Friday, April 8, 2011

Tempura Hajime

60 Park St
South Melbourne, 3205

To paraphrase Mark Twain "The death of Tempura Hajime is somewhat exaggerated"

It has been about 2 years since my previous visit to Tempura Hajime and over that time the ownership has changed hands from restaurant founder and chef Daisuke Miyamoto to Shigeo Yoshihara. Recent reviews in the blogosphere have been somewhat less than complimentary stating a no photography policy (wrong as evidenced here) and limp, soggy tempura. To a certain extent when a restaurant changes in one way or another, people seem to simultaneously look to criticise and yearn for the old as evidenced by those who still recall through rose coloured glasses "I remember when Vue de Monde was in Carlton and was oh so much better back then...."

Initial impression of the dining room is that not a lot has changed, the very minimalist dining room that seats 12 across the counter seats is the same. Set menu is the same and the faint aroma of grated daikon radish and the tempura oil almost takes one straight to the streets of Tokyo.

Sashimi - Kingfish & Ocean Trout

Proceedings commenced with 4 pieces of perfect A-grade sashimi. The sashimi had a mouth melting texture, better than most Japanese restaurants in town.

L: Sweetcorn & Asparagus
R: Prawn Tempura

After enjoying the delicate sashimi, it was time to really see if the hard fought reputation for best tempura in town had been allowed to slip. The first two pieces of tempura were served and all was in order, light crispy batter - tick, perfectly cooked - tick, not oily or soggy - tick.

In other words, perfect tempura. Shigeo the tempura wizard had cooked the asparagus and corn spot on allowing the natural flavours come through and be enhanced by the tempura treatment. The condiments of daikon/bonito broth and lemon/salt also enhanced the flavours.

Following this was the signature plate that John Lethlean raved about in The Age many years ago now and in doing so put Tempura Hajime on the map - tempura prawn. The simplicity of the single prawn laying boldly on the counter is what makes it such a joy. Take every aspect of a prawn and enhance it, the sweet aroma and the juicy flesh are amplified by the tempura. No problem here, no problem at all except wanting another one, and another one.....

L: Spicy Salmon in Zuchini & Sweet Potato
R: Tuna & Eel

The tempura cavalcade continued, sweet potato, salmon, eel, tuna, each one a perfect taste enhanced by the tempura treatment.

L: Scallop with Sea Urchin Roe
C: Hapuka with Shiso leaf
R: Minced Prawn in Mushroom

As plates progressed, the flavours and appreciation of such a simple treatment yielding such brilliant results can only leave one impressed. The scallop with sea urchin roe is certainly nicer now that ever before, the reduction in quantity of sea urchin and nori used make this much more balanced.

Mixed vegetable tempura donburi

The final savoury course of mixed vegetable tempura cake on rice was perhaps the only disappointment of the evening. The crispy tempura cake with teriyaki sauce just needed more rice to make it perfect, the sauce perhaps a bit overpowering needing some extra rice to absorb it. Still pleasant and a minor criticism at best.

Yoghurt Panacotta

Dessert of yoghurt panacotta was a splendid way to wrap up the meal, light, refreshing and subtle very Japanese.

My return to Tempura Hajime is certainly not a disappointment, the food is as good as it ever was, perhaps the only thing that is missing it the presence of Daisuke and the engagement between chef and customer. New owner Shigeo is a bit more shy and manages to run the two tempura stations easily enough, but opportunity to talk is a lot more limited.

Tempura Hajime is certainly alive and is kicking on strong.

Tempura Hajime - 14.5/20
Tempura Hajime on Urbanspoon

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