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Akaiito Melbourne restaurant review

Tucked into a historic building in Melbourne’s best-loved laneways, Akaiito’s ‘Omakase at your table’ experience takes diners on a culinary journey that weaves tradition with innovation, says Jocelyn Pride.

Venue: Akaiito
Address: 349-351 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Date: March 2024
Dining style: Japanese with a French twist
Perfect for: Couples, small groups, and private dining
Dish to dine for: Seven-day dry-aged duck with mushroom, beetroot, lardo and duck jus
Price range: ‘Aka’ five-course degustation for $178 pp. Signature ‘Kojin’ seven-course degustation for $228pp. A vegetarian degustation menu is also available.
Opening hours: 6 pm until late Tuesday to Sunday

What’s in a name?

Entering through Akaiito’s wooden door feels like being transported into another realm. Surrounded by bluestone walls filled with black marble, granite floors and exposed beams, my eyes are immediately drawn to the dramatic red installation twisting and turning overhead. According to Japanese mythology, akaiito means ‘red thread of fate’ signifying ‘the joining of kindred spirits creating an unbreakable bond.’ Akaiito’s mantra is to connect people through exquisite food.

After oohing and aahing over the architectural design created by international firm HBA and culminating in owner Christine Chen personally installing the red thread, manager Desmond Louis welcomed us into the lounge for a collection of canapes served with French champagne. Each bite is designed to excite the senses – ebi (a Queensland delicacy similar to prawn but sweeter) with finger lime and caviar, dry-aged Wagyu tartare, and my favourite – an elaborate beetroot waffle shaped like a lotus pod filled with whipped salmon roe.

Before moving to the dining room, Desmond showcases the evening’s ingredient box filled with seasonal produce, describing the origin of various elements destined for our plates. “We source premium products from specialist local farmers and suppliers,” he says. “For instance, this piece of MB9 Wagyu comes from Stone Axe Wagyu in NSW, and the duck has been dry-aged for seven days at Aurum Poultry here in Victoria.”

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Fusion magic

Following ‘the red thread,’ we pause at the open kitchen, where, under the direction of Head Chef Winston Zhang, a team of Robatayaki and sushi chefs is slicing ingredients with the precision of surgeons and plating dishes like artists.

Originally hailing from Shanghai, Winston came to Australia when he was 25 and started his career as a chef after graduating with a diploma in hospitality management and commercial cookery in 2008. As Head Chef since Akaiito opened its doors in 2019, he strives to create carefully crafted and meticulously presented dishes. “Our seasonal menus blend traditional Japanese and French cooking techniques, always placing seasonality at the forefront of our creations.”

At a traditional Omakase (meaning the menu is left up to the chef), we would stay perched at the counter to dine. However, Akaiito has elevated the exclusive dining experience to an at-the-table affair, where we’re escorted to a spacious table with comfy seats, a crisp white tablecloth, and soft lighting.

‘Omakase at your table’ takes diners on a journey that weaves tradition with innovation © Akaiito

Omakase with a difference

Over the next two hours, each course is presented on a stunning selection of tableware sourced globally, often by Winston and Christine when they visit local pottery stores on regular trips to Japan. Plates are seen as an essential part of the ethos of Akaiito, helping tell the story behind each dish. Chefs explain the intricacies of the preparation and add finishing touches before serving at the table, also enhancing the experience.

Thin slices of smoked mackerel in a truffle ponzu are draped on a crystal patterned platter with drizzles of wasabi kizami; the velvety textured spanner crab chawanmushi is in an earthenware mug, Glacier 51 toothfish with a beurre blanc, featuring hand-peeled white walnuts, makes a statement on a black ceramic plate, and the Western Australian marron arranged with a pretty tomato salad floating on a platter of glass bubbles is a showstopper.

Creamy, smooth oyster ice cream balanced with watermelon and native sea herbs is the most unusual yet sublime palette cleanser I’ve ever tasted, and the ultra-soft, lusciously rich miso brioche with lashings of seaweed butter will never be forgotten.

Chef at Akaiito chef in the kitchen
© Akaiito

There’s a fanfare for the final two savoury courses. Shimmering in the light, the golden glazed 7-day dry-aged duck is brought out as a whole for us to admire, then whisked away and returned, served as a melt-in-the-mouth wedge in a rough-cast pottery bowl with sweet beets, mushroom and duck jus. The Wagyu striploin, arranged on a bone-coloured stippled pottery plate with ‘real’ Japanese wasabi, turnips and beads of black garlic, is finished at the table in grand style with the chef preparing a classic demi-glaze sauce.

Nestled into the folds of a silken white dish, the ‘pink’ dessert featuring guava sorbet, fermented strawberry, and crumbled raspberry meringue has a carnival feel. It is followed by a selection of petit fours—classic chocolatey and creamy treats sitting alongside yuzu jellies, small pocket rockets with zesty oomph.

Perfectly matched

Opting for the wine pairing, we sip our way around the world as the sommelier introduces labels selected for various courses and describes the backstory of wine in addition to tasting notes. Highlights abound.

There’s a Grololo Pithon Paille from the Loire Valley to ‘excite the senses’; the Clare Valley’s Good Catholic Girl, Teresa Reisling, where the name captivates me before I even taste it; the purely organic (and made without machinery) Fattoria Coroncino’s ‘Gaiospino’, which is like a ray of Italian sunshine in a bottle; and the equally lively Borgo Salcentino Chianti Classico.

I’ve never been one for sake, possibly because I haven’t tasted the real deal. However, I may just become a convert after a couple of sips of traditionally brewed Imayo Tsukasa’s Black.

Exceptional in every way, an evening at Akaiito is to be savoured and etched into memory as a place to go for a remarkable Omakase experience.

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