60 Park Street, South Melbourne (map)
To mangle a perfectly good Mark Twain quote: rumours of Tempura Hajime's closure have been somewhat exaggerated, despite what you may have heard on twitter or other avenues of industry gossip. I can however confirm that your final opportunity to sample owner/chef Daisuke Miyamoto's tempura wizardry at Tempura Hajime is 13 March 2010. The restaurant will then reopen on 15 March 2010 with its new owner (who, I am assured, is also an excellent chef) at the helm. But if you want to say goodbye to Daisuke and Noriko before they move back to Japan, get in quick and make a booking for one night over the next seven weeks!
Even when you've got your eyes peeled because you know the nondescript entrance is easily missed, you'll still walk past the door to Tempura Hajime the first time. Upon arrival you are ushered into the shadowy little waiting room where you can sit back on a sofa and order a drink.
The reason you need to wait? Because there are only 12 seats in the restaurant - it's a one man show with Daisuke doing all the preparation and cooking before your eyes, serving six diners at a time and just 12 diners per night. The sittings are staggered accordingly.
The menu is fixed, $72 per person. As the name suggests, Tempura Hajime is a tempura counter restaurant and so a degustation of battered, fried morsels awaits. But first, an appetiser of cucumber and minced chicken in a miso-sesame dressing, and sashimi.
Not only was the ocean trout and kingfish sashimi ridiculously fresh, it was served with fresh wasabi. Love.
Daisuke uses three oils to make his tempura: soy bean oil, tea oil and sesame oil. Despite the fact that the majority of the menu is deep fried, it tastes wonderfully light and fresh and pure, and not at all greasy - the proof being in how little oil stains the paper on the serving plate. You can take it from me that all of the following dishes were SUBLIME.
And now for the food porn tempura photos! I think they speak for themselves. Prawn.
Asparagus. Sweet potato.
Tuna and avocado wrapped in nori, served with Japanese mayonnaise and teriyaki sauce.
Corn. John Dory.
Sea urchin wrapped in nori and scallop.
One of my dining companions, that Jess Ho, photographing the tempura oyster for her blog.
Minced prawn stuffed into a mushroom. Minced chicken stuffed in eggplant.
After the tempura, the meal is bulked out with a serve of donburi - on the night we went, we had a delicious kakiagedon.
My other dining companions were knocking back the sake but I decided to grab some chilled umeshu plum wine, which was served by Noriko, Daisuke's lovely wife who runs the front of house. When she indulged and praised my attempts to speak Japanese, I knew I was smitten.
Dessert was a beautifully simple yoghurt panna cotta drizzled with Cointreau and served with a few grapes.
In short, I adored the Tempura Hajime experience and thoroughly recommend it. Get down there!