In March, Simon Blacher, Paul Nguyen and Nic Coulter took a break from their young but incredibly successful restaurants, Saigon Sally and Hanoi Hannah, to see Japan and research their next step. They took chef Adrian Li and Hanoi Hannah floor manager Charlie Rothery with them.
“We wanted a bit of a snapshot of what's happening there now,” Blacher says. Fast-forward 11 months, and the trip seems to be paying dividends. On Friday the group opened Tokyo Tina, a bustling restaurant and bar in the spot once occupied by Bong-O-Mania.
The bongs are gone (some will mourn the loss), replaced by a shopfront of peeling manga posters. Inside are raw timber battens, inky murals depicting gridlock, and strings of golf ball-sized globes dangling overhead. In the half dedicated to the bar, the walls are actually crumbling. It feels like an alleyway behind a cheap anime store.
“There's a lot of Japanese food in Australia,” Blacher says. “We're trying to do things a little bit left-of-centre.” Li's menu does that exactly, highlighting some less-common aspects of Japanese cuisine and totally bypassing anything to do with sushi. Occasionally he dips a toe into Korean or something else via ingredients such as quinoa or jalapenos. It's not quite full-blown fusion, but nor is it traditional.
The first three fish items on the menu are prepared ceviche-style, for example. Those jalapenos are found in the diverse entree section, stuffed with smoked chicken and battered in tempura. There's also bulgogi bao, a kim-chi gyoza and a charred snapper with cucumber granita.
If you think this sounds like good drinking food, you're right. If something's not salty, it could be buttery. If it's not buttery, it might be lightly fried. Then it's just a matter of taking your pick from the list of Japanese beer, sake and whisky, classic cocktails and mostly local wines.
Further down the menu, the food is less beer snack and more meal – brothy bowls of soba and ramen, grilled steak, eel, duck, plus two desserts. It's all good stuff, and Windsor seems to have an insatiable appetite for its ilk.
How else could the same group dare to open three Asian restaurants within a half-kilometre stretch of footpath? Despite the inevitable sibling rivalry in these close quarters, Blacher's confident Tina will find her niche midway between the in-n-out casual of Hannah and the more refined feel of Sally.
66A-B Chapel Street, Windsor
(03) 9525 2774
Daily noon–11pm (opens on February 11 from 5pm only. Full opening hours from February 16)