Jun 20 2010
SOMETIME IN THE LATE 1980s
Little Tubbymistress is sitting on the carpet in her primary school classroom, cross-legged, petite and shy. Despite her small stature – and a brain that has never loved processing numbers – she has no hesitation belting out the 10 times table with three other children in her class, harmonising in the monotone, singsong way that primary school children do.
As she sang, Little Tubbymistress could not know that basis mathematics (and a lack of research) would be her undoing some twenty years later. In May 2010, a section of Russell St became a catwalk for the hungry and navigationally challenged, as three Melburnians searched in vain for one elusive number.
LITTLE TUBBYMISTRESS (sings earnestly): Fifteen 10s are … hun-dred and fiff-ty!Izakaya Den
Basement, 150 Russell St, Melbourne VIC
You won’t find a lot of information about Izakaya Den on their website. The obligatory details are there – phone number, opening hours and booking policy, along with a sizeable map that looks like it’s built for artistry as much as functionality. The irony is not lost on me as I stand in a state of disorientated confusion on Russell St that night, naming every street number out loud in a prolonged search for the mysterious yet highly rated Izakaya Den.
The portal to this Japanese-themed bar finally catches our eye, a glint of silver on an unremarkable building set back from the footpath. (If this is your first time visiting, look for a red Australia Post box between Collins and Lt Collins sts. It’s close by.)
First impressions are good. Punters are perched on stools at a great-looking bar that stretches along one side of the room – the ideal seat for two or the solo diner. Black leather couches hug the wall on the left, morphing into a procession of tall four-seater tables that look practical for eating but infinitely less comfortable for drinking. Projected onto the wall is a list of specials, a splash of green light that looks hyper-cool in a Japanese-y kind of way. (It later becomes an epileptic’s nightmare as the technology fails and sputters helplessly. As staff struggle to fix it, we can’t help but watch, alcohol-filled and fascinated.)
If you’re coming here with a group larger than five, it’s wise to book the stone table at the back of the room or look elsewhere for a night of fun. Our group of five was shown to a four-seater table; a heavy stool pulled over to accommodate our fifth partner in crime. In customary izakaya fashion, we were given hot towels, or oshibori, to clean our hands with, and two menus that resembled papyrus scrolls. When the menus were unfurled, I realised I was pretty hungry from my pre-dinner stroll; moreover, the pay-off looked like it was going to be good.
The crumbed lamb cutlets drizzled with red miso sauce were the best thing by far that night – so good I could easily have polished them off and been content to watch the others graze for the rest of the night. That meant I would have missed out on the deep-fried chestnuts that my vegan friend Miette was cracking open with ease. These great little bar snacks were as addictive as a bowl of mixed nuts beckoning your attention before the main event at a friend’s barbecue, but infinitely more delicious in a buttery, burn-your-fingers-hot kind of way. Yum.
The food was good but not jump-out-of-your-seat amazing. I might have gone for more of the eggplant dish if Miette and Cyril hadn’t specifically ordered it, but the octopus was just something to tide my tastebuds over till the next dish arrived. I ordered more food not really because I was hungry but because I was searching for – no, craving – another gem in the same league as the lamb cutlets, also because it was clear my friend Turbo needed more food (and alcohol) to resurrect her mood. So, I agreed to share the sakata-coated prawns with citrus mayonnaise. They looked gorgeous in their little dish but were the biggest disappointment of the night: surprisingly bland and more oily than prawny. I turned to dessert for comfort, effortlessly dismantling a fuji apple ‘millefeuille’ – a palate-cleansing tower of crispy apple slices and a refreshing apple sorbet.
TUBBYMISTRESS SAYS: Izakaya Den is an oh-so-popular Japanese-themed watering hole with a quintessentially Melbourne mystique. It’s a cool place to hang out if you don’t count comfort as an essential factor, for its smattering of hit-and-miss snacks and nice staff make for a decent night’s entertainment that I might have raved about I’d tried a few more hit-worthy dishes. We’ve eaten at better places this year: most recently at Portello Rosso, where we perched upstairs on the balcony with a bottle of wine and handful of snacks that were all crowd-pleasingly great. And cheaper.
Who knows, if I’d stuck to the plum wine and that solitary plate of lamb cutlets, I might be singing a different tune.