Monday, June 20, 2011

Shoya: Mostly Bland

There is supposed to be at least one in every major city: a hoity-toity Japanese dining establishment known for its fancy decor, pampering staff, and unforgettable food that is tantamount to its high price and standards. Unfortunately for Melbourne, its star restaurant doesn't quite hold down the forefront on fine dining.

Shoya, despite all of its glamorous flourishes and perfect presentation, lacks inspiration in the taste department. That an upscale restaurant could excel in every way except taste is not an unheard-of occurence; many is the time I have marveled at beautiful food festively arranged on a platter in an enchanting setting, only to have the taste of the food turn out to be bland. It is the polar opposite of discovering spellbinding flavors at a hole-in-the-wall, and perhaps the ultimate disappointmentespecially if the bill is decidedly high.

"When it comes to good food, money is no object," a friend of mine recently stated. Touché. But then what to do when the food isn't up to par? At a place like Shoya, which charges A$150 for a 12-part meal, unless you plan to execute a D n' D (Dine n' Dash), you'd probably hang in there and hope it gets better.

I was seduced by Shoya based on photos of immaculate food on its website, which displayed good-looking fish embellished with gold flakes and multicolored roe. And it certainly looked to be a fine-dining restaurant, which was exactly what I was searching for after days of casual sushi-chomping alternatives. There, in a mysterious-looking alleyway known as Market Lane, aglow with eldritch lighting, sat Shoyaa refuge from the crowded sidewalks teeming with Melbournites, a place that didn't look as pretentious on the outside as it acted on the inside.

I reckon it was because I was a single female diner, or because I dressed too casually (I had just concluded my all-day tour at The Great Ocean Road), but the waiter at first did not believe I would be willing or able to pay for the A$150 meal. "It's a hundred-fifty," he said before seating me, as if I had not read that on the menu myself. I nodded, "I know." Still unsure I had heard, he reiterated, "One-hundred-and-fifty-dollars." (I reasoned that they must have dealt with a lot of D n' D experiences in the past.) "Yes, I know," I repeated. He wasn't being haughty; he really appeared fearful that I would be unable to pay at the end. I wasn't properly accessorized with a man or a better wardrobe. But looking around, I saw casually dressed men; only the women were better-attired. Choosing to overlook this silly double standard, I continued to affirm my credibility by telling the waiter I knew my food, even mentioning names of other sushi restaurants I had been to since going down under. He seemed to relax after that.

One of the reasons I had even been enticed by the multi-part course for that high of a price was because the kitchen was exposed; up front and center, right next to the main entrance, was the open-walled kitchen which had a counter across which slid scintillating salmon and tempting tempura-crusted king crab legs. Because the food was gorgeous, and brilliantly accented, I caved inI wanted it now.

The salmon I had been eyeing turned out to be the Salmon Carpaccio, salt-cured and strewn with sprouts, salmon eggs, truffles, sour plum sauce and wasabi mousse. While it was in fact a visual feast, it was hardly a feast for my other sensesagain, that strange blandness that doesn't match an exotic appearance. I hoped that was the end of the blandness; unfortunately it wasn't until the eighth plate that I finally began to taste something, and that was only because I had asked for ponzu sauce to go with it (the king crab tempura leg had only come with a side of green tea salt to accompany it). The last two dishes also tasted goodbut one of them was dessert, featuring chocolate pudding, uni cheesecake (although not very uni-flavored) and black sesame panna cotta. The other was the Wagyu Beef Steak with mixed steamed rice and foie gras. The Wagyu was rich and pungent; its sauce was dark and smoky, and the ever-slinky enoki mushrooms had been thrown in for good measure.

The rest of the meal, however, was seriously, well, bland. Even the horseradish from Tasmania, which the waiter smeared on my plate with a delicate flourish, didn't have much of a kick. The sashimi, which arrived in the utmost of unique fashionsinside a glass fish-bowl type of containereven featured a rare fish called dory. "That's the Finding Nemo fish," the waiter pointed out. Adding ponzu sauce didn't help the fish flavors one bit; the sashimi was still bland. Then there was the Shochu Sorbet with caviar on top; the sake-infused oyster with pink peppercorn and miso sauce, served in a champagne glass; the quail thigh in a green tea scented bamboo leaf crust. They sounded delicious, but they were bland, bland....

Strangely, there was an item called Hatching Ocean Egg, which was somewhat reminiscent of what Yoshii of Sydney did with his Sea Urchin Egg Cupexcept this one had all the flourishes and no flavor. A white-gloved waiter delivered the egg in a wooden crate to my table. After sliding the crate lid open, he assembled everything on the plate before me, setting the egg upon heaps of wet salt that enabled the egg to stand upright. According to the menu, this is steamed egg custard with black truffle, spinach puree and topped with tempura scampi tail--all floating in a laser-cut egg shell. I thought it would've been more appropriate if the thing had arrived in a coffin-shaped wooden crate; it was dead on arrival as far as taste goes.

All in all, the place deserves about a C rating.

25 Market Lane, Melbourne

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