Okonomiyaki pancakes, and eel at Tasuke. Photo: Rohan Thomson.
Cheap Asian cafes Canberra has in spades. But often such places leave you feeling as though you should have eaten a whole lot more healthily, with ingredients several notches up on the quality and cost scale. The excellent thing about Japanese food is the quick and cheap end never leaves you feeling like this; it's such a simple, light cuisine.
We're at Tasuke, housed in the Sydney Building at the bus interchange. Outdoors, it's undeniably scruffy, and around us, there are a bunch of cheap eateries. Inside, the restaurant is utilitarian, small and simple. A row of five long wooden tables was installed in a refurb a year or so ago, with a few extras as well.
Menus are displayed with pictures on the walls and in various plastic-coated versions that we're handed - a sushi and sashimi list, a broader menu, and a drinks list. A couple of recipes are also displayed on the wall, for those who are close enough to read them. We're not quite, so my notes on how to make teriyaki chicken are sketchy. But it seems you need to take sake and mirin, maybe for a marinade, and add soy sauce, honey and sliced ginger. Simple in the extreme, and the essence of much of what we're eating tonight.
''Eel/ch/egg on rice'' ($13.50) has us at the first word. ''Ch'' turns out to be chicken, and there's a lot more of that than the little scraps of eel in this dish. The eel we do get is dark, full of sweetness and soy, and a taste that has us adding the ''grilled eel on plate'' ($10) to our order.
Eel/ch/egg on rice has lots of scrambled egg, onion slices and what seems to be flat-leaf parsley in an appealing, gentle dish of largely pale colours. If you lived around here, you would do well to pop into Tasuke for dinner most nights of the week. Why cook when this kind of simple, healthy cuisine is on offer?
Which is the way we also feel about the bowl of salmon sashimi on sushi rice ($19). Slices of raw salmon over sweet rice with lettuce and shredded carrot: it's a bowl of goodness.
As for the grilled eel on plate, this is one we would order every time. Two slices of sweet, dark eel fillet presented, as promised, on a plate, with nothing else - nothing else is needed. Eel like this is sheer pleasure: fatty, gelatinous and sweet, what a delicacy.
The prawn tempura ($15.50) comes as six big prawns covered in a batter that's heavier than other more delicate thin-battered tempura. Nevertheless, it's light in colour and not at all greasy. These, too, are relatively unadorned - there's a soy-based dipping sauce - and very enjoyable. The prawns taste fine.
When one of our number asks what kind of prawns they are, the guy comes back from the kitchen with the news that the packet just says ''prawns''. But they're not mushy, and they taste fresh and bitey.
The menu offers loads of ramen dishes, so we order one from the wall menu. Kimchi ramen ($14), clearly borrowing from Korea for its flavours, is a bowl of ramen noodles with chicken (or pork if you prefer) and simple veggies - carrot, onion and the like. The broth is thin and spiked with chilli. A warming, simple dish.
The service is pleasant, with one guy handling the floor with a friendly and helpful approach. We order some starter-type dishes and mains, but they're not distinguished this way on the menu and they don't come this way when served. All the dishes come when they're ready, in no apparent order. So the dumplings and okonomiyaki pancakes we've ordered are not served as entrees.
The ''pancakes'' ($9) are a crazy kind of treat - highly likeable; a bit mad. They're more patties or fritters than pancakes: thick, round squishy discs of what? Potato and other veggies, the guy tells us. The very name, Wikipedia says, implies the nature of these Japanese pancakes, translating as something like ''what you like''.
Soft inside, they're smothered with mayonnaise and a barbecue-like sauce. Wow, what an indulgence, right up there with the modern insistence that if it tastes good and hits all those luscious, grill-and-sauce notes, go with it. We like these.
The feel is sparse here. Tasuke is no fancier than a cafe. There's no music - only the quiet blow of what I guess is the aircon - no crowds, and perhaps only a couple of people in the kitchen plus the guy serving. There's also no wine, which is a good thing.
It offers just a handful of Japanese and Chinese beers - Asahi, Tsingtao, Kirin and Sapporo black label (all $6-$7) - and a few sakes. The house sake is Hakushika Junmai (200 millilitres, $12), warm or cold. Or there's Tamanohikari Mizore (450 millilitres, $18), served cold, and umeshu plum wine (100 millilitres in a shot glass, $6, or a bottle, $45). This is highly sensible, a few decent offerings of the booze that goes best with the food.
For dessert, we order ''parfait'' ($7), expecting a kind of frozen dessert for the kids. We end up with these ludicrous sundae glasses filled with ice-cream, dairy whip-like cream, chocolate sauce in one and strawberry sauce in the other, and what taste like Coco Pops for crunch. I think that's what the Americans call parfait.
For the adults, there's anmitsu - a red-bean dessert - or ice-creams of green tea or black sesame. But we're done and out the door into a downpour, cleansing the streets of the interchange and keeping with our feeling that we've had a kind of cleansing, satisfying meal. This is a good little cafe.
Wine list: N/A
Value for money: 3/4
Summary: A favourite, low-key Japanese cafe where you could eat every night.
Breakdown scores are a quick reference to key highs or lows. They do not relate directly to the score out of 20.
- 02 6257 9711
- Cuisine - Japanese
- Features - BYO, Licensed, Vegetarian friendly
- Chef(s) - Yuji Takeda
- Owners - Yuji Takeda
- Cards accepted - EFTPOS, Mastercard, Visa
- Opening Hours - Lunch and dinner Monday to Saturday from noon to 9.30pm or later.
- Seats - 50 inside
- Author - Kirsten Lawson