Katsu sandos are everywhere right now – and you’ll find a few here – but this list goes beyond fun snacks. Choose from a tiny izakaya where sake rules, a refined Armadale diner that’s perfect for date night, a vibrant little Collingwood spot where gyoza reigns supreme, and a Carlton newcomer doing all-you-can-eat Japanese barbeque for $60. Or try them all, no judgement.
Gyoza are undeniably wonderful, but so often tragically served just a handful at a time. Not so at Chotto Motto, a vibrant and eclectic new Collingwood diner. Here, the dumplings are cooked in the Hamamatsu regional style, arranged in rings of 20, pan fried, flipped and fried again until crispy. Some come topped with cheese, others stuffed with kimchi and miso-spiked pork.
It’s beer-friendly food, so you’ll want to grab one from the refurbished Japanese vending machine stocked with (Stomping Ground and Temple Brewing), plus a few Japanese craft beers. And there’s Japanese cola, umeshu, shochuor a sparkling peach jelly sake.
The room is packed with Sega video games and ’80s pop records, with bold bright murals by local artists Chehehe and Mitch Walderon the walls.
Katsu sandos – chicken, prawn, pork, or edamame and shiitake croquette – will soon be available for lunchtime takeaway from a sliding service window on the side of the building.
Tamura Sake Bar
On a recent visit to Tamura, as I loitered out the front trying to nail the exterior shot for my Insta story, I noticed the beaming face of owner Fumi Tamura, beckoning me from behind the bar. The Yokohama native is serious about sake, but he’s just as serious about friendly and personal service. He wants you to have a damn good time.
Tamura is equal parts sake bar, Japanese diner and record store. Fumi and his wife Takako met at city izakaya Horse Bazaar(which they now own), and bonded over a shared love of music.
Once inside the heritage-listed shopfront, take a seat around the huge U-shaped timber bench, hand Fumi a record from the wall and he’ll give it a spin. A meal set is great value at $35 for three izakaya-style small plates, four yakitori, secret-recipe Japanese fried chicken, tori soboro rice and miso soup. And you can settle in for the night with matched sake for another $25.
The word yakinuku dates back to the 1800s, and translates directly to “grilled meat”, but it’s evolved. Now, it’s most easily compared with Korean barbeque.
It’s a DIY affair at Shinbashi; you do the grilling while sipping matcha beer (slightly bitter, in a good way), imported umeshu (plum wine), or sake from hand-blown glasses.
There are two ways of dining. From Monday to Wednesday it’s $60 for all-you-can-eat – but only for 90 minutes. Grill your own pork belly, chicken, lamb, fish, prawn, squid, Wagyu and vegetables, and choose from a menu of noodle and rice dishes, fried chicken, sashimi, edamame, kimchi, lotus chips and more. In short, it’s a feast. But a quick one.
The dining room is all clean modern lines with brushed concrete walls, copper room dividers and pops of colour from red paper lanterns. There are Western-style dark wooden tables and bench seating, or you can slide off your shoes, slip on the provided slippers and enjoy tatami (mat-style) dining.
Katsu sandos are already dominating Instagram feeds. But a dedicated katsu sando bar? This is new. From the team behind Slater Street Bench and 580 Bench, Saint Dreux’s glowing white LED panels act like a beacon, drawing you in, while the charcoal-black service area is a bit like something out of a sci-fi film.
Dreux do little cubed Japanese cakes (castella), but the lines snaking their way through the food court here are for the sandos. Soft white bread, a choice of Panko-crumbed fried chicken, Kurobuta pork, prawn or Wagyu, served with mayonnaise and tonkatsu sauce. Most are $14, but the Wagyu version is $28. It might seem excessive, but a lot more work is happening behind the scenes than at your average sandwich shop. That also means a 30-minute wait is not unusual.
The feeling of calm at Kazuki’s is a bit of a shock after the intensity of Lygon Street, where refined dining at this level is seldom seen. Kazuki’s is almost completely shielded from the outside world. It’s lovely.
Husband-and-wife team Saori and Kazuki Tsuya transported the fine diner to Lygon Street from Daylesford late last year. Saori, from Fukuoka in the south of Japan, and Kazuki, from Akita roughly 500 kilometres south of Hokkaido, met in Melbourne almost 20 years ago.
Most of the beautifully crafted Euro-Japanese plates here home in on a single ingredient, which is gently lifted by a few small accompaniments. A tiny bowl holds a Moreton Bay bug dumpling in a buttery sake and ponzu sauce. Lightly cured kingfish comes with a white soy and buttermilk dressing, crisp fish skin and pomelo. And a just-cooked slab of aged duck plays off radicchio, blackberry and shiitake. House-made sourdough comes with pitch-black seaweed butter.
There’s the option to add snacks at $5 apiece, too, such as a single raw pipi that arrives in the shell, salty with soy and bright with ginger.
The hushed 30-seat dining room was mapped out by Design Office (Higher Ground, Congress), with high ceilings, soft grey-blue tones, accents of Japanese elm, leather and granite and gentle lighting creating a zen-like space.
At 22 pages, the wine, sake and spirits list is lengthy, but this room was made for lingering.
Former Sake and Nobu chef Jun Ha Park works at Sonny Chiba’s American-oak bench, slicing fish with precision and grace. He’s lit by two angular pendants, while behind him textured concrete walls pair with white-and-grey terrazzo flooring, timber banquettes and a smattering of blue tiles.
The space matches the style of the food – a combination of traditional Japanese (karaage chicken with tonkatsu mayo, tuna tataki with wasabi cream, soba noodle salad and handmade pork gyoza) and more adventurous alternatives, such as a curried beef brisket doughnut topped with yuzu salt and coconut shavings.
For dessert, there’s an Iced Vovo mille-feuille with raspberries and marshmallow, and to drink, a small selection of sake and umeshu, which, together with Park’s theatrics, the minimalist decor and moody lighting, makes this a prime candidate for date night.