Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Shoya - A Toro Playground

I have had a running disagreement with a mate in Sydney for years about two Japanese restaurants and which one is better. In my humble opinion, I give the honours to Azuma at Chifley Tower and he believes Yoshii at the Shangri-La Hotel shines brighter, most likely because of some equally great meals served over the years and at one point they possessed two of the coveted SMH Good Food Guide chefs hats. When I lived in Brisbane, I found a place that trumped each of these fine diners, Sono on Queen Street.  I was constantly impressed by the service and quality of food both at the Brisbane CBD location and its sister out in Hamilton near the wharf. Flash forward to very recent times where I happened to come upon Shoya. Not only was I very impressed with my overall experience, I believe I have found a new winner in the Japanese dining stakes.

The restaurant itself it set out over multiple stories, all of which have a different purpose. There is a Japanese barbecue, a more formal and traditional dining area and although not concealed from the public, the diners were honouring the tradition of removing their shoes before sitting at the low tables. Further up the stairs you find a sushi bar with standard tables littered around the perimeter. We opted for a table not far from the sushi bar so that we could enjoy the best of both worlds.

Whilst I was gazing both longingly and lustfully at the tasting specials, my celebrated dining companion exclaimed "they have toro!" which immediately made my jaw drop and grab the second menu to investigate further. The menu described a virtual cornucopia of fish belly options (the definition of "toro" is the fatty belly of a specific fish) and I immediately ordered four pieces of oo-toro ($10/each) which is the highest grade of tuna available. It is marbled throughout and literally melts in your mouth. I had only found toro once before in Melbourne and it was at Koko and in that review on this blog I lamented with a sullen tone that I was disappointed as they had frozen their toro. This was certainly not the case at Shoya. It was beautiful and heavenly and one of the best fresh tastes that i have had all year.

Buzzing, I knocked back an Asahi Super Dry ($7.50) and went back to inspecting the tasting specials. They all looked very intriguing and most formed part of various tasting menus that were available however feeling greedy, I wanted to select the most intriguing items and then return to toro tasting. Salmon Tartare Monaka ($12/each) was the first special to arrive. Salmon toro tartare placed delicately on a Japanese wafer and served with black vinegar. The delicate wafer and fish were made for one another and was certainly a special way to follow-on from the wonders of the oo-toro that was enjoyed just minutes prior.

The Golden Perch ($12/each) was next to appear and we were advised to eat it quickly and in one bite so that the foundation of the tomato mousse, foie gras and semi-dried mullet roe would not disintegrate from the weight of the lightly grilled miso-flavoured perch. This was another collection of ingredients that melted in my mouth and the explosion of flavour was extreme. The small portion of perch was also delicate but grilled perfectly.

A pan-fried Monk Awabi (abalone) from Tasmania ($12/each) was next presented in its own small shell and was mixed with a French Monk Fish liver, apple sauce and topped with miso cream cheese and spring onion. If abalone is not dressed well, it is a very boring dish but this was certainly not the case with this creative concoction. the liver and cream cheese really highlighted the flavour of the abalone and the spring onion was a nice touch, not only with respect to the overall taste but presentation as honestly, abalone and liver in a small shell doesn't really look very appealing.

The Unagi Canape ($12/each) was the most interesting of the tasting specials. This was literally grilled miso marinated eel, formed into what could have been confused with small and thin breadsticks, and topped with Kokkaido crab meat, salmon caviar and a black truffle. The taste of the solid miso and eel was once again not only perfect but playful and the long staff being stuffed with crab meet and salty caviar made it all the more special. If I could, I would want this to form part of my staple diet daily.

Petite Tempura Lobster ($12/each) finalised the selection of tasting specials that we ordered. The name sums it up well. Tempura lobster topped topped with cream cheese, Hokkaido clam, a spiced miso sauce and is wrapped with witloff or "white leaf" which is a vegetable related to the endive. Although it was good, it was a bit boring compared to the other tastes previously enjoyed. Not to disrespect the lobster, which was really nice however I found the dishes that led up to this much more intriguing and special.

It was then time to return to toro tasting. Salmon toro sushi ($6/each) and hamachi (kingfish) toro sushi ($6/each) all prepped us for the lightly seared aburi oo-toro ($11/each), which was essentially us revisiting the previous oo-toro that we started the amazing meal with but having it lightly seared. All of it was amazing and the aburi oo-toro was the star of this meal and one of the highlights of my dining year so far.

In the various reviews you will find on this blog, you will not see me carrying on about desserts very often. I tend to skip them in exchange for more savoury options. When I spotted Sea Urchin Cheese Cake ($16/each) listed I was not only intrigued but perplexed. After consulting with service, I learned that this dessert in fact incorporates sea urchin into the cheese cake. How could I resist? What I had was just amazing. A fine balance between the taste of the ocean and that of a normal cheese cake. The texture was amazing and I was blown away by this. Anybody who likes sea urchin (uni) just has to try this dessert for the sake of having bragging rights and impressing not only Japanese dining aficionados but also the "foodies" that you come into contact with more often these days.

As evident in these written words, it is pretty obvious that I enjoyed my visit to Shoya and I am already plotting my return which will include a visit to the sushi bar and fresh lobster sushi, prepared from live lobster from the tank ($150) which was always a highlight of my visit to Sono on Queen Street in Brisbane. Throughout the two hours that we spent at Shoya, service remained very attentive and friendly. I believe they were amused by us because we were so excited by the tastes and of course of the fact that toro was being offered. Bottles of Asahi were quickly replaced after they were vacated and water was always quickly provided. The ambiance was a bit dark and brooding, yet traditional in places and I found moving in between the different themed areas to be fun. Even the phalanx of stinky shoes that were removed by the formal diners on the way to the toilet, which has a modest fit-out to say the least, was all part of the charm.

Shoya was an epicurean adventure for me and I look forward to returning soon. This restaurant was awarded "one hat" in the 2012/2013 The Age Good Food Guide and I can certainly understand why. I didn't take any of photos of the interior as it did not seem appropriate at the time so apologies for the lack of a photo montage being available. 

Shoya, Market Lane, Melbourne

25 Market Lane, Melbourne VIC 3000
(03) 9650 0848
My Rating: 15.75/20
Service: 4/5
Ambiance: 3.5/5
Quality: 4.75/5
Value For Money: 3.5/5

Twitter: @epicurean3006
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com

At the time of this post, 89% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon like Shoya.

Shoya Nouvelle Wafu Cuisine on Urbanspoon