Kirsten Lawson
Unagi kabayaki: sweet grilled eel.
Unagi kabayaki: sweet grilled eel. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

41 East Row Civic, Australian Capital Territory 2601

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Opening hours Monday to Friday, noon-2pm; Monday to Saturday, 6pm-late
Features BYO, Licensed, Wheelchair access, Vegetarian friendly
Chef Mamoru Aizawa
Seats 50
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 02 6257 2334

Sure, it's a little bit cheap thrills and a lot cultural confusion, but one of the good things about eating Asian is embracing the dark side. Well, perhaps. Ideally, you would be hoping for food epiphanies, new foodstuffs and transformative, enlightening techniques. But in Canberra, putting aside one or two high-end Asian, such as the Chinese Malamay, you're eating at the street-food end of Asian cuisine.

Which is not to detract in the slightest from what we like about Iori - its enthusiasm and pop-Japanese oddball sense of humour, the sheer personality that you find in the pages of the menu, and its offerings from the culinary underbelly; to wit, eel and tongue.

Eel comes in a deluxe sense as the ''Real Eel Meal Deal'', but at more than $40 it rather dominates the dinner budget. So we plump less ambitiously for the unagi kabayaki ($22), chargrilled eel, and are rewarded with a little box of sliced eel, sticky and sweet on the top side, full of meaty texture in the flesh. It's clean and delicate and doesn't have a huge amount of that fattiness and slipperiness that you expect from eel. Whether that's a good thing or not is probably a matter of taste. We like eel in all guises, except the kind fresh out of the lake, tall as a man, round as an upper arm, refusing to die quietly or really at all, and so heavy and slippery it's impossible to skin. Which marked the beginning and end of this as a meat to be cooked at home.

'Honey, May I Call U Honey?' dessert selection.
'Honey, May I Call U Honey?' dessert selection. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Ox tongue is a notoriously chewy affair; of course it is. In a dish called tan shio ($20), the tongue is sliced very thin so you're not chewing on the animal's tongue for long enough for too much pondering. And in any case, your thoughts are taken up with the little burner, its blue heat blaring in its cast-iron bowl on the table in front of you, a little mesh on top that you use to grill the slices of tongue. You choose - rare or smoky barbecued. And you dip it in a miso-tasting sauce, or a sauce that has a citrus and wasabi taste, or what appears to be mayonnaise and horseradish, soy sauce, or wasabi paste, or you chew your tongue as is. Cook-your-own is always more fun than you might say out loud, and we like this dish. It comes with lettuce and carrot (which comes with most dishes), plus onion and capers, and - strange indeed - some sundried tomato.

The burner probably shouldn't bring to mind the Sydney Building fire, but it does, since that's where we're sitting. Given the impact the fire had on businesses such as Iori, which was hit hard by the downturn in passing traffic and the loss of its little offsider, Coo, it needs all the support it can get right now from regular customers, and is full this Saturday evening. It's cosy, cocooned from the unattractive bus interchange outside, and a good place to sit and drink sake.

We drink a warm sake in its little jug, and a premium, which is sweet, clean and highly polished. Sake is such a varied drink, some full of delicacy and others crazy with funky flavours, it's a wonder we're not drinking it at every restaurant. It feels so much more exciting than wine right now.

Iori owner and chef Mamoru Aizawa.
Iori owner and chef Mamoru Aizawa. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

We're also drinking a lovely tea, with the scorched barley flavours that warm you up on a cold night.

We order an assortment of sashimi ($18) to get a feel for the freshness here. There's nowhere to hide, after all, with raw fish. There must be at least six kinds of seafood here - molluscs, salmon, tuna and a couple of white-fleshed fish. It's not sparkling with gorgeous texture, some of the fish tasting a little mushy, but is nevertheless clean-tasting, varied and good to eat.

Soft-shell crab ($28) is a bit greasy from the deep fryer, but is freshened up with a squeeze of lemon and easily downed with the flavoured salts alongside.

Gyu sara ($20) is a favourite for the runny egg that you mix in with the beef, a reminder of the French steak tartare, another of those dishes we can't help but order wherever we go. The beef is chopped thin, plenty of obscure little fatty bits, and well-cooked, with capers and ginger in the mix, although the dreaded squeeze bottle has patterned the plate in mayo. The egg is poached in a little pot alongside and feels rather too cooked for this dish. I've always thought of onsen egg, rightly or wrongly, as cooked so slow that it feels still raw, but it's barely runny so doesn't do that lovely gluey umami thing that you hope for with the meat.

In dessert, we're hooked by the offer of ''Honey, May I Call U Honey?'' ($20), a plate of four desserts in one - green-tea mousse, tempura daifuku mochi, black sesame ice-cream, and black sesame creme renversee. Ah, what a line-up of the challenging and unusual, a kind of slap in the face for the idea that life was meant to be easy and dessert merely sweet. The sticky rice cake filled with bean paste would be much better off without the addition of deep-frying, which adds a not-so-pleasant taste. The green-tea mousse is refreshing and icy, and sits on top of a big layer of bean paste, an odd combination of textures, the paste so sticky, the mousse so light. The sesame ''creme renversee'' is a panna cotta-like dessert and is pleasant. The black sesame ice-cream is best of all, with a lovely guttural taste.

The food at Iori tonight hasn't been as fresh or exciting as on previous visits, but we will be back for the eel and ox tongue, and the feel remains warm and friendly. Iori is not cheap enough to be called cheap and cheerful, and is no doubt facing competition from the flurry of new Asian cheap eats in the Canberra Centre area. It's more where you go for a hideaway dinner, a favourite corner when you can be closeted for a while.