Canberra: AKIBA, Civic (with menu)

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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!

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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!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Spiced Pork Jowl Pancake ($4 each*) reminded me of turnip cake from yum cha.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Drinks menu

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Food menu

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Event: Canberra Cake Club - March cakeup (cocktail theme)

The March "cakeup" of the Canberra Cake Club was held at Mint Garden Bar (next to Sage Dining Rooms) in Ainslie last weekend. Here are some snapshots from the event! OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The wonderful spread of treats - being filmed by Greg Nelson, ABC journalist.

Canberra_cake_club_The_Food_Avenue20 Limoncello cupcakes and mojito cupcakes - not sure what the top ones were (anyone know?)

Canberra_cake_club_The_Food_Avenue16 Espresso martinis, Peach Bellinis and Crantini cupcakes. So clever!

Canberra_cake_club_The_Food_Avenue17 Fruit tingle cupcakes, Amaretto Sour cake, Midori Splice cake.

Canberra_cake_club_The_Food_Avenue18 Pimms cupcakes, and I'm not sure what the others were! (I think my stomach had had too much cake already, by then!)

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Review: Temporada, Canberra (Round 2!)

Less than a week after my first visit to Temporada, a new bar/eatery that had only just opened at 15 Moore st, Canberra City, I was back for more! Despite it being a week night, I couldn't resist trying another cocktail from their intriguing drinks menu. This time I selected the Sherry Cobbler ($16), which was a very fruity and refreshing cocktail. It wasn't too sweet, nor too sour. My favourite part of the cocktail was actually the pineapple bits sitting on top of the ice. They had been marinated in sugar but also some other spices and it was delicious!

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Having loved the Marinated Sardines on Toast ($4.50 each) from my first visit, I recommended them to my friends. They were not disappointed - the tasty morsels were as awesome as they were the first time!

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We were keen to try as many different plates as we possibly could, so we ordered 5 large plates to share. How we were going to ALL share each plate we did not know!

I noticed the Blue Mackeral dish that I had tried during my first visit was sadly missing on the menu! I was told that because of the seasonal nature of the menu, once they had run out of stock on a particular item, it would no longer be available (but another dish would replace it).

My favourite dish of the night was the Grilled octopus, rockmelon, prosciutto ($22). The presentation of this dish was visually beautiful - almost too pretty to eat. The grilled octopus was fantastic, apparently the secret is in the flavoured wood from their grill! The delicious orange-looking mayonnaise-type sauce was the perfect accompaniment for the octopus. I love it when sweet and salty flavours are combined in a dish...the rockmelon and prosciutto does that so well. This is a very well thought-out dish. The richness from the prosciutto was balanced by the juicy freshness of the rockmelon slices. Utter perfection!

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I really enjoyed the flavours of the Whole Roasted Flounder, Capers, Heirloom Tomatoes ($32). The sauce was mostly flavoured oil but I didn't mind that. It was nice and herby. The flounder was slightly crispy on the outside but tender on the inside.

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I was really looking forward to trying the Spatchcock Chicken, Roasted Corn, Kimchi Cabbage, Lime Yoghurt ($22). Again, the meat was cooked to perfection - tender and moist. The accompanying elements - the corn, the sauces, the "western kimchi" really made the dish and showcased the level of detail applied to each dish.

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The Grilled Lamb Ribs, Spiced Eggplant, Lemon Dressing ($33) was a more substantial dish than the other plates. I would definitely categorise this dish as "dude food", meaty, juicy, and full of flavour. Quality was not compromised here though, as the meat was absolutely melt-in-your-mouth soft. Out of the dishes in a similar price range, this is what I would pick to have again (if it's available next time, that is)!

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I have never had sweetbreads before and I didn't really know what to expect. I tried the Veal Sweetbreads, Clams, Turnip Greens and XO Sauce ($28) and it turns out, sweetbreads have a very irony flavour, similar to the distinct flavour in liver and bone marrow. However, while I love bone marrow and liverwurst, I wasn't a huge fan of the sweetbreads. The more I chewed, the more I could taste that flavour. I found that I needed a lot of the XO sauce (which was delicious) to mask the unusual flavour. I loved the clams in the dish though. If the dish had only the clams and the XO sauce, I would order it again in a heartbeat!

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While it had taken us a while to pick which main dishes to order, there was no doubt about dessert. Everyone at the table had their heart set on the Salted caramel donuts, banana ice cream, marshmallow ($16) so we each ordered one! For me, the dessert was delicious, but also slightly disappointing. The banana flavour in the ice cream, was very subtle, I could barely taste the banana flavour at all (though the icecream was still quite nice).

The donut was a bit dense for my liking and not as fluffy in texture as it could be. In another blog that I read about Temporada, their donuts had salted caramel sauce oozing out of the centre. I was pretty disappointed mine was lacking such a crucial part of the dish. I did wonder why it was called a "salted caramel donut" when I only got a swipe of the sauce on the plate! I didn't know this at the time, but everyone else seemed to have had the salted caramel sauce filling in their donuts! I guess we didn't talk about it at the table because we just assumed all the dishes were the same! It was only afterwards that I discovered my donuts were the exception to all the others. (EDIT: Another dish at the table also didn't get filled donuts, so I wasn't the only one!) How weird. Anyway, the elements of the dish all tasted great together (I even enjoyed the somewhat random toasted marshmallow), and the caramelised sugar atop the banana slice was a lovely touch.

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Regarding the service, the wait staff seemed young enough to be part of the hipster crowd but they were too friendly and too well-trained to be categorised as such. It makes for a much more pleasant dining experience than some other eateries of this type.

Temporada, Canberra is a place where you would expect to pay a bit more for good quality food. I spent $70 and that got me a cocktail, a starter, shared 5 main dishes and a dessert. I was pretty happy with that!

Let me know in the comments below if you would be brave enough to try the sweetbread dish! Or if you've had it before and like it, let me know why you like it!!