Entering Wakenbo, you immediately feel a sense of calm. The stonework, wood, fluid lines and brown and cream tones reference the natural themes of water, earth and flow. Formerly a cafe, chef-owner Kenji Ito spent six months renovating the 30-seater restaurant.
A respect for new challenges has guided Ito as a chef. He learned to cook at the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Tokyo, then honed his skills in the subtle and refined traditional cuisine of Kyoto at his home in Ginza. He moved to Adelaide in 1999 and opened his first restaurant, Kenji Modern Japanese, in 2006.
Now, the chef has moved to a bigger city to open Wakenbo, hidden down a side street in Fitzroy. In the lead up, he worked as an apprentice in other kitchens around town.
The food here draws on contemporary Japanese, though Ito uses less than traditional ingredients.
He also works with Japanese vegetables and herbs he grows in his own garden, fermenting, smoking, dehydrating and air-drying them.
Ito’s inventive menu includes miso and coconut milk braised rabbit with marrow raviolo, seared scallop and preserved lemon; hōjicha (a type of green tea) smoked duck breast with duck neck chorizo, fried duck cartilage, pickled quandong and spinach; fish wing hotpot with roe, chrysanthemum greens, hakusai (Chinese cabbage), shiitake and yuzu; and grilled cauliflower with buffalo mozzarella, hoba leaf (the dried leaf of honoki, a large-leaved Japanese magnolia) and pickled lotus root.
Wakenbo places more emphasis on food than drink, so while you can enjoy a shochu cocktail, wine, beer or sake, the selection is small and limited to flavours that won’t overpower the food.
As for the name, wa means “harmony” (Ito says it also onomatopoeically references the wow factor of his food), and kenbo he says is diminutive, almost like a nickname for Kenji, his old restaurant.