Want to score a booking at Footscray’s first one-hat restaurant? Set an alarm.
Then poise yourself at your computer at 10pm on the first day of the month to snag a seat at Matsu.
This culinary gem for top-notch Japanese cuisine can only seat four people at a time, and there are only two sittings a night. Talk about cosy!
Meet the brains behind it all – the young master chef, Hansol Lee.
Hansol went from being a Korean literature teacher to the don of Japanese dishes after arriving in Melbourne on a working holiday visa in his early 20s.
“I worked in a yakitori bar and that’s when it hit my heart – this could be my job! So I decided to go back to basics and learn to cook Japanese food the proper way.
“I got a job washing dishes at the Melbourne restaurant Kenzan, working sixty hour weeks for eighteen months. I didn’t speak any Japanese and had to learn the language of the kitchen.
“Slowly they gave me the opportunity to move up to be a kitchen hand. I learned to do the basics like cut vegetables, all the while watching and learning and going to cooking school at William Angliss.
“After two years at Kenzan, the head chef Komatsu asked me to cover his section while he went on holiday. He gave me two weeks training and this was my big break.”
Fast forward to lockdown and the idea for Matsu is born. “I had been working at Kenzan for ten years and felt really comfortable. But lockdown made me think it was time to explore other opportunities and take on my next challenge.
“It was my partner Elly, who made me brave. She said ‘You have to show people how well you can cook. Share your skills and your journey. I think you are enough!’”
Hansol and Elly searched for a small restaurant site in the inner west before finding the perfect location in Barkly Street, Footscray. Elly helped to design Matsu’s concept and interiors, while Hansol focused on developing his kaiseki menu.
What’s the scoop on the name, you ask? “My name Hansol means big pine tree in Korean. The word Matsu is Japanese for pine tree – plus it’s a nice coincidence that my mentor’s name was Komatsu, which means small pine tree!” he laughs.
“Plus I liked the symbolism of a pine tree – when the weather is stormy and it’s snowing, the pine tree stands tall and straight. It’s a symbol of patience and constancy.”
Matsu’s menu – brace yourself for this – is a nine-course affair.
“I wanted to offer a kaiseki menu because I have skills with hot food, such as tempura and yakitori, and not just sushi and sashimi. The menu changes depending on what’s in season.”
Curious about the dish that’s got everyone talking? It’s the chawanmushi – a steamed egg custard. “Many people think the main character of this dish is the egg. But in fact, it’s judged by the dashi, the fish stock. We make our own dashi fresh every day and it takes a lot of practice to get the broth clear and not have a dusty taste,” Hansol explains.
So whether you’re a Japanese cuisine fanatic or just looking for an elevated dining experience, lock in your visit to Matsu. You’ll just have to fight other foodies in the know for those four coveted seats.