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Saturday, April 26, 2008
Tempura Hajime: A very special experience
It has been quite a few weeks now, but Thursday the 24th of April was a night I had marked on the calendar for quite some time. The opportunity to eat at a very special restaurant, that restaurant being Tempura Hajime, hidden away on Park Street, South Melbourne. I must admit that this was not an easy place to find. After strolling along the wrong side of the road for ten minutes I gave the restaurant a phone call and was promptly guided to the door by one of the wonderful hostesses.

Tempura Hajime is no ordinary restaurant. It is a 12 seat bar, where patrons sit, interact and enjoy the food of chef Daisuke Miyamoto, a man very passionate about his cooking and ingredients, happily showing off a range of produce, including the cooking oils he uses. There is a genuine interaction between chef and diner, Miyamoto happily sharing stories of the Japanese lifestyle, and how common such establishments as his are in Japan, often with as little as six seats. There is a great level of honesty and integrity about everything that is done at Tempura Hajime. Despite having only 12 seats, there is still only one sitting each evening with guests being asked to arrive at different times to ensure he can maintain consistent quality across all food. The restaurant no longer accepts large bookings either, the maximum being six for this very reason. All of these things alone make the dining experience sensual and unique, but it is the food quality that Hajime is renowed for.

Things start off with a sashimi set. The sahimi preseneted is as good as any I have eaten before: three presentations: soft, fatty ocean trout, a firmer red emperor and spanking fresh kingfish. Each taste like they have come straight from the sea. There is also a small kobachi (appetiser) of what I am told is called nano hana (a Japanese green), containing miso and a creamy dressing which was just wonderful and helps to whett the palette.

After finishing appetisers the tempura courses soon follow. The emphasis is on prime quality ingredients cooked with care. Chef regularly visits Prahran market and other sources to get the freshest ingredients for every sitting. The oil he uses is a blend of 90% soy oil, from Japan along with 5% tea oil from America and 5% sesame oil from Japan, resulting in the perfect balance for his tempura. Miyamoto carefully tests the oil before cooking each morsel, adjusting the heat and adding oil where necessary. Once it is at the perfect temperature each item is quickly cooked in the oil, constantly being pronged with his chopstick like cooking tongs. Once cooked it is drained of any residual oil, rested and sliced.

The first item to arrive is a magnificent king prawn: "king prawn, thank you, king prawn". A huge, incredibly fresh prawn with the lightest, crispiest coating. It is quality that you are simply not going to find elsewhere. From here on in I just know that everything is going to be amazing. Chef follows with a perfect spear of asparagus and continues to alternate with seafood, followed by vegetable, until the later courses. A tempura sauce and fresh lemon also sits at the table for use with each course.

Here is a brief summary of everything else I am presented with. This is spanking fresh produce, prepared simply with amazing results. Each item is savoured as much as the last. I apologise for the particularly poor photos: it seems that my camera was not having a good night.

Fresh scallop stuffed with seaurchin: We are told how the scallop itself has a very mild taste, and that the intensity of the seaurchin works well as a contrast. Bang on, this was an amazing combination.

Sweet Potato: Not the usual Western variety though, this is an intensely creamy purple variety, which I believe is known as okinawan. Chef pre-cooks the potato and then quickly fries it off before serving resulting in a crispy coating, contrasting against a creamy, chestnut-like texture.

Mushroom stuffed with prawn: Incredibly moist, and once again the combinations work together so very well.

Fresh baby corn: The cooking method really highlights the crispness and freshness of the produce. I'm not usually a fan of baby corn, but this piece was very good.

King George whiting fillet: Simply battered and served. Once again you would be hard pressed to get a more natural tasting piece of fish anywhere.

A refreshing salad of mixed lettuce, seaweeds, tomato and avocado.

Eggplant stuffed with minced chicken. Perfectly executed.

Eel with a teriyaki sauce: the fresh eel had a slightly smoky flavour and the sweet, sticky teriyaki contrasted against the flesh perfectly.

John Dory fillet, sliced and finished with pickled plum. Another succesful dish, the fish is perfectly cooked and the flavour of the plum works well to provide another element to the simplicity of fresh fish.

Oyster, fresh from the shell, cooked tempura style. Perfect with a drizzle of lemon juice.

Kakiagedon: Mixed vegetable and seafood tempura atop steamed rice, finished with a sticky Teriyaki sauce. A fitting way to end the savoury courses.

The meal concludes with a small dessert: a simple panacotta with a reduced moscatto syrup and some orange segments. So much better than the typical offering of green tea ice cream served up at most Japanese restaurants.

A meal at Tempura Hajime really is a very special experience, and at $72 it represents great value for what you get. This is important to the chef, who says he likes money but this is not about money. It is about his passion for food and cooking. Its a family run business: Miyamoto cooks, while his wife and friend act as the service staff; always there when you need them, and happy to discuss their life and background after dinner. Chefs wife studied agriculture in Japan, and when she moved to Australia started working on farms, but was rather appauled with some of the treatment of animals. She later moved into restaurant waitressing, where she met Miyamoto and they have been together ever since. It is so nice to be able to have these intimate conversations, which are simply not possible in the big restaurants.

The chef is so modest and proud of his ingredients, happily speaking of his morning trips to Prahran market and the burbs, pulling out his produce for everyone to see. The set up is simple and intimate and service cannot really be faulted: there when you need it, away when you do not. An evening at Tempura Hajime is so much more than a meal. It is an experience, and a very special one at that.

MY RATING: 16.5/20 - Food 8/10 Service 4.5/5 Ambience 4/5

  posted at 6:16 PM  

At May 18, 2008 at 9:12 PM, Blogger thanh7580 said...

Wow, sounds amazing. I would have thought that having so many things tempura would be quite sickly, but not one person who has been there has had that problem. The batter must be done so perfectly.

Was it a full house of 12 people when you were there Jon? And is everyone seated at the bar or are there tables?

The price has gone up though hasn't it. I remember reading that it was $60 when it first opened. Or maybe the price changes with the ingredients?

At May 19, 2008 at 11:27 AM, Blogger Jon! said...

Thanh, I believe there were 11 or 12 people on my sitting and it tends to be full every night. It is all one bar, no tables: like a u shape, with woks on each side, and chef moves to the side where he is cooking. The tempura courses were not boring or sickly at all - a good mix of ingredients and tastes with perfect batter, the mix between seafood and vegies is great. I think it was $68 last year and from what chef tells me, prices have risen slighlty merely to keep up with ingredient cost increases. Really a great experience; I was one of the last to leave and it was great to really speak to Miyamoto and his wife about the Japanese lifestyle and everything they have been through. You must try it.

At May 27, 2008 at 12:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great blog Jon.
They book one month ahead so call after 10.00am on first or second of the month for reservation the following month.
They also have saki or wine at reasonable prices

At May 27, 2008 at 12:48 AM, Blogger Elliot and Sandra said...

Sry I meant first preferably, or second, of the month

At May 29, 2008 at 6:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have just rang them today and magically scored a spot for two tommorow night! A group of six people have cancelled their booking just this morning and I was last to snap up the freed up spaces! So lucky. Anyway fantastic review. All the more reasons for me to look forward to tommorow night! thanks

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