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Going Japanese

Seen through western eyes, the Japanese are a curious bunch. One look at Japanese game shows, where torture and humiliation are the stars, leaves one wondering exactly what makes these people tick (imagine Larry Emdur dragging half-naked men behind a tractor over stony ground and you get the idea).

They are a nation, also, that enshrines precision, order and control, but with an equal regard for the natural and spiritual rhythms of daily life. This manifests particularly in the visual arts and writing, where control, technique and economy of expression allow a deeply contemplative mood to be created from what at first glance appears deceptively simple, even simplistic.

This is a sensibility which extends into the culinary arts, where ritual, tradition, high technical skills and visual expression combine as a simple slice of raw fish.

At the Matsuri restaurant, in the QV1 building on Hay Street, this Japanese-ness extends beyond food into the very demeanour of the restaurant.

Matsuri is as Japanese as a freshly raked pebble garden. Situated on the prominent Milligan Street corner, it is perfectly matched to the uncompromising modernism of Harry Siedler's QV1. Harry, Australia's foremost acolyte (some would say apologist) of the Modernist school, would no doubt approve of the neo-Japanese architectural idioms expressed in the corner tenancy.

The interior scheme is unmistakably Japanese, yet resists the theme park décor of many Japanese restaurants. The look is international modern with clean lines and natural colours.

The food is terrific. The service is quick and to the point, and delivery times on orders are at warp speed. This is fast food with the handbrake off and the foot to the floor.

There are eight entrées, three variants of sashimi, the usual assortment of sushi and California roll combos, six set menus based on sushi and nori roll combinations and twenty-five main course dishes spanning the canon of Japanese restaurant faves. The choice seems a little daunting but the glossy menu is well laid out and easy to follow.

Prices mean a double take. It's difficult to imagine how Matsuri can deliver the standard of food for such ridiculously low prices.

My main course, the pork teriyaki ($10.50) was a case in point. Not only was it sublimely cooked, it was a huge serving which came on a lacquered tray with four side dishes – warm miso soup, a crisp salad of tomato and

iceberg lettuce, a side dish of marinated bean shoots (which added a delightful piquancy) and a large bowl of fluffy, steamed rice.

The large serving of pork alone was good value at $10.50. The inclusion of the four extra dishes made it one of the best value meals in town. When you factor in the hi chi décor and prominent city address, one wonders how they can make a yen.

The answer, of course, is volume. Matsuri has to have at least 100 seats. Given the pace of service, it would not be foolish to conclude they turn over tables several times a night.

From the entrée list we chose the takaponzu ($5.50) and the tataki ($7.00). Both were exquisitely presented. The takaponzu, cooked octopus in a lime vinegar sauce, was simple and delicious. The chopped tentacles were lightly blanched and then tossed through the ponzu sauce. It was served cold and its clear, clean flavours were understated and confident.

The tataki was brilliant, It came as six slices of raw beef in a piquant, tangy and salty sauce, with wafer thin slices of whole garlic sprinkled on top (I am salivating as I write). Prior to slicing, the fillet had been seared on all sides, the thin crust adding texture and flavour to the raw meat: control, technique, economy of expression – food as art.

The other main course, assorted tempura ($10.50) was served up as was my teriyaki dish, with four side dishes of rice, bean shoots, miso and a dipping sauce.

The tempura was light, crisp and flavoursome. It came with two large prawns, and slices of vegetable including pumpkin and beans. Excellent.

All the dishes were served in a marvellous array of lacquered bowls, ceramic dishes and interestingly glazed stoneware platters.

Desserts are an afterthought. Green tea ice cream and ice cream with red bean paste were the only offerings, which is something of a yawn, but I suspect the Matsuri people, know their market well and pud probably doesn't rate hugely with its customers, given the style and size of the dishes on offer.

The most disappointing element of Matsuri is the wine list. One doesn't expect a huge range at a quick, easy, urban joint like this, but to only offer one wine by the glass simply flies in the face of common sense and current dining trends.

This is especially true in the case of Matsuri, as its turnover would almost guarantee that opened bottles would move quickly (wine going off is one of the explanations given for not selling by the glass).

To add insult to injury, the only wines offered by the glass are an unspecified house white and house red at $3.50 to which is added $0.50 corkage. Why not just charge $4.00?

By the bottle, there are four whites, five reds, three sparklings and eight beers. None are expensive, and they are entirely appropriate for this style of eating.

Matsuri is a sign that Perth is maturing. It is a highly urbanised concept, delivered with great looks, good food and fantastic value.

Check out the handheld computer terminals which transmit orders to the kitchen via infra-red. The Japanese are so good at technology.

In short, Matsuri is brilliant. Its food is not as high church as that of a few of the more expensive Japanese restaurants around Perth, but honestly, you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference.

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