A small pocket of Albany Highway in East Victoria Park may well be one of Perth's most resilient food hubs. While Mount Lawley's Beaufort Street and Subiaco's Rokeby Road go through cycles of relevance and gentrification, Albany Highway seems sometimes stable almost to the point of stagnation. While we wouldn't have the street any other way, it's refreshing to see modest new takes on food bubble up within the scene. A delight which is embodied nowhere better than Yuuma's menu filled with modern Japanese. We sat down with Yuuma's owner and head chef Sean to talk about modern Asian in one of Perth's most fascinating food hubs.
"We looked at Leederville, Mount Lawley, a few suburbs, but ultimately saw Vic Park and saw how we could make something for this particular restaurant strip. We're good at Japanese and we knew that we could bring something new to the strip."
Sean worked as one of the original staff in Crown Towers' Nobu, and after seven years in the restaurant, believed he was ready to start a place of his own. "I think I was twenty nine and was thinking about opening a restaurant as my ultimate goal. I thought, if I wanted to make those dreams come true I needed to start now." said Sean.
"We took around three months of looking, driving around looking for places. My old boss opened Tsukaya in Mt Hawthorne and I helped him out, working full time but still looking for the place for myself."
Bringing Fusion to Vic Park
There is a clear rift between the Japanese food served throughout Perth and that which is served to locals in Japan. But while Sean respects and loves Japanese cuisine, he says he understands the crossing of food cultures perhaps even better than most.
"People often do say to me 'Sean, you're not Japanese, but you're doing Japanese.' It's true, I can't make truly authentic Japanese cuisine, but I love the soul, the attitudes behind it. I'm Malaysian-Chinese, we were migrants to Malaysia.
When Chinese people went to Malaysia they brought their own cuisine into the mix. The flavour memory we have is already combined. Nobu isn't traditional Japanese either, at Nobu we would combine Peruvian and Japanese. The combination of spice, citrus and fish textures worked really well. When we created something new we followed a theory from Nobu San that we should still keep more than fifty percent of the ingredients and style Japanese. We try not to overcomplicate or to lose the original in the fusion.
Australia is a bit like Malaysia to me. We can't say Australian cuisine doesn't exist, we have what we enjoy here, and when we bring in our own cuisine, we understand that we need to bring Australia halfway. We want to bind the two food cultures."
Bringing Japanese Flavour to Australia
While modernisation and fusion runs thick through Yuuma's menu, the importance of Japanese flavours is not lost on Sean, who has had to find creative and ways to bring the foundational elements of Japanese cuisine to Australia. "Australia and Japan are both islands, but the climates are very different," says Sean.
"There are many traditional recipes using ingredients which we can't find here or which you can't find in high qualitiy. We have to find creative ways to recreate those recipes with local and high quality ingredients. It's a challenge."
However Sean has found several clever ways to adapt local ingredients to the Japanese palate, from substituting Japanese yuzu with local citrus, to employing more easily obtainable umami rich ingredients.
"Japanese cuisine uses a lot of kombu and dashi stock as crucial ingredients. For example, when we do shiitake rice, we need a lot of umami from the dashi to make the rice really fragrant. But bringing in a lot of imported ingredients brings up the cost and lowers the quality. Instead we found that we can substitute dried shiitake instead of katsuobushi. We can use locally grown mushrooms and get the same level of umami."
In sourcing fish and seafood, Sean says Australia is in a particularly fortunate position: "At first at Nobu we flew in a lot of fish from overseas, but slowly as the Australian fishing industry caught on we were able to take advantage of Australia's great sea water and actually manage to get local fish of a world standard." said Sean.
"It's now to the point that some Japanese restaurants have to get their fish from Australia. We get tuna from Rottnest island, Salmon from Tasmania, Kingfish from a farm in South Australia. Tasmanian sea urchin is even coming up on a world stage- it comes in so bright and creamy, with a perfect layer of shiny fat."
Modern Vic Park
Sean says his overarching philosophy includes constant improvement and attention to what resonates with his customers. The restaurant puts on routine Omakase set menu nights which allow for experimentation, and from which the highlights become regular menu items. Customer feedback and their time in the space have led to a number of changes to the fit-out as well. With a small open fridge for sushi prep now filling the front counter. Art has been hung to cut down echoes. The impression is set that Yuuma is modern not only in fitout and menu, but in outlook too.
"I had a menu and an experience I wanted to provide in mind. We struggled a bit at first when realising it. We wanted to give people a different experience for Japanese cuisine, but knew that from a business side it still needed to work. What helped a lot was realising that people liked what we were doing. We now have a lot more confidence and direction, which has informed a few early renovations.
We're building a home for ourselves to serve people out of. We want the menu and decor to reflect that. "
Yuuma are open from Friday to Monday 12-2pm and 5.30-8.30pm in 861 Albany Hwy, East Victoria Park. Follow them on Facebook.