You can smell sesame seeds when you walk into the new Cibi, even though the kitchen is about 15 metres from the door.
The cosy Japanese cafe has been Collingwood’s bridge to Tokyo for the last 10 years, run by husband and wife Zenta and Meg Tanaka (they also own nearby cafe and retail space Mina-no-ie, and last year opened a second Cibi in Tokyo), and well loved for its delicate Japanese-inspired dishes and restrained but stylish, light-filled interior.
In Japanese, “cibi” means “little one”, but Cibi’s not so little anymore. The Tanakas have packed up and moved – though not very far – from 45 Keele Street just a few doors up to number 31. The lofty new Cibi, in a 60-year-old former clothing factory, is almost 1000 square metres in size – roughly four times bigger than the original.
Despite the growth spurt, nothing from the first Cibi has been tossed. The menu has expanded, as has the Japanese homewares offering, and there’s a new grocery section with pantry goods and fresh produce on display (today it’s soft herbs, radishes and a bowl of local blood oranges).
The new warehouse could house a light plane, but it’s still warm and familiar.
“We just want to create a home. It’s about feeling, not about seeing,” says Zenta,
With the help of family and friends, Zenta did most of the refit himself. Local business owners also came in to help paint the walls white. Street-facing windows suck in sunlight from the north, as do rows of skylights on the ceiling, bouncing brightness off polished concrete floors. Even on a grey day, it’s like a high-exposure Polaroid in here.
The open kitchen is unquestionably one of Melbourne’s more spacious, but it retains a homey feel. The countertops are timber, and the homewares shop opposite is furnished with mostly vintage items that the pair has pieced together over the years. Makeshift display tables are constructed from aerated concrete slabs, and a long two-tiered shelf near the back will double as seating for cooking classes and creative workshops.
In the dining area, chairs and tables are mismatched. At lunchtime on a Tuesday, just days after opening, it’s full of diners quietly eating a slice of pound cake or working on their laptops.
The lack of empty seats might have something to do with the signature Japanese weekend breakfast of grilled salmon, tamagoyaki (a layered and rolled omelette), greens, rice and miso soup, carried across from the original. It used to only be available on weekends, but is now on the menu daily.
And alongside the evergreen chicken soboro bowl (a rice bowl with greens and minced chicken) and vegetable curry – both dishes inspired by Meg’s grandmother’s recipes – is the new “complete” lunch option, which changes monthly. It combines one fish, three vegetables and some grains – right now it’s seared salmon, tofu-and-mushroom-stuffed lotus root rounds, sweet sesame pumpkin, broad-bean salad, and rice and quinoa mixed with soy beans – for a well-balanced plate of flavours and textures.
The larger kitchen allows cook Meg to up the production of Cibi’s housemade yuzu miso, rice blends and condiments.
“It’s not about this is popular, this might sell, it’s the essentials that we need,” says Zenta. And that extends beyond Japanese produce. Handmade Italian pasta, French mustard, local apple juice – “Just some things that we love people to have in their pantries.” Fridges are coming soon to stock locally made cheeses, tofu and takeaway meals.
Cibi also has two new (ware)housemates – The Plant Society has taken over one corner selling pot plants, potted flowers, citrus trees and olive trees; and picture framers United Measures have set up shop at the back.
But the homewares side of Cibi is what’s shot up the most. The pool of beautiful ceramics, glassware, knives, utensils and so on has swelled to include more decorative pieces, accessories, and kitchen essentials, including a set of colourful 1960s porcelain egg stands.
33–39 Keele Street, Collingwood
(03) 9077 3941
Mon to Fri 7am–5pm
Sat & Sun 8am–5pm
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on October 22, 2018. Menu items may have changed since publication.