It seems Japanese food is always having a moment in Melbourne, but it’s having an especially exciting one right now. Here are five fabulous new spots to load up on wasabi, yuzu and sake.
Enter this 108-year-old corner site via the back bar and you’ll find Richmond’s Future Future, a new eatery serving contemporary, subtly inventive Japanese dishes. It’s by the team who brought us Collingwood’s Congress wine bar.
The front dining room – a former art gallery – has expansive windows, chipped red-brick walls and finishes made using charcoal terrazzo tiles and recycled tyres.
On arrival, sweet-potato crisps and herbaceous mandarin-infused tea land at the table, on the house. Then move onto dishes by head chef Atsushi Kawakami, formerly sous-chef at Kappo. Standouts? Thinly sliced raw Wagyu with wasabi creme fraiche, chicken-skin yakitori skewers, and pork belly donburi with potato crisps and yuzu salt. There’s also a giant okonomiyaki with provolone cheese, barbeque sauce and Kewpie mayonnaise.
Sticky yakitori skewers are the speciality at this new Carlton eatery. The menu is broken down into cuts – skin, neck, oyster, breast, drumstick, thigh and wing – seasoned with your choice of sea salt or tare, a semi-sweet Japanese dipping sauce.
The relaxed Japanese diner is Korean-born chef Jinwook Park’s first solo gig after spending seven years at Sofitel’s No35 and working at Shane Delia’s Maha.
Inside, it’s uncomplicated, an aesthetic true to Japanese philosophy. Low-slung fluorescent bulbs and towering concrete pillars play off against softer elements, such as black and blond timber bar stools. A 13-seat bar in the centre of the room allows Park to chat with his customers during service.
Beyond yakitori, Park also makes a super-delicate ramen broth; drawing on his French training, he’s developed it in a similar way to a consommé. French influence appears again in the desserts – try the Earl Grey panna cotta with honeycomb and vanilla tuile.
This is food designed for drinking, so check out the Japanese-heavy wine and beer list, or ask for some of Park’s special off-menu sake.
Shop Ramen Preston
Space at Shop Ramen’s tiny original eatery on Smith Street was becoming an issue. As the popular Tokyo-style ramen joint’s profile grew, so did the lines out the door. Owners Pat Breen and Lydia Wegner also wanted an off-site prep kitchen to make the broths, handmade wheat noodles and untraditional toppings that go into their stellar noodle soups.
Now, after eight months of bureaucracy and a four-month renovation, a former second-hand furniture shop in Preston is Shop Ramen’s sibling, and thankfully it’s twice the size of the original.
There are just four ramen on the menu, and each generous serve is jammed with flavour and loaded with toppings. There’s pork belly with king oyster mushrooms; beef brisket, sesame, kimchi and American cheese; barbeque chicken, buttered corn and miso; and a vegan take with tofu, kale, shiitake and edamame. Fans of the Collingwood spot might have noticed the menu is exactly the same here – and that’s just fine with us.
This casual diner is by husband and wife team Tatsuya and Sumire Kawakami, who also own nearby South Melbourne brunch spot KUU. Sumire is chef, and Tatsuya is found front of house with baby daughter Monet strapped to his chest.
The high-ceilinged, high-windowed restaurant on Park Street is easy to miss, but inside the fit-out is stylish and the food is elevated and modern, but unassuming on first glance. It’s heavily influenced by Tokyo dining, but borrows Western techniques.
Scampi is lightly seared and served with soft bonito-dashi jelly, eggplant and dill. The potato salad is loaded with bonito flakes, pickled daikon, kombu and mayonnaise, and fried gnocchi comes topped with parmesan and gyokuro (a Japanese green tea).
There’s also seasonal house-made shochu, which Tatusya describes as “Japanese vodka”, and green tea made with leaves roasted over charcoal.
At Wa Kenbo, chef Kenji Ito has put together a contemporary Japanese menu but thrown a few unexpected ingredients into the mix – cheese, rabbit and pancetta all make appearances. He also works with Japanese vegetables and herbs he grows in his own garden; fermenting, smoking and dehydrating them.
The result is a series of delightfully inventive and surprising dishes. Think miso-coconut braised rabbit with marrow-filled raviolo, and grilled cauliflower with buffalo mozzarella, hoba leaf (the dried leaf of honoki, a large-leaved Japanese magnolia) and pickled lotus root.
Ito spent six months transforming a former cafe into his second restaurant (the first was in Adelaide), doing much of the construction work himself. The result is a calm-inducing blend of stonework, wood, fluid lines and natural tones referencing water and earth.