29 Campbell Street
|opening hours||Lunch Fri & Sun 11.45am-2.30pm; dinner Wednesday-Sunday 17:45-22:00|
|Characteristic||Licensed, Family Friendly, Accepts Reservations, Outdoor Seating, Bar, Lunch Businesses, Gluten-Free Options, Vegetarian Friendly, Disabled Access|
|Prices||Moderate (main dishes $20-$40)|
|Telephone||0405 988 108|
It’s a universal truth that if there’s a guy sitting at the bar when you walk into a restaurant, he’ll know more about the place than you do.
Even if it’s a new Japanese restaurant in Ramsgate called Ren Ishii, and the guy is not Japanese and his name is James. Clearly, one should try to benefit from his wisdom.
“Ask for the raw kingfish and don’t miss the tuna pizza,” he says. James, you are not wrong. The raw kingfish ($25) comes courtesy of Yoshinori Fuchigami, whose work I’ve enjoyed many times over his 18 years at Catalina de Rose Bay, and is a modern minefield of freshness and flavor.
Clean-tasting fish slices are tossed with crisp, thinly sliced nashi pear slices, seaweed, and tobiko (flying fish roe) in a spicy miso vinaigrette, sprinkled with sesame seeds. We start flying.
Ren Ishii is run by two hospitality professionals, chef Luke Phillips and his wife, Stephanie Phillips, who met while working at Catalina, hence the Fuchigami connection. (And yes, the name is inspired by Lucy Liu’s character in kill bill). Having run a popular café in Sans Souci for eight years, they felt the area could do with something a bit more ambitious.
Hopefully, they’re not wrong either. It is a nice and well managed place; the kind of place where you’d chat with a guy at the bar, but the kitchen does a lot more than it says on the tin.
That tuna pizza ($28), for example, is a clever kaleidoscope of colorful ingredients on a flat, crispy, chewy base similar to a corn tortilla.
Ruby red tuna acts as a dressing, garnished with garlic chips, bright orange flying fish roe, red shiso leaves, tomato, fresh jalapeno, and anchovy mayonnaise doodles. It sounds complicated, but just grab a wedge and do it; it all comes together
There are also crispy nori tacos, which you can wash down with shots of yuzu sake if you like, though the Kerri Greens 2021 Pigface Chardonnay from Mornington Peninsula ($14/75), unfiltered and unfinished, is crisp, bright, and citrusy enough to my.
The nigiri is as good as I remember it from the Catalina days, with generous slices of grilled ahi tuna, salmon, hiramasa kingfish, and Japanese eel clinging to finely formed fingers of hand-pressed vinegared rice. And at four pieces for $20, eight pieces for $38, and 16 pieces for $65, it’s better value than anything I’ve found in CBD recently.
Luke Phillips moves silently around the kitchen as if he’s not doing much, then suddenly puts a finished plate of udon noodles and braised wagyu on the pass. It is thick and rich, sweetly savory and very comforting; a Japanese pasta bolognese, so to speak.
They’re also proud of their wagyu brisket ($42), a dark, brooding oblong of tender, slow-cooked meat topped with wonderfully chewy kombu chimichurri.
While beef dishes are popular, I was impressed with the simplicity and artistry of the salt and pepper quail ($32).
Chopped, marinated and fried, salt and pepper give it a nice powdery texture, cooling with a mass of finely chopped chives and chillies. Eat in hand and dip in ponzu or mayonnaise.
Two other pluses: It’s good to see a strong vegetarian option, from shiitake dumplings to a wild mushroom rice bowl and egg with seaweed sour cream, and it’s also good to see kid-friendly maki rolls on the menu.
Desserts are more French, with a little help from neighboring Queens Pastri House. So the citron cake is zhuzhed with a touch of yuzu to give it a Japanese accent. Okay, but they don’t really speak the same language.
The best sushi, the best ideas, and the best value, in a bright and bustling neighborhood restaurant that’s in a neighborhood in need.
Good thing. Or so the guy at the bar says, anyway.
the bass below
Ambient Elegant, professional and modern Japantown restaurant.
favourite dish Peppered quail, $32
Beverages Japanese beer, Dassai sake, Japanese-inspired cocktails (Hello Kitty Spritz), and a short but nimble wine list.