Wa Kenbo restaurant review

A trio of seasonal bites from the garden.
A trio of seasonal bites from the garden. Photo: John Donegan

69 Victoria St Fitzroy, VIC 3065

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Opening hours Tue-Sat 5.30-10pm
Features Bar
Prices Expensive (mains over $40)
Phone 03 9041 9495

There's tortellini here but not as you know it. Wonton skins have more flex than the Italian norm; pumpkin filling is cooked nimono-style, poached in dashi broth, and a crush of candy-sweet peas is washed in a soy cream foam with the rooty notes of burdock. Before this you might have sunk teeth through lacy batter into a creamy lobe of uni. In your glass could be a margarita citrified with Japanese sudachi, or, a 2016 Weingut Brundlmayer gruner veltliner. To borrow the words that got Scott Morrison sacked from Tourism Australia in 2006, where the bloody hell are ya?

The answer to that is Wa Kenbo, a pocket-sized restaurant you may have heard described as fusion Japanese, but I'm not sure that's the best lens through which to look at it. Technically it's true. Owner-chef Kenji Ito melded traditional Japanese and Western ingredients and techniques at his former Adelaide restaurant and he's brought those moves to Fitzroy. It's just that his use of prosciutto, quandongs and foams is nowhere near as interesting as his love of botanicals.

Almost every dish here sneaks in treats from Ito's garden, and it's these whispery notes that make Wa Kenbo an interesting new voice on the scene.

Sumiyaki ishya boshi flathead (air-dried and grilled).
Sumiyaki ishya boshi flathead (air-dried and grilled). Photo: John Donegan

Crowning that tortellini are tempura-battered ashitaba, or tomorrow leaves, tasting vaguely of celery, and allegedly curing anything that ails you. A trio of bites features house-made broad bean "cake", flash fried and crowned with garden-fresh beans. There is a mild, sticky paste of oca (yam potato) and tofu flecked with kochia seeds (land caviar!) that have a poppy seed vibe. If the internet is to be believed, you will leave dinner a superhuman having ingested these medicinal treats.

If not, you should at least leave happy. Wa Kenbo is a lovely, personable little restaurant which in most aspects – from the (slightly self-conscious) service to (very good) wine matches and (optional) $120 tasting menu – has slick, fine-dining aspirations, but there's almost too much personality here to play it as cool as they're trying to.

The exposition from our eager waiter takes a good chunk of time per dish, but to be fair, there is a wild amount going on. But if everything is bedazzled with flowers, sauces and trim, it's rarely to a dish's detriment. It's often nice. See the firm slips of hapuka given a tangy plum vinegar bath then dressed with fennel fronds, peppery daikon flowers, sweet miso and fragrant shiso leaf wrappers so you are thwacked with every spoke of the flavour wheel.

There's an element of DIY and a streak of originality to the Wa Kenbo fitout.
There's an element of DIY and a streak of originality to the Wa Kenbo fitout. Photo: John Donegan

On the flip side, sumiyaki ishya boshi flathead (aka dry-cured, glazed then grilled – the menu pulls no punches in terminology) lives in a meaty, umamiful zone with just a lift of pickled black radish. The texture is so firm and fish flavour so condensed, it comes with a trigger warning from our waiter.

Kicking that fish into touch there's a barely tannic 2017 Farr Rising rosé, a wine that can stand up for itself. The Stoney Vineyard pinot noir also does a valiant job not falling apart in the face of darkly burnished tea-smoked duck, with an alluring tangy hit of quandong playing a plum role.

They've created a lot of intrigue for a tiny space. A couple of booths give total privacy, like eating in a secret pod. A central table loaded with the wines divides the diners, and smart illusions are created through myriad textures and light – some walls feature an angular patchwork of rocks, then your eye is distracted by backlit spackled panels forming waves.

Hoji tea-smoked duck breast with pickled quandong and sansho peppercorn jus.
Hoji tea-smoked duck breast with pickled quandong and sansho peppercorn jus. Photo: John Donegan

The fitout, like the dishes isn't totally polished or luxurious. There's an element of DIY to thin, grey plaid-covered banquettes, but imbued in this and everything else is a more important streak of originality. Here your rice has an excellent chewy, crackling crust from being cooked in stoneware, but is also vibrant with fresh peas, fragrant herbs and a bounty of pickles. Desserts might be a textbook passionfruit souffle or ugly delicious chocolate fondant, lurid under a green tea dust, that threatens to run right off the plate.

Call it fusion, if you must. More important is that it's fresh.

The low-down

Wa Kenbo

Vegetarian Lots of options in the small and main field

Drinks Old and new world wines, and styles plus Japanese-inflected cocktails

Go-to dish Tempura uni ($6 each); hapuka in plum vinegar ($16)

Pro tip Explore a la carte for the more off-piste dishes

wakenbo.com.au