The Gold Coast has been one of our holiday playgrounds, a major decision maker in our choice of a place to settle. Living here since 1998, Itoshin, owned by Tomy Ito and chef husband Shin, was one of our first dining discoveries, an obvious choice to review for Mietta’s Eating & Drinking in Australia 2001. My comments were: “Sit in this funky restaurant and read the grafittied walls – comments of the rich and famous who’ve dined here before you. It’s casually retro-chic, board shorts and T-shirts welcome. But there’s nothing casual about the food: quality Japanese cuisine at affordable prices…”
It was there that I first met Hibiki, Tomy and Shin’s son who had grown up in the restaurant, he recalls when we catch up in his restaurant Little Itoshin in Miami.
“I was 2 years old when my parents opened their first ever Itoshin in Kyoto Japan. I grew up sleeping in the family home above a 14-seater izakaya bar. I was 12 years old when they opened Itoshin Miami back in 88. I started as a dishy, then kitchen hand,” Hibiki tells us.
But development has a way of ousting treasured venues and, with the building of Miami One, in 2003 Itoshin relocated to Mermaid Beach. With the relocation came a change of focus, the restaurant moving up a notch to bigger and better things, a larger finer dining venue, albeit with a loss of the casual beachside vibe of its first incarnation. But for Hibiki, the new venue brought opportunities.
“At Itoshin Mermaid I spent many years as the head chef in the kitchen and then later shared the sushi sashimi bar role with my dad and brother. Also, I had a wine selection duty. After studying and obtaining a sommelier’s title, putting together a wine list became one of my obsessions. I also studied cocktail making and Japanese whisky and sake knowledge as the popularity of these spirits started to boom in recent years in Australia and worldwide.”
Itoshin, one of our longest standing and most respected Japanese restaurants, gave Hibiki the perfect background to open his own restaurant in May 2019, naming it Little Itoshin in honour of his parents’ restaurant.
“Little Itoshin is a baby of its mother restaurant, Hibiki says. “The name pays tribute to my family business and it also reminds the locals what they had back in the day, now back in action but in an up-dated fashion. It’s a small restaurant with a big idea. It gives me a chance to tap into my creative nature and let it do its thing.”
Throughout Little Itoshin we see references to Itoshin Miami with its casual tables and vintage seating (the originals formerly made of fibreglass), a street art wall (albeit the vastly more artistic work of Claudio Kirac), and the casual intimate vibe of a 25-seat venue, small enough to sit at the chef’s bar and hold conversation watching the meticulous preparation of food in front of us.
“Little Itoshin is named after its ‘mother’ restaurant, and it’s similar but different to Itoshin. It’s more casual and not as serious. Also, Itoshin never did lunch. Little Itoshin is doing lunch and it’s been really well supported by many locals,” Hibiki says, referring to his lunch menu of don and salad bowls, yaki’soba and sushi.
It reminds me that Itoshin Miami was very much a ‘local’ venue as well, a sentiment echoed in Little Itoshin’s ‘destination’ status tucked high up on the hill in the Miami Village Shopping Centre. It’s also a modern take on a Japanese diner, adapting itself to modern dining patterns and plating with a full liquor license.
“From my family restaurant, I learned the importance of building a solid team, being a leader, and treating the team like family,” Hibiki tells us. “I learnt all this through observing what my parents went through and how they handled it. I respect so much that they had made it look so easy,” he says.
What all three restaurants share is the quality of their food: the freshest sashimi grade fish straight from the trawlers, (their oysters in particular are famous), plus hot and cold dishes made to order with precision and finesse. Nothing compares to excellence.
Dining in a group of four, we choose small and larger dishes to share, not wanting to miss out on any of the dishes on offer. We start our meal with a bowl of the freshest, crispest potato chippies we’ve tasted ($6) before we venture on to a special of filled mushrooms, juicy Karaage chicken – a great version of the dish that we note uses Hibiki’s own gluten-free housemade sauce, the dish served with a side salad dressed in Itoshin’s famous salad dressing, wasabi mayo and steamed rice.
We stick to the seafood theme, choosing that our Yaki’soba, a noodle dish strewn with cabbage and bean sprouts, comes topped with luscious large fresh prawns cooked to perfection ($20).
Okonomiyaki of shredded cabbage, spring onion, rolled fish cake and fresh corn with dashi butter and Okonomi sauce with fresh prawns comes topped with seaweed flakes and smoked bonito shavings, a dish that we share between four ($26).
Crumbed prawns and Agedasho tofu (served in a hot pot – $16) round off the dishes, but we still find room for the housemade Mochi in maple syrup, served with vanilla ice cream and a spoonful of sweet red bean paste.
“I am proud to be here now, leading my lovely team, doing what I love and enjoying putting together a set of recipes that will be loved by many for hopefully many years to come,” says Hibiki. “The original Itoshin recipes were curated by my parents and we still keep them the same after over 30 years in business. I believe in this being the key to a good restaurant. A solid [bank of] recipes that will stand the test of time. I just want to create my own version of it. Little Itoshin’s recipes have been very successful. We’re only six months old so it’s still early times, and currently, I am working towards fine tuning the recipes, polishing them all up to reach perfection.”
Looking across to the chef’s bar as we dine, we can see Hibiki preparing each dish, testament to the freshness of the food. It’s the same labour-intensive preparation that the best Japanese food is known for, the care that has gained Itoshin such respect over the years. What a delight!
Little Itoshin, 6/110 Mountain View Ave, Miami
Open: Wed – Sat 11:30 – 2:30pm, 5:30pm – 8:30, Mon – hospo night