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.

kumo1 dinner at Kumo Izakaya on Lygon St East Brunswick

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.

kumo3 dinner at Kumo Izakaya on Lygon St East Brunswick

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.

kumo2 dinner at Kumo Izakaya on Lygon St East Brunswick

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.

kumo4 dinner at Kumo Izakaya on Lygon St East Brunswick

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.

kumo5 dinner at Kumo Izakaya on Lygon St East Brunswick

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.

dinner at Kumo Izakaya on Lygon St East Brunswick

17 thoughts on “dinner at Kumo Izakaya on Lygon St East Brunswick

  • 29 September 2011 at 10:27 am
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    Nice review Brian. We went there recently and tried out the vegetarian banquet and left with similarly mixed feelings. To the point that we gave up on blogging it because we couldn’t figure out what to say. I’d say the veg food is a bit less interesting than the non-veg, but price-wise is reasonable value for money – but if I wanted fancy Japanese food I think Izakaya Den does more interesting stuff for vegos. Our service was pretty slapdash (super friendly but not particularly competent) and the whole experience was just a bit meh.

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  • 29 September 2011 at 10:32 am
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    I’m very interested to read how conflicted you feel about Kumo! We dined there recently and I ultimately decided not to blog about it, such was my confusion. :-D

    While the staff were very friendly, they made some notable errors on our visit (and I can only hope this will improve over time). I was very pleased that they offered a vegetarian banquet, and there were a few reasonably original dishes in it, but not much that really appealed to my personal taste. Given the expense of the meal, I’m reluctant to give them a second chance… and I’m hesitant to give them a bad review based on this one mixed visit.

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    • 29 September 2011 at 12:10 pm
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      At least you didn’t contradict each other!

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  • 29 September 2011 at 12:14 pm
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    Nice review. The price for two of $200.00 is a lot for Japanese food. For that price, the experience should be exceptional.

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    • 29 September 2011 at 3:31 pm
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      Cindy and Michael – did you have the sesame tofu tempura? What did you think?

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  • 29 September 2011 at 8:00 pm
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    Nah, we didn’t get that dish – we had veggie tempura, which was done pretty well. The only tofu we had was a weird silken mush slathered in a spicy chilli sauce. Actually maybe there was some in the dengaku plate as well.

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  • 30 September 2011 at 9:17 am
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    Howdy – PhotoMonkey from http://sharkingforchipsanddrinks.wordpress.com/2011/08/16/kumo-izakaya-sake-bar/

    I am glad that there are numerous other experiences that correlate to how we experienced the restaurant service and quality. It is interesting that there are some bloggers out there who are a little hesitant to write what may be a negative review. The reason we decided to publish was that we felt like we had a handle on what the retaurant was trying to do but it was not translating into what they were trying to output.

    I know many a person now diverges from solely reading reviews from broasheets and are seeking out the “truth” from bloggers out there. I am all for writing about your experiences so that people have a point of comparision.

    @shark4chipdrink

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  • 30 September 2011 at 12:39 pm
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    I think Photomonkey’s already identified why I did hesitate and they didn’t: I’m not confident that we were served *bad* food, just some dishes that weren’t to my personal liking. It’s quite possible that I just don’t ‘get’ what Kumo are going for. In this scenario I now prefer not to write at all. I would definitely have related my specific experiences with the service if I had decided the food was worth reporting on.

    I reckon that well-founded negative reviews should certainly be posted! One of the cool things about food blogging as a whole is the chance to build up a nuanced picture of a restaurant by reading posts across many blogs. The picture wouldn’t be nearly as accurate without the negative experiences being documented.

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    • 30 September 2011 at 12:54 pm
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      I wonder at what point, when customers repeatedly ‘don’t get’ what a restaurant is doing, that we can say that it’s not our individual and subjective tastes that are causing this but something about the restaurant? My overall impression was positive, but not uncritical. Perhaps they’re trying to hard because they’re new and it will relax with time and experience.

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  • 1 October 2011 at 11:01 am
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    hey brian & photomonkey, you both mentioned the welcome that they do. isn’t the welcome a japanese thing? they do it in the japanese place i used to go to in sydney. i always presumed it was a traditional thing to do in japanese restaurants but haven’t ever encountered it again. maybe i was wrong about that? while at first it was a little weird … i now miss it!

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    • 1 October 2011 at 12:35 pm
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      It may be traditional, but I think that in laidback egalitarian Australia it seems both antiquated and pushy in an American fake obsequious way. It makes me uncomfortable.

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  • 3 October 2011 at 2:14 pm
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    Hi agrippinamaior & Brian

    It may very well be a ‘Japanese thing’ to greet everyone who happens to walk in the door, and it may translate better in a smaller Japanese establishment. Each to their own I guess but should you be expected to shout out to a customer when you are taking a order from a table and needing to throw your voice if said table is very far from the door in a crowded and noisy room?

    A better alternative is to have people who are not conversing with customers within a vicinity of 5-10m do the team greeting.

    Getting a little too critical here but it is what the comments are focusing on.

    And I agree with Cindy – Blogs are there to help you decide if a place is actually worth going to.

    @shark4chipsdrink

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  • 4 February 2012 at 12:43 pm
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    Weird review…It’s an Izakaya, not a restaurant. The clue is in the name really so that’s why you were ‘pushed’ into choosing drinks – these are the traditional drinking houses in Japan. The greeting is also traditional and not by any means an ‘American thing’. I’m not sure why you would choose a specific style of establishment to review and then criticise it for delivering on the traditions that make it different to a standard restaurant? Would you go to a yakitori and complain that everything was grilled?

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    • 4 February 2012 at 3:35 pm
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      Other izakayas in Melbourne don’t push sell drinks like this. Assuming authenticity is naive – there isn’t any. In my opinion it was just poor service.

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