Softshell crab salad. Photo: Jeffrey Chan
It's a Saturday night in the throbbing heart of Gungahlin. The cafes and restaurants are filled with people and others are out and about doing their shopping. We're at Kokoro in Gungahlin Marketplace, which is a fair way to go for a meal if you don't live on the north side.
The main shopping strip doesn't quite have the ambience of Lonsdale Street in Braddon - or its painfully hip denizens - but we've heard promising things about this suburban Japanese eatery, which sits next to an Afghan cafe.
Tonight it's quite full and feels a little cramped, the tables edging up against each other. There's a sizeable rustic-style metal barrow with a sort of floral display up one end of the room and big windows looking out over the street.
The large mixed sashimi platter at Kokoro. Photo: Jeffrey Chan
The menu is crammed with entrees, sashimi, sushi, and specials, complete with pictures. Perusing it involves much flapping of laminated pages and cross-referencing but we eventually manage to order a fairly wide selection of dishes.
The menu isn't so far-ranging when it comes to drinks - the restaurant is BYO only, though corkage is reasonably priced at $4 a bottle. There's Calpis water ($4), a yoghurty-flavoured creation; the Japanese lemonade known as ramune ($5) and a range of more standard soft drinks. One of our party orders, hot green tea, arrives as a tea bag slapped into a mug of hot water ($3). Great if you've dropped in to visit mum at home, but not so appealing at a restaurant.
The food comes out briskly and efficiently - plate after plate filling up the table. The entrees include a platter of okonomiyaki ($10), two fat savoury pancakes that are traditionally a mix of leftovers. These are squishy with potato, onion and cabbage and aren't terribly exciting.
Kokoro Japanese restaurant. Photo: Jeffrey Chan
A collection of takoyaki ($9.50) is better - crisp little balls of octopus that have a satisfying crunch. Deep-fried gyoza ($10) also go down well.
Any Japanese restaurant that aspires to greatness must offer sashimi and that restaurant stands or falls by its sashimi. Kokoro's medium mixed sashimi plate ($22) is filled with more than a dozen slices of fish fanned out amid frilly parsley, lemon wedges and what looks like a miniature, decorative piece of fence. The sliced pieces of bonito, tuna and salmon are clean and tender, quite beautiful by Canberra standards. There's not a trace of the fishiness that tells you the sashimi is less than pristine or fresh. These slices are adorned only with the traditional soy sauce and a dab of wasabi.
Next is a plate of wagyu beef tataki ($25), delicate slices of raw meat curled against each other on a bed of green. They are pleasingly marbled with ivory fat and are succulent mouthfuls, so easy to eat dipped in soy sauce. This is another highlight and very close to being the best dish tonight.
A bowl of soft-shell crab salad ($15.50) is moreish and has us picking over battered and fried crab pieces and some succulent red-and-white morsels. Another standout is the chicken kaarage, fried chicken that's deliciously savoury under the crisp batter. The meat is tender and dark, like a homemade bowl of fried chicken, but it's rather pricey at $13 for an entree. ''It's good,'' a Japanese colleague who's dining with us tonight says. ''But not $13 good.''
Now let's talk about the volcano ($22). This is on a page full of assorted specials. It's a party piece out of left field: a long roll of sushi rice filled with tempura prawn, cucumber and crab and drizzled with red Sriracha and ''spicy cheese sauce''. Whoever came up with this must have a cheeky sense of humour and surely it's not meant to be taken seriously. The waiter suggests it's a ''fusion'' dish rather than traditional Japanese. We don't expect it to taste amazing and it doesn't - it's a mishmash of rice, sauce, and battered prawn. It's not that there's anything terribly wrong with it - it's just deafeningly bland for a dish that's billed as volcanic.
At this point there are a lot of dishes and the crowded crockery threatens to overwhelm the table. It leads to much passing back and forth of serving plates and bowls and strategic deployment of additional chopsticks to scoop up portions of food to share. The waiters are pleasant but apparently unaware of the situation until we pass them empty serving platters to take away.
And there's still more to come - our flurry of orders was clearly a little over-enthusiastic for the five of us. A bowl of beef udon ($15.50) appears. The broth is flavoursome and the strips of beef are chewy in a good, juicy way - again, a very decent dish. The same with a bowl of chicken katsu don ($16.50), which is a jumble of egg, fried chicken pieces (very similar to the kaarage) and rice.
By this time it's 9.30pm and the piles of families and couples on nights out have suddenly vanished, hopefully to other exciting destinations in the northern suburbs. We stagger out, happily full, and hoping not to lapse into a food coma on the long trek back to the south side.
Kokoro is one of those suburban eateries that would be great to have around the corner in your own neck of the woods. It ranks high on the list of good Japanese restaurants in Canberra.
Natasha Rudra is a staff writer.
- 02 6241 7450
- Cuisine - Japanese
- Prices - Mains $19.50-$32
- Features - Accepts bookings, BYO, Cheap and cheerful, Wheelchair access
- Chef(s) - Jung Hwi Park
- Owners - Chang Ho Yoo
- Cards accepted - EFTPOS, Visa, Mastercard
- Opening Hours - Seven days, lunch 11am-3pm, dinner 5pm-10pm
- Seats - 70 inside
- Author - Natasha Rudra