279 Japanese cafe review

Musubi topped with panko-crumbed, deep-fried chicken.
Musubi topped with panko-crumbed, deep-fried chicken. Photo: Justin McManus

279 Victoria St West Melbourne, VIC 3003

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Opening hours Mon-Fri 7am-4pm; Sat-Sun 8am-3pm
Features Licensed
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard

Japanese cafe 279 is attentive, deliberate and careful; the mood is buoyant yet anchored in tradition. It's easiest to explain by telling you some things I have seen here.

The barista in the calm, bright front room puts one (one!) coffee bean through a grinder, observes the powder intently then makes fine adjustments to his machinery. A shadow moves slowly through a blossom branch pushing dappled light across the communal table: spring is sweetly sprung. Green tea is steeped with precisely heated water at the rear dining counter, the gentle cascade both meditative and fragrant. A diner fetches a blanket from wall-hooks and takes it to outside tables to cover their sweetheart's shoulders.

279 cares about the small details so intently yet lightly and elegantly that it prompts customers to attend to them too.

Japan meets Melbourne at 279.
Japan meets Melbourne at 279. Photo: Justin McManus

The cafe has been here since March, owned by Kantaro Okada, a New Zealander with Japanese parents who moved to Melbourne, then Tokyo where he ran an Australian-style "flat white" cafe before bringing a version of Japanese culture to Australia. His business partner is Austin Allen, a cabinetmaker and coffee obsessive. Together, they've created a cafe that melds design and deliciousness with uncommon grace.

The menu is built around musubi – rice balls, just like onigiri – with various stuffings and toppings. In Japan, omusubi (the "o" is an honorific which "beautifies" the word) are as common as sandwiches, eaten as snacks, packed in lunch boxes and toted for picnics. The rice is short-grain but it's not vinegared like sushi rice, just lightly salted as it's shaped.

279 serves them with classic Japanese condiments such as kombu seaweed, furikake seasoning, bonito fish flakes and soy. The rice might be wrapped in nori, hidden under a shiso leaf, or presented as a simple mound topped with gleaming fish roe.

Saba-chazuke musubi with cured mackerel.
Saba-chazuke musubi with cured mackerel. Photo: Justin McManus

The "musubi+" part of the menu is less traditional, taking basic omusubi ideas and turning them into larger dishes with broths and delicious proteins like panko-crumbed and fried chicken, tempura prawn and even some Aussie smashed avo.

The mackerel dish really floored me. Firm, oily fish fillets are cured for two days in genmai (roasted brown rice) and salt. The mackerel is then grilled and placed over seasoned rice paddling in a broth of bonito and sencha (green leaf tea). The tea leaves are added to the broth which is also flavoured with dried scallop salt. It's layered and elaborate yet restrained.

Unusually, 279 brews each serving of miso soup to order, either using house-made chickpea miso or Japanese soy or rice miso. When an order is taken, a small spoonful of miso paste (weighed to the gram) is placed in a coffee filter, then broth – traditional bonito or vegan kelp – is poured over it from a kettle. It's about freshness, consistency and reducing waste and is an entirely original method.

Simple musubi with mentai mayo (cured cod roe and Japanese mayo; left) and shiso leaf covered miso (right).
Simple musubi with mentai mayo (cured cod roe and Japanese mayo; left) and shiso leaf covered miso (right). Photo: Justin McManus

Also unique is the matcha tiramisu served in a masu, the square box once used as a rice measure but now more commonly a drinking vessel for sake. 279's fluffy, creamy, soggy tiramisu uses sweet sake instead of Italian marsala, and green tea powder instead of espresso. It's wonderful.

There's lots to love here. There's the panache, poise and polish, the canny counterpoint of tradition and innovation, the carefully made beverages and just-so food.

I love all this but what I love above all is that this appealing Japanese cafe also feels like a particularly Melbourne marvel.

Matcha tiramisu.
Matcha tiramisu. Photo: Justin McManus

Rating: Four stars (out of five)

https://www.279victoriast.co/