MELBOURNE, Australia — There is a certain sector of Australian dining that relies on trickle-down reputation — the idea that the prowess of one chef or flagship restaurant confers immediate status on every other related project. But rarely have I seen this concept contained within one restaurant, in one building.
Kisumé, in Melbourne, is a multitiered Japanese restaurant where the reputation of its highest aspirations flows downward, imbuing the whole operation with an aura of rarefied quality. The restaurant, owned by the Lucas Group, opened in May 2017 in the heart of the city on Flinders Lane, just steps from its sister restaurant Chin Chin, the brash and popular pan-Asian spot.
Described on its website as drawing on “the purity and integrity of Japanese cuisine while infusing it with Japanese sensibility,” Kisumé was originally overseen by the chef Kyungsoo Moon, who was recruited from Dubai. He is no longer with the company, but the format has not changed since his departure. (The current chef is Joshua Bedel.)
The restaurant offers a number of experiences on its three levels: the top-floor chef’s table, a 12-seat, $195 omakase experience ($165 at lunch); the ground-floor sushi bar, with a less expensive and more casual omakase; and a basement dining room where a large menu offers various izakaya-style dishes, noodles, salads, main courses, and sushi and sashimi combinations.
The top floor also has a bar area named the Chablis Bar. What does a wine from northern Burgundy have to do with sushi, the menu asks? So much. In fact: “Everything. Chablis is the purest expression of chardonnay in the world and it happens to pair exceptionally well with sashimi.”
Japanese food, and sushi in particular, has been one of the greatest edible culture shocks of my move from Los Angeles to Australia. It’s not a fair comparison, perhaps, given that many strip-mall sushi joints in Los Angeles would be the best Japanese restaurants by far in almost any American or Australian city.
But given Australia’s incredible seafood, the general lack of diversity in the country’s sushi offerings is surprising. It’s rare to find fish beyond the standard tuna-salmon-yellowtail-shrimp-scallop basics, and the details that truly matter to sushi obsessives — like knife skills and rice — are often afterthoughts.
There are a few luxe places that rise above these issues, and it’s among those high achievers that Kisumé stakes its ambitions. The $195 omakase is not the way most diners will experience the restaurant, but it is the experience that has earned Kisumé the most praise: The Australian named Kisumé Australia’s “hottest restaurant” for 2017; Delicious magazine named Kisumé that year’s best new restaurant in Victoria.
These accolades invariably focus on the 19-course menu at the horseshoe-shaped bar on the top floor, while only briefly mentioning the offerings in the rooms below. But below, at the ground-floor sushi bar, is where my Kisumé journey began.
I tried to book two seats at the regular sushi counter, but when we arrived I was told there was no space, and we’d have to take a table. We tried to order the sushi omakase, but were told it was available only at the counter. We went through a ridiculous dance when one server told us that we might snag a counter spot in 20 to 30 minutes if we wanted to order something in the meantime, and then 30 minutes later got the same spiel from someone else, who quoted a further 20- to 30-minute wait.
The sommelier lectured me about the general qualities of Vouvray after I asked about the specific attributes of a Vouvray on the list. An hour in, and still no spot at the counter, we relented and ordered the $145 deluxe sushi box.
It arrived garnished with flowers, an artfully arranged collection with almost 50 pieces of rolls, nigiri and sashimi. The corners of the box were festooned with cute little balls of rice topped by thin strips of salmon and yellowtail. Other rolls followed this format: lots of rice with fish pressed on top, like a simpler, blander version of oshizushi. The more traditionally shaped rolls had barely any fish in them at all — a whisper of pink in nori-wrapped rice.
The sashimi and nigiri were standard salmon, tuna and the like. Once you removed the very pretty garnishes, the food reminded me of what you might get from a corporate catering platter.
A few weeks later, we were up two flights of stairs and tucked into a back room, and the tone of service could not have been more different. A sommelier and a server flitted around the horseshoe counter attending to every person’s need. A set of impressive sushi knives lay across the counter where Jangyong Hyun, a senior sous-chef, prepared the evening’s food after he made a somewhat grand entrance.
Over 19 courses, I occasionally found what I’d been hoping for: beautifully fresh seafood over barely warm rice. Squid from Port Phillip Bay was lightly singed, and as tender and sweet as a scallop, but with a slight textural snap. Scampi sushi, also known as sweet shrimp, was daubed with three kinds of roe as well as finger lime. The richly creamy flesh made it the dish of the evening, delicately bolstered by freshly grated Tasmanian wasabi.
Those moments were mostly eclipsed by a heavy reliance on theatrics, on the plate and in the meal’s execution. Charcoal crackers with eggplant miso were presented like cigars from a box pouring dry ice smoke. The chef seemed bewildered that I didn’t want to videotape the moment.
Despite the date printed on the menu, many components of advertised dishes were missing. In a tiny chirashi bowl that should have included mud crab and sea urchin, the uni were replaced with salmon roe. Instead of black truffle on the Wagyu sashimi, there was mushroom purée. “But we’ve added foie gras!” the chef said, beaming, not mentioning that the foie gras had been pilfered from the following dish, where it was supposed to appear atop toro sushi.
And those beautiful knives were barely used; almost all of the fish was cut by a cook working behind a curtain. Slicing fish may sound boring compared with dry-ice smoke, but knife work is arguably the greatest skill a sushi chef possesses.
That kind of quiet craft is replaced by spectacle, like a dessert that diners suck through a large clear straw, the chef pausing in front of each person to watch as finger lime and passion fruit jelly shot into our mouths. My fellow diners took longer photographing each twist and turn of the meal than they did actually eating anything.
It’s hard to fault a restaurant for giving people what they want, and increasingly diners want an experience that looks good enough on social media to justify the cost. Every dish I ate at Kisumé was visually impressive and photo-worthy, from the dismal sushi platter in the basement to the toro encased in foie gras choux at the exclusive tasting table, to a lunch of tempura zucchini and a bowl of elegant but bland udon.