310 Flinders Lane, Melbourne (map)
In 2005-2006, the adorably yet ludicrously tiny (seriously: there was only seating for about 12-15 people, tops) Hako became my new favourite Japanese restaurant in Melbourne. Located in Degraves St near Flinders St station, it proved to be a handy pre-Hamer Hall/Arts Centre restaurant (for all those times I was sick of the blandness of Southgate and Chocolate Buddha), and when I was studying Portuguese at the CAE I'd often pop in for a cup of sake and a snack while hurriedly finishing off my homework for that night's class.
The Hako in Degraves St closed a few months ago, but happily it recently reopened in its new, much bigger incarnation in Flinders Lane around the back of 333 Collins. I went there the other night with F and new foodie buddy O, mainly because O and I had been salivating together at a friend's birthday over memories of Hako's ebi tempura, and wanted to make sure they were still on the menu! We got there at 7pm midweek and the place was almost empty, but filled up a bit more as we dined. Compared to the cosy shoebox apartment feel of the old Hako, the interior of the new one feels positively cavernous...
We sat at the table in the front window (good lighting for my digicam, heh heh) and started off with a bottle of warm sake and a serve of edamame ($5.80). The edamame-eating process of popping the juicy soybeans out of the salt-sprinkled pods with your teeth is fun.
We decided to share a bunch of lightish dishes. The first of these was the daikon salad with sesame dressing ($10). It was fresh and crisp, and I really liked the dressing and the mandarin segments.
Next was the nasudengaku - fried eggplant with sweet simmered miso sauce ($9.80). Although I'd seen it on a ton of menus, I hadn't had this dish before and was expecting the eggplant to have been cooked in slices. So I was a little surprised when a perfect half eggplant came out intact with a layer of thick miso sauce spread along the flat upper surface. With just spoons and chopsticks it was a little tricky to divvy up between three, but it was well worth the effort.
On an academic sidenote, the excellent Japanese cultural website The Black Moon informs me that "Dengaku is one of Japan's oldest types of miso cuisine. It consists of grilling various types of skewered foods, then coating the food with a thin layer of sweetened miso and grilling again." The name dengaku comes from the music played centuries ago at Japanese rice harvest festivals - the dengaku dancers used to perform with long sticks that represent the skewers.
F likes sushi nori rolls whereas I prefer nigiri zushi and sashimi, so we decided to get the moriawase, a mixed platter of all three. It cost a hefty $35.80, but was soooo good. These weren't your typical depressed limp wafers of has-been salmon and tuna: the slices of fish were firm and plump and fresh. I'm kicking myself that I didn't ask about which fish were included, but there were at least five varieties, possibly two kinds of tuna.
And finally, the dish we were most looking forward to: the ebi tempura ($13.80 for two; we got three). At most Japanese restaurants I've been to, the tempura coating the prawns doesn't look that dissimilar to beer batter on a fillet of flake down at the local fish 'n chipper. But Hako chef Masahiro Horie has created a signature dish that looks like something from another (delicious) planet - juicy prawns covered with hundreds of wispy filaments of tempura batter - the taste explosion in your mouth as you take a big bite must be experienced to be believed! Matt Preston also waxed lyrical in his Epicure review of the old Hako about these little babies - "looking like a pair of fat hairy caterpillars in the throes of passion". :)
Finishing our meal, F wanted a cigarette but we weren't ready to abandon our Japanese theme just yet. Happily, the new Hako is about twenty metres away from Robot, so we wandered down Bligh Place and sat at an outside table having drinks until far too late for a schoolnight. Best of all, the sweet Japanese girl behind the bar totally indulged my dorky attempts to order more beer in her native language ("Beeru mou ippai kudasai!") and would count out my change aloud in Japanese... :)