Yūgen Restaurant has lured Alex Yu from Sydney’s Sokyo, and will be doing a six-person omakase, alongside a pan-Asian subterranean snack and dinner den.
Oct 06, 2022 6:20am
As Australia’s infatuation with omakase continues, Melbourne has scored one of the country’s most exciting young sushi chefs to head up a new restaurant in South Yarra.
Yūgen Restaurant is set to be a part-omakase and part-restaurant in the belly of the Capitol Grand building. Owned by LK Hospitality (owned by the LK Group, which owns the wider retail and residential building) the group has appointed culinary director Stephen Nairn to bring to life the vision and assemble a stellar team.
The Glaswegian-born chef worked his way up through the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh and 11 Madison Park in New York before ending up in Melbourne working at Vue du Monde and Scott Pickett’s Matilda and ESP. He then met Larry Kestelman (the owner of LK Hospitality) and was asked to come on board as the culinary director.
“[At first] I thought it didn’t sound like my cup of tea. But then when I saw the spaces were blank canvases and I was intrigued by the design aspect to start from scratch. And to not only design the kitchen but the whole way the restaurant operates from the ground up,” says Nairn.
This concept will see guests go through the already established Yūgen Tea Bar, to descend in a glass-walled lift into an expansive concrete basement with six metre high ceilings. The downstairs aspect is set across two levels. There’s a mezzanine where you’ll find the intimate six seat omakase, while downstairs is a more open la carte affair. “They aren’t opposite experiences. They [the omakase and a la carte] are singing from the same hymn sheet,” says Nairn.
As head chef Alex Yu will oversee the menus of both parts of Yūgen. The first will celebrate the intimacy of omakase and showcase seafood.
“I love omakase experiences. The flavours, the respect and the execution. It’s something quite special,” says Nairn. “They are works of art. The work has gone into extracting as much out of the fish as possible. It’s really a moment to enjoy that one bite and its flavours, textures and sensations,” says Nairn.
At the walk-in (and bookable) part of the restaurant, you can expect a distinct Japanese focus, but you’ll also find ingredients and techniques from across Korea, China and Thailand. When it comes to combining flavours from across Asia, Nairn hopes team work and rigorous dish testing, along with a respect for all of the ingredients unites the cross-country influences.
“We have Alex [Yu] and 3-4 other key chef players from Thailand, Japan and China. It’s no different to working in a bistro or a fine dining restaurant pulling from different countries across Europe,” says Nairn. “So the main questions are, ‘Is it delicious?’ and ‘How can we turn it into a Yugen dish?'” This may show up on the menu in the form of a whole crab, steamed and then cooked in Szechuan oil before being dressed with salt and vinegar, sushi seasoning and yuzu mayonnaise.
“You pull it apart. And with a beer, it’s delicious.” Or there’s smoked eel chawanmushi with brown butter and crisp chicken skin. “It’s all about different textures,” says Nairn. They’ll also be cooking on a charcoal pit. “Off of that we’ve got pork neck with a fermented chilli and ginger, spring onion sauce,” says Nairn.
Guests can also order sushi platters, a signature Yu has become known for, dubbed the sushi florist, thanks to his intricate and delicate arrangements. Elegant and extravagant sashimi platters can be ordered, while raw fish dishes may come with non-traditional ingredients, like the jamon and snapper sashimi with kombu, lime and shiso; or salmon with green apple, roe, puffed rice and sudachi (and Japanese citrus) vinaigarette.
Nairn is hoping for this combination of excellent knowledge from the chefs, along with a creative approach, is what attracts people to check out Yūgen.
“It’s very difficult to extract creativity from people if they stick to one cuisine or genre,” says Nairn. “A mutual exchange of respect and ideas is critical to creativity,” says Nairn.
Joining the already open tea house and the flash Euro-bistro Omnia, Yūgen set to be a good gauge on how LK Hospitality will sit within the Melbourne scene, while also adding another strong option to South Yarra’s dining scene.
605 Chapel St, South Yarra