A neon cat will greet you at the door to The Modern Eatery, a new Japanese restaurant in Richmond. The glowing sculpture is an adaptation of the maneki-neko – the beckoning cat figurine and good-luck talisman you may have seen in Japanese stores and eateries (China has also adopted the good luck charm) – sporting a headband and holding a drum, with a star around its eye, as though it’s a Kiss mascot.
The Modern Eatery began in Western Australia. Owners Edward Teh and Jason Tan opened the original in Fremantle in 2015, and the second opened last year in Perth. The new east coast outpost seats 90 people over two storeys on Swan Street.
Before The Modern Eatery, Tan and Teh worked in accounting and engineering respectively.
“Being so isolated in Perth, Jason wanted to explore a city as far away as possible and moved to Vancouver,” says Teh. While in Vancouver, Tan was overwhelmed by the city’s take on Japanese cuisine. (A chef in Vancouver is credited with inventing the California roll, and thus helping introduce sushi to the masses in North America).
“Jason sent me countless photos of sushi from one of the hundreds of shops there, which are on nearly every street corner,” says Teh. “There was sushi in every shape and size you could imagine; some reversed, and [some] square like the size of your palm.”
While you can already find this kind of sushi in Australia - in Melbourne, for example, it’s available at Hotaru in Mid City Arcade, among others - the pair believed there was room for their own Vancouver-style Japanese restaurant on the West Coast.
“In Perth, Japanese food is either takeaway sushi or fine dining. Vancouver opened our minds to something in-between – offering everyday Japanese food, but in a more relaxing and casual environment,” says Teh.
The name was chosen specifically to avoid sounding like a traditional Japanese restaurant.
“All our chefs are Japanese, and that’s something we want to foster to ensure the flavours and authenticity of Japanese cuisine is there as a baseline,” says Teh. “But more than this, they’re a creative team that aren’t bound by tradition.”
The Melbourne restaurant interior, designed by Studio Equator, is sleek and open, with wood tables, bronze flourishes and dark grey walls. Bar seating gives diners a view of the open kitchen.
Aburi sushi – which involves lightly torching the fish so it’s partially seared and partially raw – is a specialty here.
“Salmon can be quite fatty, so when it’s torched it changes the complexity of the flavour and the texture,” says Teh. “It becomes slightly warm and just melts in your mouth.”
Hot dishes include pan-fried gyoza with umamiso and seared Wagyu beef with lotus chip, creamy garlic shimeji and mushrooms. Alongside cocktails and local producers such as Stomping Ground’s pilsner you’ll find imported beers, six Japanese whiskies and a wide selection of sake. One of them, Niseko Tokubetsu Junmai Suisei, comes from a micro distillery in Japan’s Hokkaido region. Only 12 bottles are exported to Melbourne each month.
The Modern Eatery
176 Swan Street, Richmond
(03) 9421 0089
Fri & Sat 11.30am–2.30pm, 5.30pm–10pm
Sun to Thu 11.30am–2.30pm, 5.30pm–9.30pm
For Melbourne’s latest, subscribe to the Broadsheet newsletter.