Japanese cuisine isn’t as embedded in Melbourne’s culture as, say, Italian or Vietnamese. Whereas people from those countries migrated here en masse following World War II and the Vietnam War, respectively, Japanese immigration to Australia has been more gradual, steadily ticking along.
And yet, Japanese remains one of Melbourne’s most widespread and popular cuisines, which says a lot about its unique appeal. There are numerous high-end restaurants where master sushi chefs expertly ply their craft with multi-course experiences in sleek surroundings. Still, the casual, mid-range category is where Melbourne excels.
Whether you’re after a quick bowl of ramen, a sublime omakase or kaiseki experience; a rowdy yakitori bar; or a boozy subterranean izakaya filled with sakes and rare whiskies, there’s a Japanese restaurant here for you.
The Best 10 Japanese Restaurants Melbourne Has To Offer
Outside of the continent itself, is there any country with a stronger grasp on Asia’s culinary diversity than Australia? There’s plenty of evidence that the best Asian food outside of Asia can be found down under. Perhaps that’s most evident when looking at the best Japanese restaurants in Melbourne.
Australia’s second-largest city is constantly locked in competition with Sydney to claim the country’s finest Japanese food. And depending on who you ask, the battle is so incredibly one-sided it would be laughable to suggest that the harbour city deserves anything more than a participation medal. The jury is out on that one – Sydney has some ridiculously good Japanese spots – but Melburnians are certainly spoiled for choice.
The following are the best Japanese restaurants Melbourne has to offer, from high-end, special-occasion dining, to experimental sketches of traditional techniques showcasing how adaptive they can be.
Such things do not come cheap. It’s $150 for the 15-course omakase selection, which puts you in the hands of Minamishima and his offsider Hajime Horiguchi, formerly of Noosa-notable Wasabi. No choice, just whatever they’ve selected from the market. You get what you get, but you definitely won’t get upset.
It starts with a palate-cleanser of smoked and pickled vegetables and then romps through 14 pieces of nigiri sushi: all seafood, all exquisite.
It’s said good sushi is all about the rice (and the rice at Minamishima is indeed perfect in temperature and form), but it’s the proteins that will leave you gasping. You’ll try two types of toro (tuna belly): one like raw prime beef, the next seared and almost like foie gras in its richness.
Then there’s the buttery flounder fin – all slippery, textural bite – and some incredible, delicately scored calamari, which brings to mind clouds that have been turned into noodles. There’s scampi with a little burst of finger lime and funny, frilled Japanese cockles.
There’s the smoky umami blast of lightly torched sea perch with uni (sea urchin) and spring onion. The penultimate course is a finely minced puck of calamari in a fragrant fish broth, which soothes the way towards dessert.
So Japanese desserts aren’t your bag? The yuzu granita on a sake jelly moulded to the bowl, so it comes away with a satisfying squelch, might change your mind. It’s a bracing, citrus-sweet and sour thing that gives the meal a worthy finale.
It’s a serene fit-out, all crisp cabinetry and perfectly aligned edges, with a lit grooved stone wall backgrounding the chefs and subtly nudging them centre-stage. You’ll want one of the 12 seats along the counter, all the better to watch the knife skills and quick-draw rice work, although if you choose a seat in the dining room, a handful of non-sushi hot dishes open up. Next time. Most people will file Minamishima under ‘special occasion’. Make sure you also flag the file ‘worth it.
Ishizuka is a new Japanese restaurant specialising in a kaiseki menu. It’s also a rabbit hole, both quasi-literally (the ordeal of finding it through a nondescript door, along an arcade, down a level via a keypad and elevator and through another nondescript door, can feel a little daunting, which is probably the point) and figuratively, thanks to chef Tomotaka Ishizuka performing the food equivalent of needlepoint.
It’s certainly no wham-bam izakaya. No rousing chorus of “irrashaimase!” greets each diner as they enter, slightly discombobulated after the elevator and keypad ordeal. In a commitment-phobic world, it almost requires a session with a therapist to sign up for a 10-plus-course, two-plus-hour procession of miniaturised dishes for $220 a head, sans drinks. But Ishizuka is worth the time, expense, and trouble of finding it.
The room lurking underneath Bourke Street is haunting in its sparseness. Concrete columns are roughly textured to resemble tree trunks. Fake foliage hangs overhead. A hot air balloon-sized, white fabric lantern sections off a bar area like a beautiful hallucination. Chef Ishizuka, who perfected his craft in Kyoto (home of the kaiseki) and most recently headed up Crown’s Japanese glamourpuss Koko, maintains a gentle quiet in his kitchen. His attitude is mirrored by the small team of white-jacketed Japanese waiters who discuss the differing properties of saké with a sincerity bordering on reverence.
Toto’s Pizza House is just to the south; Universal Café is just to the north. We’re in the Italian heartland where spruikers induce passers-by into their red sauce fiefdoms. And into this kingdom of carbs and cheese comes Kazuki’s. Yes, the Japanese-ish, French-ish modern restaurant from Daylesford has swum against the tide of real estate refugees moving to central Victoria and upped stumps to the city.
So what would induce two successful restaurateurs such as Kazuki and Saori Tsuya to reopen in the big smoke after seven years in the country? (Incidentally, there’s still reason to seek them out at the Daylesford address, now a more casual Japanese diner called Sakana). Luckily our task at hand is not to enter the fevered minds of those folk but to judge their actions. And the augurs for Kazuki’s – and indeed for Lygon Street itself - are good.
It’s an evolution of the Daylesford mothership in every regard. A startlingly zen-like fit-out courtesy of the Design Office has banished every layer of surplus detail. The grey-blue walls are boldly bare. The soft yellow-gold carpet is blissfully sound-quashing. Two supersized paper lanterns, one of the few decorative flourishes allowed, adroitly carry the Japanesque theme, as does the parade of wabi-sabi (perfectly imperfect) ceramics.
The aesthetics are just as keenly realised on those plates. Kazuki-san remains executive chef but has stepped onto the floor, mostly leaving kitchen duties to head chef Anthony Hammel, whose mentee status to Mark Best can be seen in the precise approach to the food. A “make everything count” ethos means even two-leaf chicory garnish to a nicely gamey slice of aged duck breast with shiitakes, radicchio and black garlic is there for its bitterness and not just its pretty red-stemmed green flourish.
There are two ways to tackle Kazuki’s, starting at the option of five courses for $130 per person and heading northwards to the menu of seven courses for $160. Our advice: go to the five-course menu, if only to commandeer the four snacks as the first course. Your quartet might comprise meaty little Goolwa pipis on the shell, a mouthful of ocean heft with a ginger and soy backing track.
A fat profiterole filled with the holy union of chicken liver parfait and thick Davidson plum and umeshu jam gets an extra sweet/sour edge from the plum dust sprinkled like icing sugar over the top. Think of your favourite French starter running headlong into a doughnut from Queen Vic Market, and you’re halfway there.
A thin nori crisp is topped with a creamy line of taramasalata and salmon roe soaked in sake for extra alcohol-popping roundness. The only duff note in a winning snack salvo is the underplayed salt in the house furikake that covers bouncy little duck hearts grilled on the hibachi.
Komeyui Japanese Restaurant
Komeyui may be lesser known among the general public, but Japanese food fanatics will feel a twinge of protectiveness if you try to recommend this restaurant to anyone uninitiated. Seats are few, the sushi is excellent value and expertly prepared, and there is a strong following for its sea urchin and sake degustations.
The Japanese cuisine spectrum is astounding. At one end, $2 hand rolls; at the other, perfectly crafted mouthfuls of art for which you would happily part with $75. Being almost impossible to find and seating just 12 people, Hajime is definitely at the latter end of the range. This is a real tempura house, and the quality of these morsels of magic compared to some of the Japanese available in Melbourne is like the difference between line-caught bluefin tuna and the fish John West rejects.
Upon entering, you are gently ushered through the tranquil waiting room and seated around a semi-hexagonal bar. You are invited to choose either the tempura or the tempura sushi set ($75/$85). Aside from the impressive list of sake and good wine selection, this is where your choice ends but relax: you’re in hands far more capable than your own.
First, you are presented with sashimi, everything the dish should be, with real wasabi and firm, fresh-as-hell kingfish, tuna and prawn. Next, you are set up with a dipping station featuring dishes of salt, lemon juice and soy broth into which you disperse a ball of grated radish.
Assorted tempura of asparagus, scallops filled with creamy urchin roe, prawn and smoked eel are then presented piece by piece with instructions of “lemon only” or “dip please”. Finally, the chef prepares the sushi main, his hands moving with such speed and accuracy it’s like watching martial arts mixed with brain surgery.
Diners watch in silent awe as perfect nigiri are assembled in seconds, flambéed with a torch and basted in lemon. The skill is so sublime and the service so gentle and efficient that you sit there feeling like an ungainly rhinoceros. This cannot be helped, so try to behave nicely and enjoy.
Dining on Flinders Lane requires a game plan because, more often than not, you’ll be lining up for a table. This is especially true for Supernormal, which is, after seven years in the game, one of those restaurants people are willing to wait hours to eat at. But is this Asian-influenced McConnell diner still worth the queue time? Definitely.
A few things have changed since opening back in 2013. Firstly, you can book a table up until 5.30 pm. Then it’s first come, first served. Secondly, Supernormal is no longer just Tokyo-inspired; it now lends its flavours to some other big cities like Seoul, Hong Kong and Shanghai as well. Thirdly, you can order some of your favourite dishes like the lobster roll, chicken dumplings, Szechuan lamb or even peanut butter parfait to have take-away.
What hasn’t changed is the frenetic energy in the space; the team works like a well-oiled machine with military precision, and they look happy (rather than stressed) to be taking care of hundreds of people at a time. The room is still light, sparse and warmed by the glow of pink neon, but what of that karaoke room? It’s still there for private parties.
Dishes like the New England lobster roll and the twice-cooked duck leg bao have never left the menu (and have followed McConnell from Golden Fields). Still, there are new items like the tonkatsu sandwich (lunch only) and the sweet, soft, double-steamed, once-fried, O’Connor braised brisket and leek buns accompanied with a sharp, black vinegar, spring onion and fermented chilli sauce. One could argue these newcomers outshine the classics.
It’s probably one of the worst-kept secrets in the Melbourne dining scene, but chef and (former) owner Tomotaka Ishizuka left Ishizuka right after it was awarded two hats for the 2019 Good Food Guide. Ishizuka walked away from his 16-seater, hidden kaiseki (degustation) restaurant commanding $235 ahead. He moved up the street to a narrow, neon-filled shop front and opened an izakaya with food revolving around the bincho tan- a grill fuelled by premium, dense Japanese charcoal.
As with most izakayas, the aim of the game at Bincho Boss is to drink and soak up all the drinks with outrageously delicious booze-friendly snacks. Seating is all at bar height and on stools, even when you’re not at the bar, so feel free to put elbows on tables, eat with your fingers and double-park your drinks.
Classic cocktails receive Japanese flourishes like the Mandarin Sakegroni, a citrus-inflected Negroni with the addition of sake and none of the bitterness, or the Matcha Highball, which combines cinnamon whisky with regular whisky, green tea and soda to make a sweet, bitter and fiery Highball. High-quality junmai and junmai daiginjo sake (premium sake made from rice polished down to 60% and 50% its size, respectively) come in single serves, 300mL pours or 720mL bottles, destined for lone, couple or group drinking.
You can decide which sizes suit your needs; we don’t judge. Wines are a concise and considered collection, celebrating conventional and newer styles of Australian winemaking, sitting around the $70 sweet spot to not break the bank. Oh, and Asahi and Asahi Black are on tap, meaning anyone indulging in the fried section of the menu (everyone) has a frosty, 400mL handle in front of them.
This Japanese grill-centric restaurant in the off-Lygon precinct of Queensberry Street – next door to Tuan Tuan Chinese Brasserie, which anchors the same apartment development – was opened by chef Jinwook Park and is bringing some keen snacks to a burgeoning restaurant precinct.
It's a half-hour drive from the city, but Shira Nui is definitely worth the trip if you're a lover of Japanese cuisine. For lunch, you can get sashimi and nigiri specials with miso and salads. Otherwise, share a platter with friends or choose from the sushi menu. Call and book because these guys fill up fast.
Ima Project Café
On a Carlton corner, Ima Project Café is breathing new life into smashed avo. Furikake (a mixture of sesame seeds, chopped seaweed, salt and sugar) and nori paste (processed seaweed boiled down with soy sauce) are usually sprinkled on rice. Still, Ima slathers crunchy sourdough with the nori paste and then sprinkles the furikake on top of the avocado. The result is a salty and savoury breakfast dish unlike any iteration of the creamy toast topper you’ll find in Melbourne.
Japanese twists on archetypal breakfast dishes can also be found in Ima’s miso-infused tomato baked eggs and the porridge drizzled with Mitarashi syrup, a traditional Japanese sauce made from soy sauce and sugar. Plus, the classic Japanese breakfast set of fish and rice is on the menu. But Ima isn’t just reinventing Melbourne breakfast. Lunchtime options kick-start at 11 am, meaning you can get curry rice or a katsu burger before noon.
An Ebi katsu (crumbed prawn) burger stars on the specials board. Sandwiched between sweet and crumbly brioche buns courtesy of Cobb Lane are large breaded prawns laced with a velvety taru taru sauce, a Japanese-style tartare with more heft than its western equivalent due to the inclusion of hard-boiled eggs.
You won’t need serviettes to dry off your oil-slicked fingers with this deceptively light burger – the prawns are light and crisp. Adhering to Ima’s no-waste policy, the burger is served alongside deep-fried prawn heads that you can eat whole – the shell is rendered so crunchy and brittle that it dissolves in your mouth in a salt-spiked mouthful.
The Japanese lunch set, which comes with sticky koshihikari rice, pickled vegetables, miso soup and a protein main, changes daily. On our visit, the centrepiece is korokke (croquettes), a smooth and creamy mix of mashed potato and ground beef encased in crunchy panko crumbing.
Drizzle as much treacly tonkatsu sauce from the accompanying ramekin as you’d like for a lingering sweet aftertaste, and it's not a bad idea to add an onsen egg.
Considering that Melbourne is home to one of the largest Japanese ex-pat communities globally, it's no surprise that the city has an abundance of amazing Japanese fine dining restaurants.
From sushi masters to wagyu beef experts, Melbourne's Japanese fine dining scene has something for everyone. If you're looking for an unforgettable culinary experience, check out one of these top-rated Japanese fine dining restaurants in Melbourne.
FAQs About Melbourne Restaurants
First, at a nice restaurant, it is considered rude to rub or scrape your chopsticks together as this implies that you think their chopsticks are cheap or of poor quality. When not using your chopsticks, you should lay them on the “Hashi Oki” or chopstick rest.
These traditionally elegant and secluded private rooms are ideal for business meetings, special occasions, or times when privacy is a necessity. Decorated with unique Japanese flower arrangements (“Ikebana”), scrolls, and artwork, these Tatami rooms offer a luxurious dining experience.
Take a gastronomically unique adventure when you indulge in these must-try Japanese favourites.
Seiza involves sitting down on the floor and not on a chair. In traditional Japanese architecture, floors in various rooms designed for comfort have tatami floors.
The most common seating arrangement you can find in Japan is counter seating. It's known as “kaunta seki” (カウンター席) in Japanese. You'll find counter seats in various types of restaurants.