I have read about this place being 'hard to find'. It's not surprising since the entrance is actually on Oliver Lane - which is just off Flinders Lane, as opposed to on it.
As I walked up Flinders Lane and asked for directions to Oliver Lane or Yu-U, I got some rather vacant looks. So, I ended up going into a block of apartments where the friendly concierge looked up the address for me.
When I finally found it, as I had read, the doorway doesn't look like a normal restaurant doorway. Instead it's a big heavy red-brown steal door set back under a porch. Known as a 'hidden treasure' of Melbourne; hidden, it certainly is. Treasure, I was about to find out.
As my lunch companion and I made our way down the concrete stairs into the basement, we turned to our right to enter a dimly lit, but beautifully peaceful room. You'd be forgiven for thinking that this was a Japanese spa.
A couple more steps down the wooden platform and we waited as one of the smiling female waitresses, all dressed in black, approached us. She seated us by the eating counter, which was already fully lined with people.
The open room looks part zen, part industrial with the steel air vent units running along the ceiling and the steel cooking bench sitting in the centre of the eating counter. On the back wall are kitchen units with wooden bench tops, it wouldn't look out of place in a family home kitchen.
The eating counter itself is polished dark wood and wide enough to fit many plates. Seating around the counter are comfortable ultrasuede blue cushioned wooden frame back chairs.
There are two private rooms which can be booked. And two long wooden tables and benches are strategically placed to the side of the room. This place is not huge, but the atmosphere is one of calmness and serenity. The perfect setting for a relaxing lunch.
From the $18 set menu today, there is the choice of 'Beancurd and vegetables in a mushroom sauce', 'Pork', 'Seafood' (which included tempura prawns), 'Sashimi' or 'Salmon Teriyaki'.
We both chose the Salmon Teriyaki. Unfortunately I was not able to take any pictures. Having read about this place not liking people take photos of the food, the waitress did give my camera a wary look. So apologies...
I will describe my lunch as best I can. The food was brought out on a tray. There was a bowl of rice, a bowl of miso, a little saucer of seaweed salad and, another of cabbage and carrot pickle. The pickle was only light, so it didn't cause any scrunching of the face that sour pickles can do.
The soup had small chunks of cabbage and carrot. It was a very clear broth which didn't taste like your normal miso soup. It was refreshing though and certainly cleansed the palate before delving into the delightful sesame dressed seaweed salad and cabbage pickle.
The salmon teriyaki was lovingly flavoured with a thin teriyaki sauce (like the consistency of a jus) that had been spooned over it. The salmon was beautifully cooked, soft and juicy pink. Next to it was a small mountain of potato salad which was absolutely out of this world delicious. There was also another small mountain, of very finely shredded cabbage which contrasted well with the teriyaki sauce.
The waitresses were unobtrusive, polite and smiley. They are there when you need them and they don't bother you at all. They understand that patrons are there to sit, enjoy and relax.
With limited opening hours, it's definitely worth a trip if you like Japanese food and want somewhere without the fuss. Another bonus - there wasn't the usual crowd of young students that seem to crowd other Japanese eateries in the CBD.
What I love about Yu-U is that it doesn't feel as though it has to try hard to grab everyone's attention out on the street. It's certainly a little gem, a rather low-key gem. But that is what makes this place so very special and wonderful.
137 Flinders Lane, Melbourne VIC 3000
Tel: +61 (0)3 9639 7073
Weekdays Lunch: 12-2:15pm; Weekdays Dinner: 6-9:15pm