Deep-fried eggplant with mild miso sauce at Iori. Photo: Melissa Adams
The Canberra Deakin Soccer Club might be Croatian based, but its dining preferences in the upstairs restaurant have tended towards Asian. This was the home of the XY Dumpling House and in recent months has been lucky enough to welcome Iori, a favourite Japanese in the city centre.
Our attachment to the city version is not only due to the food, which is fresh, uncompromising and interesting, but the kooky sense of humour. It's oddball and fun in the menu. So we sign in at the door in Deakin with optimism in our hearts, the sounds of bingo (I think) ringing in the background and head upstairs at the soccer club into a room whose decoration promises some of that sense of occasion we've been hoping for. The words ''the mode of beyond'' confront you on the stairs as a kind of murky motto. Big samurai warrior (I think) figures greet you at the door, and the space is divided into central dining, shared sunken table-type dining on one side, and little booth-style rooms shielded with curtains down the other. This is where we're shown, and where other diners are apparently secreted tonight; you can tell only by their voices. This is great, our own little room, our own little curtain.
It's Friday night, the first let-off from our Monday to Thursday abstinence regime, so it's straight to the house sake - we don't linger over the premiums since we're not fussed what it is, just liking the idea of a jug of warm, strong sake. Especially when it comes alongside a plate of deep-fried lotus root chips ($8). These are beautiful, salty, fresh and warm, and a happy snack.
Eel roll and other eel dishes at Iori Plus. Photo: Melissa Adams
As for the rest of the menu, we have a hankering for the ''crab club'', but at $55 and including ''an assortment of spider roll (famous crab roll), deep-fried soft-shell crab, and crab hot pot cooked in miso-based soup'' it would be putting all our eggs in one basket. So it's the eel instead, unagi kabayaki ($32), aka ''famous char-grilled eel''. It comes on a long plate as three big slabs of eel, smothered in rather too much sweet soy-based sauce. The eel flesh is good and clean, soft and sweet, and has that slippery glutinous mouthfeel you love about eel. This is a dish we would order every time.
Kaisen tempura ($30) is a basket of seafood tempura with ''dipping sauce and special salt'', and comes dressed up a little in the presentation with a fan of prawns. There's also crab, shellfish, a green bean possibly edamame, and what I think is a nori roll with salmon or tuna inside, also given the battered and deep-fried tempura treatment. Tempura is a Japanese wonder, all about lightness, airiness and non-greasiness in the batter. Tonight, the batter is not quite light enough and is slightly greasy. The tempura comes with a mayo, a little bowl of coloured salt and other bowl of whitish condiment we're told is horseradish. It looks freshly grated but is pretty tasteless.
We also have a plate of eggplant on the table - nasu dengaku ($12), deep-fried eggplant with sweet, mild miso-based sauce. We've loved Iori for its slippery gooey textural treatment of eggplant, which seems to have such a perfect understanding with what eggplant's deliciousness is fundamentally all about. But there's a lack of polish in the preparation here. It's nicely presented, sliced so it fans out, but it's oily to the taste, so we can't get through it - which is unusual in Japanese dining, usually so marked by the ability to eat and eat and eat without feeling like you're doing your body or your sense of delicacy any insult at all.
The private rooms at Iori Plus in Deakin. Photo: Melissa Adams
But happy days, there's ox tongue on the menu - tan shio ($20), char-grilled, thinly sliced ox tongue, offered with the polite injunction to ''please enjoy Japanese style of delicacies''. Which we do. It's gently chewy, with some grunt in the texture and pungency in the flavour, and reminds you of bacon when you dip it into the sweetest of the three sauces that come alongside. Ox tongue isn't pretty to look at, but we like it, and if we wanted pretty we would have stuck to the sushi and sashimi end of the list. Which, incidentally, we also ordered from, and received a very generous length of nicely presented and good tasting ''inside out sushi rolls'' with wagyu.
The growing Iori group has three restaurants - its lunch and takeaway-oriented Coo Japanese Izakaya, Iori restaurant in the bus interchange in the city (where you can sign on for ''a mysterious evening mystery meal'' from Monday to Wednesday, an offer too hard to resist and on our to-do list), and this place at Deakin, which it calls Iori Plus, and styles as Japanese fine dining.
This hierarchy leads you to think you're in for the top-end experience at Deakin, but that's not how it feels. We're fine with the club entrance and the sign-in sheet, and we love the little curtained tables, but there have been issues tonight with the execution of some of the food. We suspect Iori is still establishing itself here and working out its clientele. One of the ways it's doing this is holding regular evenings where there's entertainment - such as aikido demonstrations, and tonight, July 3, there's African dance. It is to be hoped Iori at Deakin finds its niche as a firm favourite on the southside as its sister restaurant has in the city.
The shared table at Iori in Deakin. Photo: Melissa Adams
- 02 6282 3999
- Cuisine - Japanese
- Features - Accepts bookings, Family friendly, Licensed, Private dining, Vegetarian friendly, BYO
- Chef(s) - Hiroyuki Sano
- Owners - Mamoru Aizawa
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Cash, EFTPOS, Mastercard, Visa
- Opening Hours - Lunch Monday to Friday 11.30am-2pm, dinner Monday to Saturday 5:30pm-9.30pm
- Seats - 150 inside
- Author - Kirsten Lawson