Hand-strained miso soup, Tokyo coffee and traditional Japanese fare in West Melbourne.
UPDATE: SEPTEMBER 15, 2020 — 279 is now delivering its super-popular mochinuts (a cross between mochi and doughnuts), hand-poured miso and 14 different omusubi to homes across the city. You can order over at Mr Yum.
Melbourne has no shortage of minimalistic spots for breakfast and brunch, but it's just gained a new one in West Melbourne's Japanese gem, 279. Despite some of its similarities to the city's many (many) cafes, 279 owner Kantaro Okada says it's carving out its own niche in the suburb.
"One of the biggest reasons we chose West Melbourne was because of the lack of Japanese food options in this area," says Okada. "But the area does have a really interesting pocket of cafes — so I feel it will attract people who love food."
Although the interior of the cafe is clean and light, the menu is hearty and traditional — and definitely not 'fusion'. "I really don't like doing fusion," says Okada. "We wanted to focus on home cooking and Japanese soul food that has been passed down through generations."
The result of that is a menu that centres on onigiri (also called omusubi): triangles of rice wrapped in nori and served with a variety of toppings. Try out the classic miso (shiso-miso, $5.80), salted salmon (sha-ke, $4.80) or plum (ume, $4.50) for something on the lighter side, or, if you're hungrier, the slow-cooked pork belly with ginger, garlic and spring onion (negi-shio, $14.80) and the smashed tuna with avocado and Japanese mayonnaise (negi-toro, $16.80).
Once you've ordered your onigiri, add some osozai (side dishes) — our top picks are the smashed tofu with shiitake and shimeji mushrooms ($4.50), the sweet pumpkin soy ($5) and the fried lotus root chips ($5.50).
If you don't want rice, you can opt for one of three types of miso soup (kome, mugi and hiyoko mame, $5–6), which are individually strained through a specially designed 'pour over-style' machine to ensure each bowl is rich in flavour and smooth in texture, with no grainy mouthfeel.
Still peckish? 279 also has a range of Japanese sweets on offer — most notably, its mochinuts ($6). A cross between mochi and doughnuts, these baked goods are made with tapioca and rice flour, which gives them a springy, slightly chewy texture. To get one, though, you'll need to get there early — they're usually sold out by lunchtime. Other sweet options include the roasted tea tiramisu ($11) and the yuzu jelly ($9).
Like the food, the coffee is strictly Japanese. Sit at one of the countertops — drowning in morning light — and order a coffee made on Fuglen Tokyo beans, which are imported straight from the capital.
In the future, the cafe wants to expand and open a small shop with a selection of Japanese ceramics, which the team will import from various regions outside of Tokyo and Kyoto.
Images: Julia Sansone.