Last weekend I finally got the chance to visit the hotly anticipated Akiba restaurant and bar which opened up in mid December. I’ve been wanting to visit Akiba since I first heard about it and saw the massive red sign go up over the ActewAGL Building in Civic back in mid 2014. Like any good Canberran, I normally get really excited to try out new restaurants when they come out in Canberra but I was especially psyched about Akiba opening up! I think Canberra has a lot of really good restaurants but there are still lots of areas where Canberra is still lacking and Japanese is definitely one of those for me. I absolutely love Japanese food, it’s the one thing I always crave for and the first thing I seek out whenever I go to Sydney. So when I heard the new restaurant was named Akiba, I knew we were getting something Japanese related and then my hopes were confirmed in a Good Food article. To make things even more exciting, Akiba is the brain child of the crew behind Canberra’s much loved Sage Dining Rooms in Braddon, that I’ve eaten at twice before and absolutely loved it!
Much like with Aubergine’s Temporada, Akiba has been designed for the youngsters of Canberra. Akiba is as hipster as it gets in Canberra and much like anything you would find in Surrey Hills or Brunswick. There is plenty of flannel, short shorts and curly moustaches on offer here, though at the same time there are also elements of Japanese pop culture, with pink and green neon lights and bright cityscapes. The menu at Akiba also reflects this Japanese theme and hipster vibe with plenty of new, summery and interesting cocktails as well as old classics, international ciders, beers and Akiba pop’s on the drinks front and plenty of scrumptious Asian and Japanese inspired share plates for food and raw dishes as well.
Akiba’s menu is available on their website. However, the menu I received when I was there for dinner on a Friday in early January was a little different. My menu had less options, like we didn’t see the chicken baos or beef short ribs dumpling but I think the raw dishes and most of the mains were pretty similar. No idea why it was like this, maybe Akiba was short on chicken or beef short ribs that day, or maybe these dishes didn’t do very well during December so they’ve been removed from the menu.
Here is the menu that I had in early January at Akiba.
I know I talked a little about the menu before but I guess I have more to say! So when I first read up on Akiba and what the team at Sage had planned, they talked about Akiba being new Japanese with a modern twist. I was pretty excited, I absolutely love Japanese food, as mentioned earlier. So when I heard about Akiba, I thought Canberra was finally going to see a really high quality Japanese place. Unfortunately, and this is purely a personal issue I believe, but I find Akiba’s menu a lot more Asian inspired than Japanese specific. Yes there is sashimi, a modern take on okonomiyaki, supposedly ‘Japanese’ fried chicken but a lot of the other elements and some of the flavourings of these Japanese inspired items were actually just plain Asian. Probably not a big deal to most (since they’re all the same anyway, I kid) but to me, as a staunch lover of all foodstuffs from Japan, it was a disappointing development. More about that later. Based on the fact that Ippudo in Sydney do pork baos, it kind of makes me want to say that baos are Japanese, but I’m pretty sure Monofuku made baos famous or at least I’ve never seen anything like it when I went to Japan. Outside of this minor note, Akiba’s menu was pretty interesting.
Okay, lets actually see the goodies at Akiba.
First up the Soft shell crab bao ($9) with pickled baby gem and creamy ponzu. Despite my silly “bao’s aren’t Japanese!” rant up there, I’m pretty happy Akiba is serving baos, I absolutely love baos and already find it a struggle to get one in Sydney as it is and they’re even rarer in Canberra with only really Mork’s in Kingston offering them. Additionally, Akiba so far is the only place in Canberra that does a soft shell crab bao.
I’ve had quite a few baos and Akiba’s bao lives up to the quality you would find at Ippudo and other places in Sydney. The actual bao (white bready part) is really nice and fluffy, with a silky smooth film layer on top whilst being really airy and soft inside. It had a slight hint of sweetness to it which worked really well with the sour and savoury flavours of the soft shell crab filling and sauce. The crab was really nice and crispy whilst not being too oily and sickening, while the sauce brought all the flavour, creaminess and a hint of contrasting sourness to this bite size treat. Soft shell crab always has a habit of making me feel oil sick, which is weird because I can polish off a hell of a lot of KFC. Not sure what it is, but thankfully the crab here wasn’t like that. Finally there was a lovely piece of lettuce which helped a little bit to milden the strong flavours and add a little bit of colour as well. Just keeping things healthy and whatnot.
We also grabbed a Pork belly bao ($8) with char sui and asian slaw. Again like with the soft shell crab bao, the bao here was fantastic with plenty of fluffiness to it and a little bit of sweetness. I’m probably not giving this the attention it deserves, so I’ll try now. A lot of places that do buns in Melbourne and Brisbane, I tend to find have absolutely massive thick dense buns. I absolutely hate it, I’m not sure if I’m the general population here, but when I’m eating a pork bao, the bao portion essentially exists to offer the least flavour resistance as possible whilst keeping my hands clean. When all you taste is actual bready bao, it kind of takes away from the amazing innards and it’s just something that has always frustrated me. Anyway. Moving on.
The pork belly in this bao was heavily flavoured, making it taste a bit like stewed pork. It also had a crunchy skin to it, this is probably the crunchiest pork belly I’ve ever had in a bao. Personally I prefer a softer pork, but I’m sure there’s an audience out there for pork with a lovely crispy edge. There was also a nice bit of crunch and texture from the pickles and Asian slaws, these two condiments also added a lot of contrasting flavours to the bao with plenty of creaminess from the slaw and sourness from the pickles. I did find the addition of Asian slaw quite interesting, I’ve never seen anyone else do it like this but it added some lovely creaminess to offset the crunchiness of the pork, and gave it all a smooth flavour to go down easily.
As tasty as this pork bao was at Akiba, I think I prefer the pork bao over at Mork’s but that may purely be a preference thing. It’s a softer, more tender pork and I’m normally not a massive fan of super creamy foods. I found that the mayo on this dish made it really difficult to taste the pork flavour coming through, and isn’t that why we’re all here? For the pork!?
Next up, the Sweet corn pancake ($8) with chilli caramel and togarashi. I’m assuming this is Akiba’s take on okonomiyaki, a Japanese savoury pancake. I’ve had a couple of okonomiyaki’s in Japanese restaurants in Sydney and generally I enjoy them. The ones at Akiba are slightly different to the traditional Japanese pancakes that I’m used to. These sweet corn cakes were quite dense with a decent amount of corn kernels spread throughout them and I swear, I think there were also chunks of camembert cheese as well. I know it doesn’t say it in the description but I definitely tasted something cheesy every now and then in these sweet corn pancakes! With that said, I really enjoyed the cheese, which gave you pockets of creaminess and a really strong contrasting flavour every now and then. Finally, there was a sprinkling of togarashi, which is a Japanese spice flake and a sweet glaze as well. The spice flakes added quite a bit of kick to the pancakes while the glaze gave it a fruity sweetness. The sweetness was a bit much for me to be honest, the corn was baked into the pancake itself and made it plenty sweet, but the addition of that glaze just took it over the edge. It wasn’t much of a problem though, I just scraped the glaze off to the side and the dish was really quite nice once I did so. Again, for anyone with a solid sweet tooth out there, this could work for you!
Next up, something from the raw menu, the Kingfish sashimi ($12) with coconut, nam jim and coriander. This was an interesting and tasty little dish, with elements of Japanese and South East Asian cooking throughout it. The base dish itself was Japanese but the flavours came straight from South East Asia with plenty of creaminess from the coconut milk and sweetness and sourness from the nam jim Thai dipping sauce. There was also coriander, which in my opinion is another flavour synonymous with South East Asian cuisine and deep fried garlic bits which brought lovely scent and texture to the fresh kingfish.
Overall, it wasn’t what I was expecting from a sashimi dish, which tends to focus more on bringing out the flavours of the fresh fish. Here at Akiba, the flavours were really strong and really overpowered the kingfish, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though I personally felt it was a bit of a waste of what I imagine was very high quality kingfish. If in fact, it was low quality kingfish and they were trying to mask it from me, then they have done an amazing job. It’s definitely different from what I was expecting but it sure was tasty. Plus, Akiba’s two other sashimis, the tuna and salmon had much more traditional Japanese flavours. So I guess note to self, if I want a traditional sashimi, maybe order one of the traditional sounding ones.
Our final small sharing plate, Natural oyster with ume mignonette ($10). We decided to also grab a serving of the oysters. I’m a little iffy when it comes to oysters, I’m not a massive fan of them but I’ll enjoy one every now and then. However, most of the times when I see oysters on the menu I tend to pass, mainly because I don’t see the point of having oysters with bits of bacon in it or completely covered in cheese sauce. You can’t really taste the oyster anymore, whats the point?! Anyways, here at Akiba it was different and in a good way! Akiba’s two oyster offers were simple and both focused on providing flavours that would bring out the deliciousness of oysters. For ours, the oysters were drizzled in a tangy sauce with a little bit of garlic and some lovely fruity flavours from the ume. The other oyster option also had a little bit of tang but instead of ending on a sweet note, it gave you some warmth and spice with ginger.
Onwards to our large share plates, first up the Japanese fried chicken ($14) with lemon braised onions and parmesan. This appears on Akiba’s menu as ‘JFC’. At first, we were like, what on earth is ‘JFC’ after some hard thinking someone realised it must be Korean fried chicken but seeing as Akiba is all about being Japanese, they renamed it Japanese fried chicken. Bit of a pointless story but maybe it will save someone else the trouble of wondering.
The chicken itself was quite nice, you could hear the crackling of the outside as you picked up a piece of chicken to put into you mouth but as you bit into it, the crispiness was replaced with tender and juicy chicken meat. The chicken was flavoured with a lovely herb and spices mix, it wasn’t overly powerful like say, a KFC or Taiwanese chicken place, just enough to give it a bit of flavour past flour and chicken. The coating on this chicken was a fantastic breadcrumb mix, probably panko based on the Japaneseness of it.
As you can hopefully see from the picture, there was a very generous grating of parmesan cheese which was surprisingly amazing, it’s one of the food combinations that I’ve just learnt recently and I’m very thankful for this knowledge. Finally, to top it all off, there was a generous amount of sweetned onion which really helped balance out the richness of the chicken. I’m not 100% sure why this was Japanese fried chicken as opposed to Korean fried chicken, Amierican fried chicken or just plain straight fried chicken but nevertheless it was some fine chicken.
Secondly, the Beef short rib ($20) with tamarind caramel and thai basil. The meat here was perfectly cooked by the crew at Akiba. It was amazingly soft and tender. We were sharing it, and when I went to split it apart, a knife was not needed, I just broke it apart with a fork and, to be honest, whenever meat does that, I’m instantly in love with it. I didn’t even really need to chew to be honest, that was how well cooked it was. It might not be obvious by now, but this was definitely the highlight of the night for me, the meat had a lovely soy flavour to it, and had spices deeply imbued into its flesh. Unfortunately, (at least for me) the meat was covered with a really sticky and sweet sauce which I found a little much but I’ve never been a fan of sweet and meat together, even though they rhyme. I’m a steak sort of person, just give me my meat, and make it taste the most like meat. I mean, if I’m going to go and have animal, I’m going to want it to taste like animal you know? I don’t want to waste things here. Having said that and even for a non sweet lover, I found this beef short rib really enjoyable, all I had to do was scrape the sauce off it and bite into it, which was sort of a theme with this place. The thai basil also really brought home the Asian flavours and added some vibrancy to the dish and helped me feel like I was doing something good for myself. Which I wasn’t.
Finally, some dessert, Tofu cheese cake, anzac crumb and pandan jelly ($8). We just couldn’t look past this, I love tofu but I’ve never really heard or seen it in dessert form (unless you include silken tofu in ginger syrup) and I couldn’t really imagine something like a cheesecake made out of tofu done particularly well but I assume, if it’s on the menu they must have perfected it. This deconstructed cheesecake definitely lived up to expectations, I didn’t even realise it had tofu in it, it just tasted really creamy and cheesy. The texture felt right too, it was perfectly smooth. The anzac crumb brought plenty of sweetness and flavour to the cheesecake, with the pandan jelly adding some texture but not much flavour or sweetness. Without reading and knowing that it was pandan jelly, I would have just assume it was green jelly, which was really sad because I absolutely love pandan and wished it played a stronger role in this dish. Overall, still an interesting and tasty dish to end our meal on.
Since it was so hot, we decided to grab a couple of drinks as well, Pineapple, coconut and chilli Akiba pop ($7) and Strawberry and mint Akiba pop ($7). Akiba offers a handful of homemade sodas, I’ve had a couple of the ones at Sage and absolutely loved them, so when I saw this on Akiba’s menu, I knew I had to give it a try. I really love Sage’s house made soda’s for their creative, absolutely unique and interesting flavours and the Akiba pops were no different.
The Pineapple, coconut and chilli Akiba pop ($7) was super fresh and fruity whilst being quite mild and not overly sweet. I know the combination of flavours sounds really weird but somehow the crew at Akiba made it work perfectly and I promise you it tasted nothing like a pina colada. Even though pineapple was the strongest ingredient, it wasn’t the most prominent flavour here. Instead they managed to just bring out the flavours of the pineapple without bringing out its sickly sweetness, which was completed with the mild sweetness of the coconut water. The whole drink ended with this lovely after taste that at first I couldn’t quite but my finger on. After a while I realised it was the chilli! There was absolutely no spice to this drink so I have no idea how Akiba did it, but you could taste the actual flavour of chilli. It was a real eye opener and something I hadn’t experienced before. I absolutely cannot wait to try some of their other Akiba pops.
Also! If you want something a little more, for an extra $5, you can add a shot to whatever alcohol you like to any of the Akiba pops. Akiba provides some recommendations but they’re more than happy for you to choose something else.
Finally, the Summer Spritz ($12), sake with lychee and coconut. This was a part of Akiba’s house made cocktails and was really fantastic. There’s something to be said that perhaps the drinks here at Akiba were more impressive than the food! There’s nothing like a colourful and fruity cocktail that isn’t overly sweet and sickly. Yes, I’m finally growing out of my alcohol sweet tooth (slowly) and acquiring a taste for things like beer and even dry whites! Not reds though, red wine is just something I feel like I’ll start drinking if I ever start smoking cigars or something. Definitely something cigar’y about them.
As far as a lovely drink that was sweet but not too sweet, this drink was perfect. The flavours of the sake really came through strong and hit you in the face as you took each sip, the lychee and coconut water flavours only really come out towards the end and quite subtly too. This drink definitely screamed summer to me, fruity and refreshing. I can see myself enjoy something like this summer spritz once all this rain clears up!
Overall, I enjoyed my meal at Akiba. It didn’t quite live up to my expectations and I’m sure that affected how I felt about a lot of the dishes but theres a massive chance that my expectations were built on absolutely incorrect assumptions, especially the one about how Akiba was meant to be quite Japanese because I definitely felt that was lacking and complained a fair deal about that in this post. Nevertheless, if I forget that point, all the dishes that we got at Akiba were quite solid, tasty and relatively affordable for the hipster theme and vibe. I think now that I know what to expect, I’ll definitely have to give Akiba another chance. Plus, the bar was fantastic and I’m sure that’s Akiba’s biggest selling point.