I had dinner at Wabi Sabi, a cute little cafe restaurant near the corner of Smith and Gertrude Sts, and therefore in the immediate vicinity of many good things including Dr Follicles, Books for Cooks, Yelza, Dr Java, Enoteca, and Ladro. I had admired it many times, walking by, but never been in, except once, for takeaway. It is a lovely busy tiny little place crammed together in what I expect is a most authentic Tokyoey way. Sophia Davis (pictured) and Tomoya Kawasaki seem to be the proprieters. Sophia’s front of house not-very-Japanesishness is one of the things that first lets you know this is not your average Japanese restaurant. The whole place has a kind of Friends of the Earth meets the Napier Hotel meets whatever the equivalent of Chinoiserie is meets Toyko zen; lots of things are put together creatively and exquisitely, slightly tongue in cheek kitsch cheek by chic jowl. It gets the inaugural “Good as Hell” award, henceforth a searchable category. See flickr for more photos, especially of the charming interior decor of the outside dunny.
Wabi sabi is said to be the essence of Japanese aesthetics, the attraction of impermanent beauty, of beautiful imperfection, showing an interesting link to the first noble truth of Buddhism, including, it seems, Japanese zen Buddhism. Traditional zen gardens, which is a feature of the rear courtyard where we ate are very wabi sabi it seems, and though it may have been an ignorant latching onto of things not understood, I thought our sake bottle to be quite wabi sabi, the glaze draped rather than painted carefully, the form affected by indentations in its bulb.
Japanese restaurants are often beautiful but terribly all-the-same, as if Japan has an unyielding static culture. Conformity is still pretty important in Nippon, but anyone who has travelled and met the oddball Japanese on the road knows that it is not all the same: in Mali I kept hearing stories of a Japanese girl with no English, no French, and no Arabic who had successfully travelled from Morocco through Western Sahara and Mauritania to Senegal, then probably one of the most impossible journeys in the world. And in Kathmandu I met a Japanese man who had ridden a pony named “Princess” from Lhasa to Kathmandu, sleeping in a tent, again, an episode of unfathomable worldly ridiculousness. He had hundreds of photos of the high Himalayas and the sweeping Tibetan plateau, each with a pair of donkey’s ears protruding from the bottom margin. And then there was Kanae Kubota who hitch-hiked with me and a German (we did not discuss the war) in the backs of rusty Thai utes without a care, but not before she had used her travel iron each morning to make presentable her white white t-shirt. This restaurant is more like these guys than Tokyo’s Royal Palace, and that is fitting, since it serves home style Japanese fare different from the standard Japanese restaurant menu.
We ate tofu dango, which Miss K enjoyed for its subtle flavours and I thought was good but not the best choice ($16.80), broccoli with sour plum sauce, a most unusual dish of cold al dente broccoli florettes with, yep, a crimson plum sauce ($5.80). They’re not joking about it being sour. I quite liked it but it would surely not be everyone’s cup of tea. We had octopus balls (takoyaki: fried perfectly formed spheres with slightly crusty surfaces, a creamy consistency with little bits of chewy octopus inside, served with Japanese mayonnaise and fish flakes which writhed in the heat, $7.50), a jug of chilled house sake ($9.50), green tea ice cream (an experience which tastes just like it sounds, bitter and sweet at the same time, $6) and a red bean paste rice cake (mochi) (another experience: the chewy rice cake was bright green and stuffed with the red beans: $2.50). In short, the food is unusual to most people’s tastes, and good. We have previously had a glorious butterfish dish swimming around in a brown soup, and lightly seared salmon sushi which might well represent a bit of east west fusion. All I can say is there should be more lightly seared sushi.
It’s also a place to sit out the front on tiny stools and have a beer, or just to pop in for a quick weekday lunch: they do $9.90 bento boxes, Tuesday to Friday between 12 and 3. They’re at no. 94 Smith St, ph 9417 6119, email email@example.com. And there seem to be shiatsu practitioners associated with the restaurant. I reckon it pays to book early because some of the tables are definitely better than others, and for a Sunday night, the bookings were pretty tight.