There are a few things that really make a restaurant. These things will, of course, vary from restaurant to restaurant — i.e. a venue where you are given multiple sets of cutlery, to a place where there are no such niceties (in which case, wet wipes are definitely one of those things). When visiting the former, for me, it's how good the food is (obviously), how well waitstaff know the menu, and how far they go to not only accommodate dietary requirements, but make them seem non-existent.
All these boxes were checked off with a nice smooth tick at Toko, Prahran's newest Japanese restaurant. And if I were to add having a cocktail that comes in with a 'cloud' of fairy floss floating on the surface (a strawberry-infused Wyborowa vodka concoction called Kakeru's Cloud) and matching pork crackling with a sashimi dish to my list of requirements, those would have been ticked off too.
Toko Melbourne is actually the third incarnation of the restaurant (other outposts lie in Sydney and Dubai), and its Sydney sensibilities have been successfully transplanted straight into the old Fog site on Greville Street. Unmarked from street level, you would think that the place might be going unnoticed, but no. Inside it's pumping — both with people, and a very present soundtrack that makes it seem as if they're trying to literalise that very adjective. Otherwise, it's not too hard to hear what your dinner company is saying; the long space is separated by a clever barred wall, breaking up the bar, long communal table for twos and threes, and bigger tables down the back. There's also a courtyard with its own bar for warmer nights.
And this is great warm weather food. The raw fish from the sushi bar is faultless — as you would expect when you're paying upwards of $8 per three pieces of sashimi. The Toko nigiri selection is probably the best you can do, with seven assorted pieces for $23.80. A page in the menu is dedicated solely to tempura, lightly frying everything from pumpkin to Moreton Bay bugs. The soft shell crab is a standout though, both because it comes with wasabi mayonnaise and can be done gluten free ($19.80).
Flavours and textures are played with, and are pulled off with well-plated style. A plate of thinly sliced wild snapper comes topped with truffle oil and a sprinkle of pork crackling for pure textural pow ($18.80), and the gaminess of the venison carpaccio is balanced by the sweetness of Nashi pear, chilli in the yuzu koshu and texture of the tiny puffed potato 'airbags' ($17.20).
But then there's the salmon ($29.40). Marinated in miso for 48-hours, the fish is then cooked on the robata grill to the point where it simply melts on your tongue while the flavours hit all your senses. It's the sort of dish that warrants some sort of groan and a few seconds of silence while you take a moment to appreciate how beautiful it is that you are here in this moment eating this blessed fish.
However, this is no serene Japanese dining experience, ala Hihou or Minimishima. This is as much about a night out as it is about the sushi and the sake. Luckily, one doesn't cancel out the other — at Toko, you can have your sashimi selection and eat it too.
Image credit: Julian Kingma