Monday night, 6pm, Collins Street: hustle, bustle, after-cubicle rage and rush. As you're heading down the hill towards Swanston Street, take a sharp right turn into the narrow three-staired doorway at number 182, and feel the strain and noise fade. The faux wooden lanterns and black walls and ceilings immediately mute the world, lending the space the feel of a traditional Japanese Inn. The interior path is reminiscent of a secret garden, complete with decorative rocks and greenery, leading to the hostess' desk. Welcome to Japanese Teppanyaki-Inn, better known by Melburnians simply as Teppanyaki.
We were greeted in hushed tones. Although we were a few minutes early, arriving before opening time, we were readily and cheerily accommodated and directed to the lounge chairs where we were served drinks from a range of Japanese and local beers, global wines, and Nippon sake. We weren't waiting long before we were told our non-reserved table was ready, and that our drinks would be brought up. The hostess, welcome and lounge seating was a time-travel trip back to 1975, when Japanese Teppanyaki-Inn was established, the first of its kind in Australia. Clean and orderly, but charmingly dated, I expected bell-bottoms, lapels and offensive sideburns on the after-work suits as I sat in my purple lounge chair.
Teppanyaki is a Japanese style of cooking that uses a "Teppan," meaning a large steel hotplate, and "yaki," Japanese for all ingredients that have been grilled by the in-house chef in front of surrounding diners. At Teppanyaki, each table has eight covers, and there are about ten tables. This isn't the stereotypical Teppanyaki of the Gold Coast, with flamboyant chefs, flying food, heavy sauces and western cuisine; the ambience is quiet, the traditional chefs respondent to the diners' mood (that is, they will talk if the mood calls for it, or be silent and serve if not, but always with courtesy, respect and professionalism), and the food delicate and robust.
One of Teppanyaki's hostess'
The menu is quite simple, with traditional Teppanyaki calling for set courses. Japanese Teppanyaki-Inn offers six set menus, each being a beef, chicken, wagyu, crayfish or seafood main, accompanied with various vegetables, all grilled. The 'special' combines the wagyu main, with prawns, scallops and vegetables, and is the best all-rounder experience. Prices aren't cheap, at $67 per head for the beef and $87 for the wagyu, but fair for what is received in quality, quantity and atmosphere. A range of additional items can be added, and there is a dessert menu.
The personal chef adds a few signature touches during the cooking and dining experience. For instance, he placed the bottle of warm house sake on the edge of the stovetop, so that throughout the meal it remained warm. He fried garlic in oil and butter, making delicious crispy chips that were served with the dishes throughout the evening. He cooked the prawn heads throughout the evening, such that when they were served with the final wagyu pieces (cooked to preference), they were crispy, blackened and flat, and tasted like "dried oysters" in the best possible way that can be interpreted. The accompanying vegetables, such as cold cucumber, grilled potatoes, and bean curds, were delicious and fresh. Miso soup and steamed rice kept the palate cleansed. The chef clearly took pride in his work station, where not an ingredient was out of place, from the side-by-side salt and pepper grinders, to the tightly glad-wrapped raw materials, and the expertly handled knives. The food was well presented, drinks readily on hand and the wait staff were attentive and discreet. With each table having their own chef, it was interesting looking at the different styles and taking pride in our own chef!
It's been a decade-plus since I ate Teppanyaki in Australia, which I remembered as being theatrical and silly. This felt traditional, intimate and special. Whilst I wouldn't have it weekly, nor can I afford to, it would be hard to beat a regular Teppanyaki dinner consisting of fresh ingredients, expert chefs, and the relaxing, timeless ambience that only Teppanyaki delivers.
Japanese Teppanyaki-Inn entrance
Japanese Teppanyaki Inn offers lunch Tuesday through Thursday, dinner Monday through Saturday, and is closed on public holidays. All major credit cards are accepted. There is no wheelchair access and only limited parking. Bookings are accepted with a credit card guarantee.