60 Park Street
Tempura Hajime is an intimate 12-seater restaurant in South Melbourne. Behind the copper-coloured domes is where the deep frying happens, so each tempura is served fresh and piping hot. I’ve never been to Tempura Hajime so I’m unaware of what the standards were under the previous owners, but current chef and owner Shigeo Yoshihara is doing a pretty fine job.
We were presented with an assortment of ochokos to choose from. Encouraged to pick up each one to see how it fits and feels in your hand.
Suishin ($22/150ml carafe)
The sake was not too dry and it leaves you with a warm glow. It’s not just the alcohol content, but there’s a richness in the mouthful that the selection at Shira Nui lacks. It does get a little harsher and dryer as it cools, but the richness remains.
There are 3 options at Tempura Hajime. The tempura only course comes with the chef’s selection of 10 tempura pieces and the main consists of a mixed seafood and vegetable tempura on top of a bed of rice ($75). The tempura and sushi course comes with the chef’s selection of either 7 tempura pieces ($85) or 10 tempura pieces ($92), both sets have an array of fresh fish & wagyu sushi as a main.
All three sets come with an hors d’oeuvre, sashimi, salad & dessert.
Everyone is presented with a beautifully plated sashimi with firm and fresh slivers of kingfish, ocean trout and a little blend of ikana with plum sauce wrapped with shiso leaf. The grated wasabi is divine.
On the same plate is cucumber and chicken breast in a japanese sesame mayo. Quite ordinary.
Asparagus & Sweet Corn
The white paper at the base is folded in a traditional manner and is replaced fairly often. We are given the option of daikon with a tempura dipping sauce, or pink salt flakes from the Murray River with fresh lemon juice.
The asparagus is for the 10-course goers, beautifully crisp and soft, perfectly cooked. The sweet corn kernels are lined tightly in rows, with hot crisp batter. Just a divine pairing.
The prawn is piping hot, fresh and crunchy, just as crunchy as the crisp hot batter.
Eggplant & Chicken Mince, Sweet Potato
The mince is only for the 10 course goers, but I much prefer the sweet potato - beautifully fine and fluffy.
My natural inclination was to douse the tempura in the tempura dipping sauce. But with the sweet potato I decide to go with the salt & lemon and I almost end up abandoning the tempura dipping sauce altogether. That’s how gorgeous the tempura batter was. The tempura dipping sauce does it no justice.
Mixed Seaweed Salad
Light and crisp, and I’m ready to tackle more tempura.
Scallop & Sea Urchin
I wish there was more uni within, the scallop is barely cooked within, translucent with a richer creamier texture, complementing the sea urchin. It’s so delicate in flavour, you can’t possibly have it with the tempura dipping sauce.
Zucchini & Spicy Salmon, Unagi
Fresh eel coated in hot tempura with a sweet soy, flavourful enough. The zucchini is for the 10 course-goers, and the salmon is quite spicy, but along with the mince, was not one of my favourites.
King Dory in Shiso
Fresh juicy luscious slivers of fish, in the same perfect tempura that has been consistently amazing all throughout the other courses.
Mushroom & Prawn
The mushroom is so juicy, and the prawn meat has a nice bounce to it.
It’s my personal opinion that for the sweet corn, the scallop, the sweet potato, where there’s a natural sweetness to the produce, you really don’t want to mask and douse the freshness. The salt & lemon is the perfect accompaniment. I daresay even with the prawn and the fish, the salt and lemon triumphs each time.
Plum Wine & Soda
A refreshing bubbly.
For the Tempura & Sushi course goers, the main consists of tuna, calamari, ocean trout, sword fish, wagyu beef and tamago. Truth be told the sushi falls short compared to the tempura. The sushi is quite fresh and tender, and the ocean trout and swordfish had the undeniable allure of being blowtorched, complete with the seductive seared aroma.
Kakiagedon - Mixed Vegetable & Seafood Tempura on Steamed Rice with Teriyaki Sauce
The main for the tempura only course - a light portion, crispy bites on top of fragrant rice.
Yoghurt Jelly with Muscat & Grapes
I’ll be perfectly honest. I’ve been burnt by so many bad tempuras - whether it’s because the batter is far too heavy or far too oily, there’s a soggy lining to the inside of the batter, the lack of freshness of the tiny morsel encased within the batter. The possibilities are endless when it comes to the number of bad tempura I’ve encountered. I wasn’t exactly keen on sitting through a tempura tasting course.
But from the first bite, I knew there was a reason why in spite of all the bad tempura in the world, tempura anything is always so tempting. It’s for this - the moment of biting into piping hot, crunchy, crispy, fresh and light tempura coating the freshest seafood or vegetable, enhanced by that sprinkling of salt and a touch of lemon. This renews my faith in tempura. I hope it renews yours too.