Where: Bincho Boss, 383-385 Little Bourke Street Melbourne
What: A last-minute choice that turned out to be a very good choice
Who: Eco Warrior, Grumpelstiltskin
Bloat score: 0 – Living the dream
It was a Saturday morning and I was feverishly clicking ‘book now’ on every Melbourne CBD restaurant I could think of but alas, everywhere was full. As a last-ditch attempt, I desperately googled ‘Melbourne restaurants CBD’ and went through each of them, which is how I was reminded that Bincho Boss exists, and that against all odds, it was free for a sensible 6.30pm booking, allowing me, Eco Warrior and Grumpelstiltskin just enough time for a leisurely dinner before our MIFF film at 9pm (a highly entertaining Bodies Bodies Bodies if anyone’s interested – I do more than just eat!).
Eco Warrior and Grumpelstiltskin haven’t appeared on the blog since this 2018 review – I blame them moving to Canada and successive lockdowns – but I’m pleased to have them back.
I’d visited Bincho Boss once years ago but hadn’t been back since and was curious to refresh my memory. Split into two storeys, Bincho Boss is an izakaya tucked away in the same section of Little Bourke where Tipo 00 and Osteria Ilaria sit. Warmly lit but bright enough that you can read your menu, filled with a pleasant din instead of the raucous cacophony of noisy diners, Bincho Boss strikes the perfect balance for a dinner out.
I can’t go past yuzu in anything, so I order the Yuzu Sour with shochu as its base alcohol. It tasted like an alcoholic mandarin juice, exactly what I wanted and expected. Eco Warrior ordered the Okinawa Sling, which retained the Singapore Sling’s citrus notes of grenadine and pineapple but swapped out the gin with shochu and umeshu. Grumpelstiltskin ordered a beer I forget the name of, but it was jumbo-sized.
Helmed by the famed chef Tomotaka Ishizuka – of Ishizuka fame – the menu is wide-ranging. Our waitstaff recommended we ordered 8–9 dishes among the three of us and so I democratically suggested we choose 3 dishes each. Eco Warrior and I ended up choosing most of the dishes Grumpelstiltskin wanted so he only opted for 2 dishes, bringing our grand total to 8 – a blessing, as you’ll see later. Eco Warrior and I were intent on ordering rice, not thinking it’d be enough food, but thankfully Grumpelstiltskin dissuaded us.
The food must’ve arrived in the order it was prepared in the kitchen, because there wasn’t much rhyme or reason to it (which suited us fine). First up was the cauliflower salad with a black garlic and apple dressing, blanketed in parmesan ($18). What wasn’t mentioned in the menu description were the roasted brussel sprouts, crisp and nutty, interspersed throughout. I loved this dish. Not usually a fan of fruit in salad (don’t cancel me!!) or sweet dressings, I forgot the dressing had apple in it until I was writing this, it was that savoury (The creaminess of the dressing may have been on account of the apple though.) The salad retained a distinct Asian flavouring despite the parmesan.
The aburi salmon maki sushi ($30) with tobiko (flying fish roe) and aonori (dried seaweed) was fresh and flavourful, despite the liberal amounts of wasabi I dabbed on my maki having an imperceptible effect. ‘Aburi’ is the practice of flame-searing seafood, most commonly salmon, with a blowtorch.
The fattiness of salmon is brought to the fore when it’s seared, culminating in a rich, creamy mouthfeel, and the contrast between the grilled surface texture and the raw underside of the salmon is pleasing. Aburi salmon is commonly presented as nigiri sushi, where slices of raw fish are draped over an oval-shaped, hand-rolled ball of sushi rice, but at Bincho Boss, it took the form of maki sushi, a cylindrical piece formed with the help of a bamboo mat.
After a short break, the next four dishes arrived together. An incredibly generous serve of chicken karaage ($25) – we counted nine sizeable pieces – sat framed by a splendidly blue bowl. You can’t go wrong with immaculately fried chicken karaage dipped in a healthy dollop of kewpie, and what was notable about this one was the ramekin of sweet chilli that was served alongside. A far cry from your bottled sweet chilli, this was evidently housemade because it contained more heat and depth of flavour than you’d give sweet chilli credit for.
Eco Warrior absolutely adored the steamed saké clams cooked with yuzu pepper butter and sweet onions ($27). Again a highly generous serving, the little morsels of dried seaweed-speckled clams were sweet, and we used the clam shells to scoop up the broth, a pleasantly salty and umami concoction. Saké-steamed clams, or ‘asari no sakamushi’, are a staple dish in izakayas around Japan, commonly enjoyed alongside chilled beer.
The saikyo miso eggplant ($22) was effectively nasu dengaku – grilled eggplant glazed with a sweet, savoury miso sauce. This eggplant wasn’t as velvety soft or caramelised on the edges as other nasu dengaku I’ve had, but the sauce was out of this world – deep and rich.
The final dish of this serving batch, the chicken tsukune ($18), was the highlight of the night. Chicken meatballs seasoned with a sweet, thick soy sauce – termed yakitori ‘tare’ – threaded on to a bamboo skewer and then grilled over charcoal, tsukune is a popular dish in yakitori-ya (grilled chicken shops). ‘Tare’ is similar to a teriyaki sauce, albeit much thicker and saltier, and when it’s caramelised under the broiler, the concentration of flavour is unparalleled. Bincho Boss’s tsukune were melt-in-your-mouth creamy, unlike the sturdier meatballs of the west, and as soon as he had his, Eco Warrior remarked that he was instantly transported to Japan. The meatballs were accompanied by onsen tamago, the definition of which I’ve borrowed from Just One Cookbook: “eggs perfectly poached inside its shell. While the whites are soft and silky, the yolk comes out firm but retains the colour and creamy texture of an uncooked yolk. It’s basically the complete opposite of soft-boiled eggs that are firm whites and soft egg yolk.” Our waitstaff advised us to mix the onsen tamago with the dashi-based soy sauce it was sitting in until it was smooth and silky – the perfect dipping sauce for the meatballs.
Tsukune comes from the Japanese verb ‘tsukuneru’, which means to knead by hands, and is a generic name for any Japanese-style meatballs; the minced meat could be pork or even fish, but it is mostly commonly made with chicken, hence why tsukune has become synonymous with chicken meatballs. Each yakitori-ya will have their own special tsukune because it’s a dish that uses up chicken scraps that might’ve otherwise gone to waste, like cartilage. Tsukune are a popular treat on oshogatsu (Japanese New Year).
By this stage, we were well and truly full and regretting heeding our waitstaff’s advice. For a guide on how much we eat, I have a huge appetite, whereas Eco Warrior and Grumpelstiltskin classify themselves as having small appetites, so therein may have lay our problem, but the dishes were markedly bigger than we expected too. Eco Warrior had already made the decision not to touch anything else on the table to save himself for our remaining two dishes, but I am nowhere near as chill (waste not, want not!!), so I plugged away at the remaining saké clams, miso eggplant and chicken karaage.
A while later (enough time for our tummies to settle somewhat), the M9 Australian wagyu, tempranillo and onion jus ($45) arrived and we heaved a sigh of relief – here was the small portion we were expecting from all the other dishes! I admittedly know next to nothing about wagyu and different grades of meat, but I expected this to melt in my mouth and it was instead quite chewy. The silky tempranillo and onion jus sauce somewhat made up for it though. Again, roasted brussel sprouts appeared – Grumpelstiltskin, having lived with Eco Warrior in Canada for a few years, remarked that it was common for North American Japanese restaurants to feature a lot of brussel sprouts, though it’s noticeably less common here – and what looked like potatoes were actually mushrooms, a discombobulating experience in my mouth once I realised.
Last to arrive, somewhat unfortunately for how full we still were, was the agedashi tofu ($25) with, you guessed it, brussel sprouts, cauliflower and mushroom accompaniments. Pleasantly gelatinous as all good agedashi tofu should be on account of the potato starch used, the tofu was sitting in a savoury dashi broth that was both light and flavourful, and perfect for mopping up with the vegetables. We each managed to eat our two (!!) squares of tofu each.
Bincho Boss has decidedly bigger portions than your average izakaya, so tread carefully, but I couldn’t have been happier with the range and breadth of dishes we ordered. There were some true standout dishes that I’d order again, like the tsukune and steamed saké clams, and staples like aburi salmon and chicken karaage that were dependably delicious. Eco Warrior and Grumpelstiltskin rated it higher than Yakimono, which they’d visited recently – high praise indeed. While I was extremely full, the fullness subsided after a few hours, unlike bloatedness, which stays with you interminably.
Bincho Boss is open Monday to Saturday 5pm to 10pm.