When I started Quiet Melbourne I made a conscious decision that I wouldn’t post negative reviews. Most people don’t want to read that something was bad – we have enough bullshit in our lives and we delve onto lifestyle editorial to avoid it. If something isn’t great, then I just wont add it to the website.
This week however, we didn’t just get dragged through a hedge backwards with a dreadful dining experience but were served a prime example of what is wrong with a particular chunk of Melbourne’s food scene. The restaurant in question is almost irrelevant, other than it typifies the shallow pursuit of style over substance and a deep lack of respect for their diners.
And the problem is that an over priced and under quality establishment like this will so rarely get called out. The execution of the menu at Toko ranges from acceptable to failed. I understand there was a very good chef here when it first opened, but there is little evidence of that now. Front of house is equally mismatched to the “Izakaya” label they claim, with absolutely nothing Japanese about the staff or their accents.
We arrived at 7pm on a Thursday, a little late for our booking. We had called ahead to notify of our delay and were informed the table would be held until 7:15pm. When we entered Toko the place was dead empty save a few couples hiding away deep in the back. Just who they were going to give away our reservation to after 7:15pm is not clear, unless they have a program to offer free meals to the local drug addicts. When we left at 8:45pm there were even fewer diners than when we arrived.
You know that feeling of, “Why did we bother to book a table?”
It usually comes just before, “Why didn’t we turn around and go home?”
Ambience at Toko was set to “nightclub” rather than “dining”, with base-beats pumped out so loud you can’t hear your date talk. In a large space filled with timber panelling and recessed LED lighting the net effect was a void filled with harsh and grating sound, and nowhere to hide. Unpleasant, annoying and definitely designed to appeal to a certain kind of customer. Not this one.
When presented with the menus our waitress cheerfully explained they have a new “cook”. We’re not sure what happened to the former chef, maybe he went deaf and had to find another line of work. My brain bounced up and down the menu like a pinball machine, unable to settle and contemplate the words under the assault of pointless noise. The drinks menus were extensive and it suggests they really wanted to be running a bar instead of a kitchen.
We ordered two Lychee and Jasmine mojitos, neither of which managed to extract the slightest hint of Lychee or Jasmine. A 12 piece nigiri platter was ordered to share, but came with 12 unique pieces instead of two of each. Not the kind of sharing we prefer really. Also, we didn’t actually order the nigiri but the sashimi. Perhaps the waitress couldn’t hear us properly over the music.
The nigiri and maki rolls were mostly adequate, and proved the high point of our dining. After an hour they were also the only food that had made it from the kitchen to our table. All the while their nightclub soundtrack had bored a hole in our brains roughly twice the size of our will to live.
Finally the wagyu gyoza arrived. Tiny morsels of rubbery meat presented without any vinegar and the bare minimum of flavour. Just a waste of good beef and devoid of any culinary balance. The wagyu fillings offered no hint of umami notes, no fatty richness nor the slightest tang that might otherwise have given it some depth. Our yakitori chicken skewers were overcooked, yet the lamb cutlets undercooked. Remarkable for all the wrong reasons.
Our favourite parts of the dining experience were the moments of silence in between tracks. For those few seconds we could gather some peace in our minds and contemplate our foolish decisions that led to this meal. Several times we began discussing whether to cancel our order and head home, only to be silenced by the all-powerful beat box. If they had invested as much capital in training up their kitchen as installing their sound system they might have saved our night.
We ended up paying just under $150, plus whatever we have to spend to redo my girlfriend’s birthday next week when she recovers.
We jokingly talk of never wanting to leave the free tram zone, but we are yet to enjoy a cafe or restaurant experience in Prahran that elevates itself above the level of “should I bother getting out of bed”. The $4.10 deducted from my Myki balance could have been better spent on many other destinations. A tram ride to Abbotsford for a banh mi or a feast at Jinda Thai would have resulted in both flavour and value, without the noise abuse.
There are plenty of great places to dine beyond the limited scope of our CBD exile. Murasaki Tanuki, for example, is a quirky Japanese gem hidden away in a Wantirna strip mall miles from our inner city pad and a world away from Toko’s deadpan doofs. Murasaki Tanuki has a family run kitchen and front of house, offering some truly wonderful Izakaya dishes and some beautifully sourced sashimi. The chu toro special is not to be overlooked.
And in a flood of sadness we realised what we really wanted for this birthday dinner. Murasaki Tanuki is fun, delicious and full of Japanese people. And it’s everything Toko isn’t.
My girlfriend attempted to leave feedback for Toko, via their booking service at Dimmi, but their system fell over and the feedback was lost. The final reply from Dimmi on the matter was pretty much spot on though – “Oops, Something went wrong!”