So you think you’ve eaten Japanese food in Melbourne?
Address: 106 Cambridge Street, Collingwood
Open: Tuesday to Friday, 11am until 4pm
Weekends, 12pm until 4pm
I used to love Japanese food. Then I went to Japan on an eating holiday. I quickly realised what I had been munching in Melbourne wasn’t Japanese food at all. I was getting by on comparatively tough sashimi, sushi made with hard rice, noodle soups devoid of flavour and pickles and wasabi coloured with artificial dye. The ‘Japanese’ I had adored growing up was simply a poor imitation of a cuisine so clean and fresh, it simply can’t be replicated outside its home country. Or at least that’s what I thought before I ate at Aka Siro.
Aka Siro, a small eatery perched on the corner of Cambridge and Peel Streets in Collingwood, restored my faith in Japanese food in Melbourne. I don’t doubt for a moment that Aka Siro serves the most authentic Japanese in the state; hell, maybe even in the country. Outside, red and white ‘noren’ flutter in the doorway. Inside, blond timber and white tiles give the space a bright and airy feel, while quirky Japanese figurines add personality.
Aka Siro isn’t as grungy as most of the places we ate at in Japan, but it’s cozy nonetheless, courtesy of the large open kitchen and minimal seating. There are about six tables for four with bench seating, although blue cushions ensure a comfortable dining experience. The menu features nine teishoku dishes, set meals that arrive with a steaming hot miso soup, white rice and a Japanese salad of lettuce, cucumber, cabbage and pureed carrot and vinegar.
We ordered the atsu-age teishoku, rectangles of fried tofu with sweet potato, eggplant and shimeji mushrooms in a thick miso sauce, as well as a beautiful “boneless white fish fillet” dish, ni-zakana teishoku, a flaky basa fillet simmered in sweet soy and mirin. The tonkatsu teishoku, a common deep-fried pork cutlet dish in Tokyo, looked incredible (and generous!) when it went past.
When we visited, the Sunday special was takoyaki, a popular street food in Japan. Takoyaki are deep-fried octopus balls made with yam, flour, egg, dashi and tender chunks of seafood. They are cooked in pans reminiscent of those used to make mini Dutch pancakes, and come topped with a sticky takoyaki sauce, kewpie mayonnaise and dried bonito fish flakes that wiggle in the heat.
Also available was a Japanese curry, spicy chicken meatball soup with daikon, cabbage and mushroom, and a few rotating side dishes. On the beverage front, gen mai cha tea settles the stomach, while Karita paper drip coffee served in will amp up your energy levels. There’s also Turkish old school lemonade — of all things — but you’re better off with the Aka Siro homemade lemonade, which sits infusing in jars on nearby shelves. The organic Robinvale grape juice is also a refreshing option.
When you enter Aka Siro, you’ll be greeted with a smile and a mixture of ‘irasshaimases’ and ‘how are yous’. You’ll be treated so well by the gracious staff you won’t be able to help but feel mildly guilty, and the same courteousness will follow you out as you leave. Aka Siro is real, and the only truly authentic example of Japanese food I have encountered in Melbourne. Judging by the nationality of most of the patrons, Aka Siro gets the Japanese tick of approval as well.