Possibly the most hotly-anticipated new restaurant in Canberra in recent months, AKIBA invited the first 100 people through its doors on Saturday night to have their first six dishes for free. (My free dishes in this review can be identified by the asterisks next to the prices.) AKIBA is a vibrant and fun casual dining establishment that has a lightning strike for a logo, always spells its name in capital letters and is named after a fire-controlling Japanese deity. Located in the ACTEWAGL building in Civic, and inspired by Akihabara, the electronics precinct of Tokyo, there is a definitely an electric vibe to AKIBA!
My research revealed that the creators of AKIBA, Mike and Pete Harrington, also operate Sage restaurant and had previously worked at fine dining establishments such as Tetsuya’s, and Aria. Chefs Johnon Mcdonald and Brian Logan, between them have worked at institutions including Tetsuya’s, Rockpool Sydney, Marque, Morimoto NYC and Nobu London. Needless to say, I was particularly looking forward to this restaurant opening.
I heard about the promotional deal via Amanda from HerCanberra and my FOMO (fear of missing out) went into overdrive. I wasn't the only one, because when I rocked up to AKIBA, Grant from Ink and Leathers had just arrived too! Other lovely foodies started joining the queue, including Kristy from Tales of a Confectionist and Michelle from HerCanberra. Check out their reviews of AKIBA!
— Food Avenue (@TheFoodAvenue) December 6, 2014
Our first experience of the energetic AKIBA team was when we walked into the restaurant. When the doors opened at 6pm, we were greeted by a round of applause and loud cheering. Perhaps a nod to the usual Japanese restaurant welcome where staff show their appreciation for customers by greeting them in unison? In any case, it was an exciting way to start the evening.
I was also impressed by the funky interior design - the feature wall of wooden logs, the beautiful bar, the open kitchen, and the neon signs. There's also a dedicated raw bar for preparing the sashimi and oysters.
Everyone in the queue ended up getting a seat in the restaurant and Kristy and I were able to sit together on the long communal table - a strategic decision so we could try more food and drink items!
Akiba has an exciting selection of cocktails, ranging from a $9 Snaquiri of white rum blended with grapefruit and honey all the way to the most expensive Snap, Crackle and Pop Punch at $20. (Food and drinks menu are at the end of the post)
I was intrigued by the rice bubbles infused milk in the description and decided I had to try it. When it came out, I asked the waiter about the cocktail and he very knowledgeably described that it was a Heston Blumenthal-style cocktail that contained just the essence of milk. Basically, they infuse Rice Bubble in the milk, mix it with citrus juice which curdles the milk. They then strain it to get rid of the curdles. After that entire process, the rice bubble flavour had long gone, but it was a complex-flavoured cocktail that reminded me of a fancy probiotic drink.
The Fukushima Zombie ($18), a blend of rums, triple citrus and ginger was a much stronger-tasting cocktail and quite sour.
I spied a colourful cocktail at Grant’s table and went over to check it out. It was the Gaijin Fizz ($19) comprising of Tanqueray gin, aloe vera, pandan and banana. He kindly offered me a sip - the cocktail tasted delicious and subtly tropical.
Despite the restaurant having a Tokyo-inspired name, the menu has been influenced by Asia Pacific in general. In fact, our first dish seemed more like Thai food than Japanese food.
The Kingfish Sashimi ($12*) was my favourite dish of the night, predominantly because of the punchy nam jim sauce. It was the perfect balance of sweet, sour and spice. The coconut swirl added a hint of creaminess and body to the dish. The sashimi itself was a beautiful texture and very fresh.
The dishes came out in succession, degustation-style. The raw beef in the Beef Tartare ($5 each*) was very fresh-tasting and had a great texture. There was a very light flavour to the beef mixture. It wasn't particularly salty, sweet, sour or bitter. The flavour of the sweet potato crisp, however, was quite strong. A good dish to try for those unaccustomed to eating raw beef.
The Spiced Pork Jowl Pancake ($4 each*) reminded me of turnip cake from yum cha.
J.F.C. ($14*) wasn't spelt out on the menu but I suspected it stood for Japanese Fried Chicken, which the waiter confirmed. Unfortunately, the coating was lacking in any particular spices and the dish tasted like ordinary crumbed chicken. However, this could have been due to first-day hiccups.
The Beef Short Rib ($20*) was delightfully fork tender and had a wonderful rich flavour. I could have happily eaten five more plates of this dish.
I really enjoyed the filling in the Pork Belly Bao ($8 each*). The pork was braised in a sweet, sticky soy sauce and was accompanied with an Asian slaw. I loved that the strip of cucumber was pickled. ‘Bao’ refers to the oval-shaped steamed bun which is folded over and used to sandwich the filling. Traditionally, bao in China and Taiwan is soft and fluffy. The AKIBA bao wasn’t quite like that on my first visit and it was much better the second time round. But more on that later. I would recommend ordering the Pork belly bao over the Soft Shell Crab Bao ($9 each*), which had a slight hint of ponzu flavour, but required a fair bit more dressing.
Beef Short Rib Dumplings ($10 for four dumplings*) came in a star anise broth. The skin of the dumplings was very thin and I was impressed that none of the dumplings had split. Generous amounts of shredded beef and other ingredients were visible in the filling.
However, desserts did not seem to be one of AKIBA’s strong suits. We ordered both desserts and I’m glad I tried a bite of the Tofu Cheesecake ($8) first as it was not as sweet as the chocolate tart. I wasn’t sure whether the cheesecake was meant to taste like cheese or tofu because it tasted like neither. I'm not sure if it was because the presentation made it look unappealing, but the flavour was indistinct and the texture was slightly lumpy. The Chocolate Tart ($9) was definitely my pick of the two desserts. It was a deconstructed chocolate tart with a block of hard chocolate, what seemed like dulce de leche and pieces of chocolatey shortcrust pastry. I really enjoyed the gooey portion of the dessert but there wasn’t enough of that part and there was a lot of the hard chocolate that was difficult to break up into smaller pieces with a dessert spoon. I'd be keen to see the chefs do a few more Asian-inspired with their desserts, especially as they could draw so much inspiration from a huge range of Japanese desserts. I'm thinking something with mochi would be amazing!
After two hours, we discovered that this was not the place for a leisurely dining experience. With the restaurant hoping to have a 200-300 person turnover per night (according to our waiter), they are expecting fast-paced dining. The seating arrangements in the restaurant, which mostly consists of high tables and stools, facilitates this game plan. There are a couple of booths (i.e. seating with backrests) but they seemed to be reserved for families with children or groups of 5-6 people. This didn't deter me, however.
Three days after my first visit to AKIBA, I was back. A friend from Brisbane was in town and I told her about the new restaurant in Civic. It didn't take much to convince her to have our catch up dinner there!
We were about to be seated at the communal table again but I asked to sit in front of the raw bar so we could watch the chefs at work.
The massive fish on the raw bar was the kingfish we were about to eat. Seamus (I hope I've spelt the name correctly!), the sous chef, explained that they source all their fish straight from the Sydney Fish Markets. Their oysters, which include Sydney Rock oysters and Pacific oysters, come direct from an oyster farm at Clyde River.
We started off with the Kingfish Sashimi again because it was my favourite dish from last time! It was still just as flavoursome and delicious.
As with all Japanese products and restaurants, there is an adorable mascot. The Japanese-influenced AKIBA was no different. Seamus noticed me taking a photo of the mascot on the chopstick cover and mentioned that the mascot was called Hatchi and that they might even get a life-size Hatchi suit in the near future for marketing purposes!
Kimchi and Oyster Pancake, with kewpie mayo, sriracha (chilli sauce), ittogaki (similar to dried bonito) is one of the most popular items on the menu. I asked Seamus about the use of oyster in the kimchi pancake as the oyster flavour wasn't very prominent. He said a lot of people would be put off by a strong oyster taste. The oysters were mainly used for the umami flavour and as a sort of seasoning without adding salt. The pancake itself was made from a sourdough base. They put yeast flour and water together and over time kept feeding the dough with more flour and water. They then used that sourdough as a base for all three types of pancake. They also fermented the kimchi themselves.
I was curious about their signature soft drinks, which you can “make it boom” with tequila, dark rum or bourbon for an extra $5. I ordered the Pineapple and Coconut Akipop ($7) with dark rum (+$5). The Akipop was sweet and delicious on its own. It was a very different and interesting drink when I poured it into the glass with rum in it! My friend ordered the Summer Spritz ($12), which was a refreshing way to drink sake.
Next came the Beef Short Rib ($20), which I couldn't resist ordering again. Then we tried the Steamed Prawn and Chicken Dumpling ($10 for four dumplings), which was another dish I couldn't get enough of. I discovered that the dumplings tasted infinitely better when you bit a small chunk out of the dumpling and then scooped a few spoonfuls of the sauce into the dumpling and then ate the dumpling. Not that the dumpling itself was bad, it was just that the sauce was SO GOOD, that it would have been a huge shame to waste the miraculous black vinegar sauce. I'm not ashamed to say that when I ran out of dumpling, I kept tasting the sauce until it was all gone.
Lastly, the chicken in the Caribbean Chicken Bao ($8) was incredibly tender and was great with the pineapple salsa. The bao from the second visit was much better than the bao from first visit. Pete Harrington joined our conversation and he clarified that the bao served on Saturday night was a shipment from Sydney, whereas the bao we were having were made by his chefs because they weren't happy with the ones from Sydney.
Pete also mentioned that the current menu is only about two thirds of the full menu. They want to take full advantage of their Josper charcoal oven, which will produce dishes like smoked chicken and smoked vegetables. This doesn't technically fit into the Asian vibe, but it does fit in with the eclectic element of the restaurant. The yum-cha style food carts will also be up and running from next Friday onwards with other eclectic dishes on offer.
AKIBA's website says "Expect the unexpected. Prepare to be thrilled..." They want to bring fine dining to the masses and make it more affordable and fun. So, the question is - does it do that?
While there are some technical aspects of the Asian cuisine that needs further improvement, it's not a deal-breaker and there's lots to like about AKIBA and its creativity. I love that fresh, high quality ingredients are used and I'm thrilled that restauranteurs with non-Asian backgrounds are starting to focus on Australia's position in the Asia region. I'm excited to see Canberra getting on board with the "Asian Century"!
In terms of the price point, I think that each individual item is priced quite reasonably, considering the amount of effort that has gone into each dish and the quality of the ingredients. The only risk is that you'll rack up a massive bill unintentionally because you want to try everything on the menu!
AKIBA is still on 'training wheels' until their official opening on Friday 19 December, which is when they will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner with the kitchen providing continuous service throughout the day. The kitchen will close around 10 or 11pm but the bar will be open til around 2 a.m. AKIBA will be open 7 days a week.
The low-down on AKIBA Address: 40 Bunda st, Canberra Phone: 02 6162 0602 Best bit/s: Heston-style cocktails, Kingfish sashimi, Steamed prawn and chicken dumplings, Beef short rib. Worst bit: Bar stools and communal tables. More: Canberra Times article (I make a cameo appearance!)
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