Alissa had had a stressful week. Having worked in theatre for the last few years, Alissa returned to her studies at the beginning of 2014 to become a secondary teacher. The week preceding had been her first exam week since high school (contemporary performance didn't have exams), so on the evening of her last exam I arranged a little light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a reservation at Nine Fine Food. Being massive fans of Japanese food, Nine had been on our list of places to check out for a long time. Located at the corner of Bulwer and Lake Sts in Highgate and serving impressive food for a decade, its easy to forget about an established gem like Nine with all the 'buzzy' new Japanese restaurant openings in the last few years (Nobu, Sushia and Marumo to name a few), however with its consistently strong ratings in the Good Food Guide the restaurant and chef Muneki Song have certainly earned their stripes amongst Perth's best.
Nine's food is a fusion of Japanese and Modern Australian, with the restaurant sporting a smart casual vibe and an upper-middle price point (plus BYO wine) that seems ideally suited for a special date night without the total blowing of the bank that a degustation at a fine diner can be. While their dishes can be ordered a la carte and a $95 Omakase menu is available with 2 days notice, I would hazard a guess that most people dining at Nine go for either the three course Tokutoku set menu ($55) or the four course Osusume ($66), the latter of which we decided to go with. Each course offers 3 or more options, allowing us to tailor the dining experience to our preferences.
I went with Sashimi for my first entree, which featured a cooked prawn, some slices of octopus, a mix of cured fish plus three different type of sashimi. The prawn was nicely cooked, thankfully lacking that horrible cottony texture of being overdone, and the slices of octopus were nice and tender with a delicious creamy sauce. While the citrus cured fish was tasty, the slices of sashimi were definitely the stars. When it comes to sashimi its all about quality sourced ingredients, and all three tasted particularly fresh, high quality and delicious. With the quality soy and wasabi dip, this was a nice start to the meal.
Even better was Alissa's choice of the Agedashi Toothfish. The dashi and shoyu broth tasted very similar to a sweet and umami-rich variety served with udon. As a fan of broths and feeling a bit under the weather, I had some serious dish envy even before trying the rest of the dish. The mushrooms and the fluffy tofu were delicious in their own right, but the Patagonian Toothfish was quite rightly the centrepiece of this dish. The soft, melt-in-your mouth quality of the toothfish combined with fatty skin and a delicious crunch for what Alissa felt was just about the best fried fish she'd ever eaten. Similar to the quality of the karaage and tonkatsu at Jun, this dish showed how refined deep frying can be as a method of cooking in the right hands.
Any dish envy I had was quickly alleviated by what was my favourite dish of the evening - Kinoco Caviar Pasta, the chef's signature dish. And what a signature dish to call your own - in a typically Japanese masterstroke, the dish walks a line between being rich in flavour while being light and not overly heavy. The extremely generous pile of caviar gives way to angel hair pasta (that resembled thin Hakata-style ramen) and mushrooms in a most incredible sake rice wine and cream sauce. It all added up to a dish that was creamy, salty (in the best way possible) and sheer umami goodness with the lovely popping of the caviar giving it a lot of textural interest and character. The Soft Shell Crab on the side was an optional extra that was nice to have, but really it was the pasta that dominated. I would come back to Nine for this dish alone.
True to her Dutch heritage, Alissa went with the Pork and Pork as her main. On the left were triangles of grilled pork fillet. These were nicely grilled with a decent char, but they were overshadowed by the two other components. Pork Belly is always a winner in our books, and the soft unctuousness of the meat and the crispy skin on top did not fail to impress. Alissa was glad for the inclusion of the flavoursome Apple Mango Chilli Sauce; the dish showed how pork can be deliciously fatty and salty - which Alissa added 'is what I really love about pork' - but the acidity and sweetness of the sauce cut through and gave the pork components balance. Finally, on the right was a piece of Tempura Bacon that was so intensely flavoured in smoky baconness that Alissa thought it tasted like the very essence of bacon. A small salad beneath the tempura again helped give the dish balance.
With Alissa calling dibs on the Confit Duck, I decided to go with the Chicken and Lamb dish. Definitely less visually impressive than the Confit Duck, this main follow a similar 'three ways' plating format as seen in the Pork and Pork dish. On the left of the Plate were pieces of Karaage and a Vegetable Pancake that was basically a frittata of sorts. The excellent Karaage was similar to the refined, light style we ate at Jun with the prerequisite gingery flavour that was well complemented by the avocado puree it sat in. I have to admit that I didn't really dig the Vegetable Pancakes as I felt they were a bit dense; I think I was hoping for something lighter and fluffier like tamago. The Lamb Back Strap Fillet that took center stage was expertly cooked to a nice medium rare with a good sear to the edges, and the meat didn't have any of the chewy toughness that badly cooked lamb can exhibit. Finally, a salad of poached chicken breast rounded out the plate, with some lovely picked vegetables and topped with lentils that gave this sub-dish a nice creamy quality.
The Confit Duck was a wonder to behold, and was Alissa's favourite dish of the evening. Confit - slowly cooking meat in its own fat at a low temperature - is a cooking method that is particularly sympathetic to the fattiness of duck, and here the slow cooking of the duck rewarded the meat with a juicy, fall apart quality - if you were toothless, you could literally have used your tongue to break it down. It was so very tasty, and I was thankful that Alissa gave me a generous portion of the duck to devour. The scallops were seared nicely without being overdone, with the soft and buttery texture going well with the finely diced salsa placed on top, as well as the acidity of the quartered tomato and grape. The side of a creamy mashed potato and a crunchy disc of tempura onion split the difference between Japanese and French - a quality also felt in the Duck Jus with its French flavours prepared with a Japanese sense of subtlety.
My dessert - the Kuro Goma (Black Sesame) Gelato - was quite epic: a combination of Black Sesame Gelato, a fried spring roll of chocolate and banana, a coconut biscuit crumble, various fruits in a sweet syrupy sauce and red bean. Being a fan of all thing umami I appreciated the umami quality of the Black Sesame Gelato and the Red Bean amongst the sweetness. The melted chocolate and banana made the spring rolls addictively good, and considering they were an additional optional extra I would suggest you really should shell out the extra $5 to have these on your plate. Finally, the Coconut Crumble went nicely with the gelato, but in my opinion the fruit didn't really add all that much to the dish other than make a pretty garnish.
Alissa's dessert of Mattcha Brulee was much more restrained, but it was excellent in its own right. The Green Tea Custard was nice and creamy, with a smooth, delicate and refined texture and a subtle bitterness giving an otherwise sweet dish additional interest. Finished with a lovely caramelised brulee of burnt sugar, this was a simple dessert elevated by clever fusion and done very well.
The Verdict: Excellent +
Alissa and I left Nine Fine Food very full and very impressed - the Kinoco Caviar Pasta and the Confit Duck were worth the price of admission alone, and we would definitely come back just to taste those two dishes again. A workmate of mine had warned that serving sizes were small when she dined here a year ago, but Alissa and I felt that the servings were more than fine and that the three course would probably have been a sufficient amount of food - though the Kinoco Caviar Pasta is not an available option in that set. Having a decent selection of wine at home, being able to do BYO was a welcome respite from inflated wine prices at higher end restaurants, and the casual vibe and friendly staff made for a very enjoyable evening. It may not have the blue chip locations of Nobu and Sushia, but if you haven't been to Nine Fine Food you really owe it to yourself to check these guys out.