Reading the food menu on the Kumo website made me hungry. Their food, especially after I read Claire’s review on Melbourne Gastronome, sounded amazing and I wanted to eat it immediately. But reading their drinks menu made me nervous. They appear very expensive. I decided the solution was to go for the food and drink modestly on a weeknight. Kumo is closed on Sunday when I was planning this, so I used their convenient online booking form to book a table for two on a Tuesday night.
I’ve thought a lot about this review. I’ve haven’t been eating out as much as I used to and I experienced much to reflect on. While it may seem that I did not completely enjoy this meal, it’s more complicated than that. I can’t remember having such mixed feelings about a restaurant before.
I also apologise for the poor photos – the light is low and yellow, which makes photography difficult. As you can see from the photos in the other reviews I have linked to, the yellow light creates an unnatural colour spectrum once you try to filter it out.
Although Rumi and Hellenic Republic have been established as upmarket pioneers on the northern end of Lygon St for some time, Kumo is more upmarket again and its arrival (along with that of the huge new Monsieur Truffe) suggests the northern end of Lygon St is becoming the next Smith St – an emerging fashionable food precinct.
On arrival, every staff member within sight greets you simultaneously. I don’t know if this is a traditional practice in Japan but it’s confusing as you don’t know who to respond to. It’s a custom that does not translate well, especially in a large open room where people are coming at you from all sides.
On being seated you find the drinks menu on your table, but no food menu. The suggestion is you don’t get to read the food menu until you’ve ordered a drink. I really dislike this. In the western tradition of dining, food and wine matching is important and being able to choose food and drink together is taken for granted. The menus should be presented together to enable this.
In this Japanese inspired context, things may be different but I doubt they need to be. With so many different sakes to choose from (with tasting notes and small graphs in the drinks menu describing their flavour profile), choosing the right sake to match the food may contribute as much to the overall quality of the dining experience as matching wine to food.
Kumo’s default setting is to deny customers the opportunity to do this, and this is poor service, as is rushing customers to order drinks when they have barely sat down, started a conversation and had time to read the drinks list, which is what cltyw also experienced.
The food is mostly excellent. My dining companion enjoyed two oysters to start with and we dissected the eggplant terrine (top) with delight at its flavour and appearance. Like Claire I was not impressed by the ox-tongue with tomato and rocket salad, though the meat was tasty, and we considered it the least interesting of the dishes we ordered.
We loved the king prawns wrapped in potato shavings and deep fried (above) and, like Sharking for chips and drinks, tried not to think that they cost $8 each (a serving of 2 costs $16). The whitebait tempura (below) was divinely fresh and tender.
The quail (not on the web menu, below) was delicious, and the duck with kumquat sauce was fantastic. While not as visually spectacular as the prawns, this was perhaps the best dish. Our opinions were divided on the black sesame tofu tempura. I loved the flavour and the uneven texture but my friend is more sensitive to textural subtleties and found it unappealing.
I’ve tried it regularly, but have never acquired a taste for sake. My dining companion and I were overwhelmed by the extensive choice available and chose a $30 300ml bottle to share with our meal that was at the easy (and cheap) end of the spectrum. With sake I’m a sipper, so one glass lasts me the entire meal. With $15 a glass being an entry level, you’d want it to.
Compared to western wine, where I would probably have two glasses (which means $20-25) with a meal consisting of an entree and main or, in this instance, grazing over many shared plates, the overall cost is therefore reasonable even if the quantity is not really comparable. While sake does not inspire me, umeshu (plum wine) does, and Kumo has the best selection I’ve seen.
After finishing the savoury dishes we ordered two glasses of the Choya Kokuto umeshu ($20 each). It’s dark and sweet, made with black sugar and rum, and it makes an excellent dessert wine. For dessert we ordered the cheese cake with salted caramel sauce and the black sesame butter stuffed prune (below). On the web menu it’s in the otsumami section but at the restaurant it’s moved to the dessert section of the menu.
The prune has been injected with a dark paste (the sesame?) and a whitish butter like substance (coconut?), which have subsequently set, and the prune has then been sliced and is served over ice. It looks like slices of black pudding marbled with fat. It’s not very sweet and is rich, so while it seems very small it’s quite enough.
I remain uncertain about the value for money at Kumo. The cost and service seem to have polarised customers. While it seemed like an expensive meal, at exactly $200 for two (including $70 on two drinks each) the food should be considered reasonably priced when compared to other high quality shared plate dining experiences such as Movida or Bar Lourinha.
The drinks seem expensive, but that is a subjective impression. The sake prices are similar to those at other innovative Japanese restaurants like Hako in the CBD (the wine list at Kumo is a brief afterthought compared the the craft beers and sake and this is understandable).
I don’t know if it’s possible to quantify value here, but I will try. Kumo offer the most easily obtained Choya brand of umeshu at $11 a glass, which is higher than other places but consistent with the markup for this style of business. In comparison, the (unnamed, but probably Choya) house plum wine is $8, and the premium $10, at Wabi Sabi on Smith St.
A standard 750ml bottle of western wine results in four 180ml glasses. A glass is approximately one quarter the volume and price of a bottle. With wine usually having a significant price mark-up in restaurants compared to retail, a bottle that retails for $18 can be about $36 in restaurants or about $9 a glass.
Based on these numbers, and not knowing the retail to menu price inflation, the price at Kumo seems quite reasonable. As a niche product in Australia, the difference between the basic Choya umeshu at a retailer (wholesale plus markup, approx $35 for the 750ml bottle at Dan’s) and in a restaurant (wholesale plus markup, $11 a glass at Kumo) is far less than the 50% markup in the wine example detailed above. But this may be mostly because the retail price for umeshu is higher than wine due to it not being a big seller.
Our overall experience was mixed. The service was attentive in terms of having our water glasses refilled, but OTT at the beginning with the greeting and the pressure to order drinks. The food is predominantly good but some dishes are significantly better than others. The drinks are relatively expensive but it’s difficult to compare them in terms of price and quality with wine.
Kumo is a restaurant you should try if you like Japanese food, and drink at if you’re into sake. But unless it softens its staff attitude and adjusts some of the dishes, it is not somewhere I would want to visit repeatedly. If I did, I’d be careful about managing my budget as $100 per head is above what I want to spend on regular meals. Use it as an excuse to impress visiting friends. The initial experience is worth it, but with most restaurants there’s less novelty to be found in each repeat visit (the experiential equivalent of the law of diminishing returns).
In contrast, a glass of wine and a mountain of impressive mezze can be yours for $50 each at Agraba, a newish Lebanese place on Errol St North Melbourne. That’s value for money. Kumo is not about value for money. It’s about an experience that may or may not appeal to you.