82 Charles Street Seddon, Victoria 301103 9687 1027
|Opening hours||Tues-Sat 11am-3pm & 5-9pm,Sun noon-3pm & 5-9pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
An Italian terrazzo floor and Victorian pressed-tin ceiling aren't typical features for a Japanese cafe. But Ajitoya is a bit freewheeling like that. On the one hand, it's a casual day-night eatery - with inherited Old World fixtures, matt timber finishings and fresh flowers - but it's also something of a Japanese craft beer specialist (stocking about 47 types that can be bought to take away, too).
There's a small store of imported groceries - because there is no substitute for Pocky sticks, umeboshi paste (pickled, pureed salt plums) or okonomiyaki flour (made with kelp and mackerel powder). It's the inner-west's great provider of Japanese food.
Owners Adam Sleight and Maya Fujihara opened Ajitoya almost two years ago, ''partly because we couldn't buy Japanese groceries near home, in Yarraville, and partly because it beats a desk job'', says Sleight, who still moonlights in web design (Ajitoya's web presence is his handiwork, but those pugs dressed as geishas aren't his dogs).
The food is simple, home-style Japanese. ''It's the sort of food we like to eat at home,'' Sleight says. The small menu includes a few share-type dishes (edamame, gyoza), five udon soups and ''mains'' served either on rice (don) or as a meal set. Meal sets (like a classier equivalent of a TV dinner) are small portions of food on a tray.
They include a ceramic bowl of sticky white rice, a wooden bowl of miso, a few mouthfuls of salad (shredded chicken and cabbage) and maybe tonkatsu - crumbed pork neck (some pieces a little dry) drizzled with Ajitoya's house sauce, with a slight spice - or salmon sashimi, its blushing marbled flesh draped over mounds of thread-thin grated carrot.
Udon noodle soups appeal on these wintry days. The caramelised beef strip option may be a better choice than a ''tempura-smash'' (kakiage); its subtle dashi-based broth can become oily as the battered and fried balls of shredded veg are gradually broth-logged. Ajitoya does a cracking lunch trade in sushi rolls (brown rice, too) - eat in and takeaway.
Beer drinkers can stick to light-style lagers typical of big-name brewers (Asahi, Kirin) or go off-piste with a crimson-coloured Coedo brewed with roasted sweet potato. Here is where the drinking-sharing food shines: starchy takoyaki balls with a chewy little nugget of octopus in the centre come doused in thick Worcestershire-oyster-style sauce, zigzagged with mayo and topped with waving bonito flakes; tasty fried chicken with a healthy squirt of Kewpie; and tempura of fish (basa) and veg sprinkled with house-made matcha salt.
The kitchen shuts at 9pm, the place clears, and snug Seddon's busiest street falls still. So, as tempting as the beer list sounds, it's unlikely you'll go off-piste and go off … tipsy.
Do … Press on past the kitchen to the back room, or courtyard, if the front room is full.
Don't … Drink beer? There's wine and sake (tea, too).
Dish … Niku beef udon.
Vibe … Fresh and neat little local champ.
Nina Rousseau is on leave.