  • Restaurants
  • South Yarra
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
  1. Yugen's opulent main dining room with chandeliers, warm golden lighting, tables, chairs and a bar.
    Photograph: Supplied
  2. Private dining space inside Yugen Restaurant
    Photograph: Marcel Aucar
  3. Wooden interiors and hanging light fittings inside Yugen Restaurant
    Photograph: Marcel Aucar
  4. Red snapper dish with jamon and garnishes.
    Photograph: Supplied
  5. Spiced edamame in a paper-lined bowl.
    Photograph: Supplied
  6. Moreton Bay bug, red curry and sticky rice in a banana leaf.
    Photograph: Supplied
  7. Yugen's special fried rice with seafood.
    Photograph: Supplied

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

While the glitzy new South Yarra restaurant nails a sizeable chunk of its brief, the wow factor comes in ebbs and flows

Literally meaning ‘dark’ or ‘obscure’, Yugen is an important word in the history of Japanese aesthetics. It describes a depth of beauty not fully seen, but felt, and it’s something the restaurant Yugen manages to evoke as soon as we walk in. Though moody dark pockets catch our eye, the restaurant’s shimmering opulence is not lost on us, and it seduces each one of our senses from the outset. 

A rich, woody signature fragrance hanging in the air invites us into the foyer, where a black-coated server escorts us to the swish glass elevator. Down we descend to discover what may just be the most graceful and effortlessly cool subterranean dining space in Melbourne. An enormous striking chandelier as its centrepiece helps, but so does a handsome DJ playing moody lounge music in the corner, warm flashes of light illuminating the bar’s epic floor-to-ceiling liquor collection against the wall, and a flickering candle at each table for added dramatic effect. 

Our expectations for the food and drink to follow skyrocket, and how could they not in such an impressive and thoughtfully designed space? There are four distinct ways you can reserve a spot at Yugen: a high tea bar, an extra luxe suspended golden orb that seats eight, a modern omakase bar that seats only six, or the dining room for the main restaurant experience. We’ve opted for the latter, a choice I initially believed to be a good one as any more luxury and we were at risk of fainting, such were the breathless frequency of our ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’.

We start with a glass of rosé and a Hinoki cocktail, an expertly crafted potion of bone-dry fino sherry, hinoki (a native Japanese cypress) and osmanthus, brightened by juicy licks of mandarin and apple. Fresh, flirty and painstakingly balanced, it’s a winning start. The drinks list is long and expensive, and we could have easily spent hours poring over it. But luckily for our wallets – and livers – our curiosity about the food fast takes the wheel.

A bowl of salty, mouth-popping grilled edamame in shichimi-spiked spring onion oil is the first to arrive, boldly complementing the restrained elegance of our drinks. Next, we’re served a plate of paper-thin red snapper sashimi. Half artwork, half food, it’s peppered with tiny shavings of jamon, flowers, lime and kombu. Often in flashy restaurants, these kinds of pretty creations look a lot better than they taste, but it’s not the case with this dish. Though the flavour’s unexpected, it’s one of the most sublime raw fish preparations we’ve ever tasted – piquant, refreshing, savoury, and wonderfully rich in its complexity. True perfection. 

Crispy shiitake soy-glazed lamb ribs with green sichuan crumble round out our snacks. Not as hot-spicy as their flaming red cousins, green sichuan is revered in classic Sichuan cooking instead for its tongue-numbing, vibrational sensation. We detect the burn but it’s subtle, gradual even. The lamb itself is rich and oily, tender in some bites and gristly in others. It’s tasty, of course, but you could definitely find more addictive spicy lamb ribs in Melbourne at a lower price point. But then with Yugen, you’re paying for the elevated atmosphere alongside the food. 

Onto the mains, we dig into a red curry-style Moreton Bay bug and sticky rice concoction parcelled within a banana leaf. The unwrapped cube is thick and congealed, with a punchy, raw characteristic. It tastes a bit like uncooked curry paste and, in all honesty, we’ve had traditional homestyle Thai red curries far more gratifying. Note that we’ve since seen this dish is no longer on the official website menu, so it’s possible it was a left-field experimentation gone south in Yugen’s earlier days.  

Our server highly recommends the scallop rice, which we anticipate to be light, delicate and beautiful just like the red snapper at the beginning of our meal. But, more like the contemporary red curry reimagination, it’s unctuous, stodgy and pungent. However, the stir-fried Chinese broccoli with black garlic sauce we gnaw into afterwards is fantastic. 

The service is prompt and polite enough, but a little distant and distracted at the same time. In settings as splendorous as these, you tend to expect a touch more care, even just a simple mid-meal: “So how’s it all going?” We wanted to love Yugen, and in many ways we did, but a few aspects of our experience left us wanting. The high points are stratospheric, however, there’s no doubt about that.

Would we have had a world-class experience in the omakase bar? I don’t doubt it, and current commentary in the dining scene seems to suggest so. The kitchen’s creativity and ambition is to be commended, and the beauty of the space is certainly an exciting enough reason to warrant multiple reconnections with Yugen’s journey.

Lauren Dinse
Written by
Lauren Dinse


605 Chapel St
South Yarra
Opening hours:
Wed-Thu, Sun 6pm-11:30pm, Fri-Sat 6pm-1am
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