Neko Neko

The raw vegan okonomiyaki (#10) at Neko Neko.
The raw vegan okonomiyaki (#10) at Neko Neko. Photo: Wayne Taylor

83 Smith St Fitzroy, VIC 3065

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Features Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Phone 03 9415 6026

On a recent eating adventure in Japan I was struck by how specific the restaurants are, and often how small. This little den sells strawberry sandwiches. That one does crumbed pork. Another is (very) dedicated to soup noodles. It's unlike Melbourne's typical suburban Japanese restaurant which smooshes many cuisines into a smorgasbord of sushi, tempura, teriyaki and more.

Neko Neko has a tight focus: healthy pescatarian dining. It is also sweetly small, with just a dozen or so stools around a triangular communal table. It's cute in a careful Japanese way, mannered but light-hearted. The name means "'cat cat"' because one cat is rarely enough and there are enough kitty knickknacks to make a feline fan go "'awww"'. However, wombat, kangaroo and koala figurines point to the restaurant's inclusive Australian skew: this is as much a Melbourne place as a Japanese one.

So you can have gyoza (dumplings), but they are filled with quinoa, chickpeas and cabbage and scattered with coriander, all rather un-Japanese. There's matcha (green tea powder) but you'll get it in latte form. And there is a much-researched ramen (noodle soup) but it's vegan, made with many mushrooms and custom-made egg-free noodles.

The tuna sashimi salad (#13) served at Neko Neko.
The tuna sashimi salad (#13) served at Neko Neko. Photo: Wayne Taylor

The one-page menu is dominated by teishoku, colourful set meals with one starring element (prawn tempura or potato croquette or eggplant hot pot, for example) surrounded by an array of pickles, croquettes and nibbles. As you progress around the plate you might luck upon a sliver of corn cob sprinkled with crunchy seeds, black and brown rice balls, or a floret of curried cauliflower impaled on a toothpick. The flavours are bright, light, fresh and invigorating. This is food that's energising and sustaining rather than sapping or soporific.

Neko Neko doesn't touch red meat and vegans, onion avoiders and gluten-free folk are welcomed with accommodatingly open arms. It does do seafood: the sashimi salad is a big, tumbly bowl of greens and seeds with either salmon or tuna (or tofu and tempeh) and zingy dressings with ginger and carrot, yuzu and wasabi. The raw vegan okonomiyaki is built on a base of cashew 'cheese', flavoured with kombu seaweed and piled with vegetables. I still prefer the traditional flour and egg pancake cooked on a griddle but this is a decent and subtle alternative, even if you're not eating a special diet.

Owner Tomoya Kawasaki is a creative restaurateur: he also has Wabi Sabi (Collingwood and St Kilda) and sake bar Yoku Ono (Prahran). This is a good week to visit Neko Neko because the Gertrude Street Projection Festival is on; look out for shimmery, flickery artworks inside and outside this cheery and appealing eatery.