As a city renowned for fine dining, beautiful Japanese restaurants are no stranger to Melbourne. However, an omakase adventure at Warabi in Melbourne’s W Hotel with new head chef, Hajime Horiguchi at the helm, elevates diners to greater heights through a degustation menu balancing tradition and simplicity with innovation and playfulness.
The Signature factor
In true W style, everything about Warabi oozes intrigue and style. Perched at the ‘chef’s kitchen counter’ watching head chef Hajime Horiguchi and sous chef Brendan Kiew create culinary magic is like being in the front row of a theatrical performance.
Tucked into Flinders Lane, amidst the labyrinth of Melbourne’s bluestone laneways Warabi is the newest of the W’s dining spaces. Partnering with Tokyo based Wa Creations, renowned for a string of high-end authentic Japanese restaurants throughout Asia, several with Michelin stars, Warabi is the company’s first venture into Australia.
Designed by Australian architectural firm Hachem, with seating for only 29 guests, the restaurant feels spacious with sleek lines and minimal furnishings, yet intimate through clever accents of wood and ambient lighting. There’s a private dining space for eight guests featuring slate and marble offset by a triptych painted by local tattoo artist Timothy Dywelska.
Recently appointed head chef, Hajime Horiguchi wasn’t lured back to Melbourne by the weather, but the food culture.
“People here are serious about their food. They are interested in knowing the stories behind the produce,” Hajime said as he chats between courses.
Born in Kyoto and spending his formative years in the kitchen of his father’s French restaurant, food has always been central to his life. With a bio featuring the Ascott Thomglor Bangkok Hotel, along with several of Australia’s finest Japanese restaurants including Melbourne’s Minamishima, Hajime’s philosophy is to, “pay respect to producers by creating the best possible guest experience.”
Arriving slightly early for the first sitting on a Tuesday evening, for a fleeting moment, I thought I had the wrong night. It looked closed. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth when Assistant Venue Manger, Riza Padua opened the door and welcomed my husband and I into the main dining area where my eyes were drawn to a marbled onyx feature wall glowing from within radiating warmth, and creating mystical feeling that stayed with me throughout the evening.
On my plate
To say each of the ‘goodness knows how many courses, but I think it was eight,’ looked like a painting would be an understatement. Masterpiece is a better description. The term ‘omakase’ simply means ‘I’ll leave it up to you’, and what a joy to not have to make a decision.
Hajime introduces each course as if they are family members. We discover the signature dish, featuring spanner crab, was inspired by Hajime’s life in Queensland and he sources the delicacy from a company in Maloolabah where years ago he was their first customer. Presented in dramatic fashion with folds of dry ice swirling around the base a ceramic dish, the K’Gari spanner crab nestles in the shell, and is topped with caviar and surrounded by tosazu, a sweet soy sauce jelly dressing resting on a bed of baby greens.
The Wagyu beef is flown in directly from the Yamagata Prefecture and served simply with a kimi sauce. It’s hands down the best beef I’ve ever tasted. Hajime puts the quality of the flavour down to the fact the cows graze on apples. Closer to home, the kamo (duck) comes from the Great Ocean Road and is matched with delicate noodles and a duck dashi (soup). The rock lobster is Tasmanian and elegantly tempura fried with a French sauce. Line caught trout dried for 5 days before cooking on charcoal grill. And then there’s chef’s selection of Sashimi and a range of intricate sushi dishes each a gastronomical triumph in their own right.
There’s something incredibly powerful about receiving a dish directly from a chef after following the journey of its creation. Hajime’s passion for his craft shines through as he lovingly places each dish in front of you, like it’s a gift from his heart. Impeccable drink service completes the experience. Opting in for the ‘realist’ wine/sake pairing, Riza Padua timed every pour perfectly while giving tasting notes on everything from Wildflower Ale, an Australian ‘wild’ brew, to Spain’s Motor Callet red wine and various Japanese sakes.
As if being awarded two hats in the coveted Age Good Food Awards for 2023 isn’t enough, Warabi followed up by being named Deluxe Restaurant of the Year at the 2023 Victorian Accommodation Awards for Excellence. The restaurant also picked up a two-glasses ranking on the 2023 Australian Wine List of the Year
I had left room for the dessert – a delicate house made mocha using black sugar from Okinawa with a genmaicha ice-cream, that I had to eat with my eyes instead of my stomach.
Where to find it
In the heart of the quintessential Melbourne vibe, all roads, tramlines and train tracks lead to the W Hotel. Once there, it’s best to ask at reception for directions to Warabi, as it’s a hop, step and jump away from the main hub.