14 Beatty Ave Armadale, VIC 3143
|Opening hours||Tue-Sun 5pm-late|
|Features||Licensed, Accepts bookings|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9822 7941|
Let's start with dessert because it's fun and fabulous, a spin on the Iced Vovo packet biscuit. The century-old Australian invention is a wheat bikkie topped with pink icing, raspberry jam and coconut sprinkles. The version at hip Japanese restaurant Sonny Chiba is a fancy millefeuille, puff pastry rectangles standing vertically, interspersed with pink marshmallow, cream swirls and fresh raspberries.
It's pretty, charming and sweet, recalling the fruit-salad-and-cream sandwiches that are a cutesy Tokyo oddity. It's also indicative of Sonny Chiba's freewheeling approach to Japanese cuisine.
The restaurant is named after a famous Japanese martial arts actor (Sonny Chiba also appeared in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill as a sushi shop owner and swordsmith); it opened last summer in chic Beatty Avenue. The busiest spot on this strip is Toorak Cellars, a drink-in bottle shop with the rollick and roar of a saloon. Sonny Chiba is popular too but if the bottle-o draws the parents, the Japanesque joint lures the cashed-up kids.
Downstairs is where you want to be: the buzz is here and all seats are in cat-swinging distance of the island sushi counter. At one end, fish is sliced and rice is shaped with cheerful deftness. At the other end of the counter, diners on stools sip sake and sauvignon blanc and wonder if it's chic to chomp beef brisket doughnuts on a first date (answer: absolutely!).
Most dishes come out of the main rear kitchen, a heads-down hub of sizzling and sauteeing that's visible on the walk upstairs to the toilets or the spillover dining room. The first floor would be a nice spot for a private function but it's a poor cousin in terms of atmosphere and was also arm-huggingly chilly on the night I visited.
The appealing menu is built around light-hearted snacky stuff and easily shareable raw dishes and grills. Tuna tataki is scrolled furls of flame-touched fish sitting over onions and wasabi cream. It's a nice counterplay of raw and cooked, creamy and sharp.
The prawn sando is an easy-to-love sandwich: circles of crust-free squishy sliced white contain – just! – poached prawn, pickled daikon and a mild pink sauce that recalls the Marie Rose tomato mayo that's the classic dressing for prawn cocktails.
There's plenty for gluten-free eaters and vegetarian options include an exuberant purple hash with sauteed mushrooms, fried eggplant and wholesome purple rice cakes. It's a tasty, sturdy plant-based parade.
There are plenty of positives and promise but Sonny Chiba isn't perfect. Service was inexact (tables unwiped, glasses unfilled, ordering assistance vague) and some dishes lacked finesse (torn gyoza, chilly sashimi, soggy tempura).
None of these are hanging offences but it takes the sparkle off a restaurant that feels like it should be all about easy good times. With a few disciplined tweaks – perhaps channelling the black-belt prowess of Sonny Chiba himself – this Beatty Avenue bolthole could become a beauty.
Rating: Three stars (out of five)