When Khoa Nguyen decided to embark on a new Japanese venture, he went to great lengths to make sure he got it right. Travelling to Japan, visiting izakaya after izakaya and tasting the country's best sake meant he was able to adapt a traditional Japanese pub for a modern Smith Street. The only thing he divulged from was the traditionally tiny venues; the size and space of Pabu Grill & Sake is one that the Japanese would baulk at, but, for a hoard of hungry Melburnians, the fit is just right.
Taking its name from the Japanese word for pub, Pabu offers all the livery of a Melbourne bar as well as the sensory delights of casual Japanese cuisine. Although potentially three times the size of an izakaya in downtown Tokyo, the space certainly does not feel large or empty. Take a seat up at the sushi counter or at one of the tables alongside the graffitied wall, which features an impressive mural by Melbourne based award-winning Japanese artist, Hiroyasu Tsuri.
Pabu's menu is extensive and overwhelming (not to mention the sake list), so it's worth enlisting the help of the waitstaff if you're after some guidance. Many dishes on the menu are given a matching sake recommendation and, if you simply cant decide, try a Taste of Pabu banquet ($55 or $75 with matching sake).
With Kirin on tap ($8) as well as a range of Japanese beers and sake-based cocktails ($12-14), the best way to start is with a drink and a bowl of edamame ($6) and lotus root chips ($5.50). The menu offers enough range to stay on smaller, tapas-like dishes, otherwise you can move onto the charcoal grill and seasonal specials. The best way to go is to share, with standouts being the pan-fried pork gyoza ($8), the light tempura tossed tiger prawns with spicy mayo ($10) and nasu dengaku: baked eggplant with a moreish sweet and sour miso sauce ($9.50).
The hamachi kingfish sashimi ($14.50) is another highlight and, for sushi, you can't go past Pabu's signature Watari Kani Maki. The platter of inside out soft shell crab rolls with avocado and cucumber, topped with flying fish roe and toasted sesame ($18) is best served with the Onigoroshi Jumai — a crisp, dry and fruity sake ($10 cup). The premium sake is just one of 30 on offer, all of which are distinct, diverse and served at different temperatures.
Come dessert you'll be thankful for the extra room — the matcha creme brulee (complete with caramelised top layer; $12) is best served with kurogoma (black sesame) ice cream ($8) and most probably a sense of fullness. The flavours, as with all of this modern Japanese pub's food, is fresh, light and completely balanced.
With just the right amount of space, chatter and sake, Pabu might just be Collingwood's new local.