The Japanese culture heavily embraces Buddhism and thus Buddhist teachings. One of the concepts that was derived from its teachings is the acceptance of all things ‘imperfect, impertinent and incomplete’, also known as ‘wabi sabi‘ in Japanese. Wabi sabi is an aesthetic that considers imperfect things beautiful, such as an unfinished, rough or unsymmetrical object, similar to many bowls and decorations used in Japanese kitchens and households. If you’ve been to a Japanese restaurant, you’ll likely understand what I mean.
Even without understanding the meaning behind ‘wabi sabi’, I’ve always been a big fan of these ‘imperfect’ crockery anyway. The raw clay colours and rough finishes has a natural beauty to them that’s not present in plain white bone china. It gives me a sense of comfort for the lack of a better word.
There’s a restaurant in Melbourne called Wabi Sabi Garden where I dined with a few friends a little while ago. No doubt they had all the right furnishings befitting of the words, even Buddhist hands as seats at the front!
In fact, the decor of the whole restaurant was quite impressive. The back room where we sat had a tree in the middle adorned with red lanterns that lit up the room at night (although red wasn’t the nicest colour for my photos…).
The garden at the back was one of the nicest I’ve been to in Australia, although I’m sure many higher class restaurants in Japan have such gardens or even better, but I was still quite impressed. The bamboo and leaves add a nice touch to dining outside when the weather is nice.
When it gets dark at night, there’s even a projected ‘pond’ on the ground with moving fish and other imagery. I thought this was a fantastic idea as it saves space and is aesthetically pleasing.
The 3 of us all ordered a glass of yuzu (Japanese citrus fruit) sake ($13) which was beautiful, but I did think it was a bit expensive for how much was given.
The menu has apparently changed slightly from when my friend first went there. It has become more tapas like with dishes to share between people. The menu recommended 3 plates per person to be full so for 3 people that would have been 9 dishes. At around $20 a main, I think all of our wallets would have been not too happy so we thought we’d order about 5 dishes between us first and see how hungry we were afterwards. It turned out to be just right with a big bowl of rice.
The first dish we ordered was the Hiramasa kingfish sashimi ($18). It came lightly scorched and marinated in ponzu sauce, garnished with garlic chips and fresh mint. It was a beautifully presented dish with roughly 12 pieces of well cut fish that was both fresh and delicious. As we were quite hungry, the dish disappeared in a matter of minutes. The mint added a refreshing and unique taste to the dish as well. Some people might not be used to not eating sashimi with soy sauce and wasabi but it’s actually a delicious way to enjoy fresh fish.
The next dish we ordered was also a sashimi dish and it was a special of the day – john dory (can’t remember the exact cost but it was similar to the kingfish). We all agreed that the john dory was actually tastier than the kingfish, even though we liked both dishes. The john dory had an extra textural element provided by the crunchy carrots and daikon and the sauce had more zing than the kingfish.
From there we moved on to our hot mains. The swordfish ankake hotpot ($19) was delicious as well. Ankake in Japanese means a broth that’s made with starch so that it’s slightly thicker than regular broth, and thick it was. Apart from being thick, the broth was quite clear and had distinct soy sauce and mushroom flavours. The veggies in the hotpot was cooked perfectly al dente, but I thought it was a little too peppery which some people might not like. This dish went very well with some rice.
Next up was double cooked pork belly with yuzu sauce ($21). For those of you who have been reading this blog for a while would know that choosing this dish was a no brainer for me. It’s pork belly!! Plus I’ve fallen in love with yuzu flavours lately so this was a perfect dish for me. The pork was cooked well and was quite tender but still retained a firm shape. It was only lightly braised though and thought it needed a bit more seasoning. It went well with the yuzu jam as pork is delicious with sweet and slightly sour flavours.
The last hot dish of the day was the grilled black cod that’s marinated in miso ($25). The cod was probably the best dish of the night. Although I found it a tiny bit on the salty side, it was no doubt very tender and juicy and quite tasty. I usually don’t like to order cooked fish in restaurants because it tends to be quite overcooked but Wabi Sabi did a good job with the cod.
Everything was not bad until now. However, we ordered 2 ice creams from the menu – the red bean and a black sesame. Both ice creams were quite plain and lacked in its individual flavours. The red bean ice cream was topped with desiccated coconuts but since it lacked red bean flavour, all I could taste was the coconut. I did like how they added a personal touch with the paper crane though.
Overall it was a good meal, albeit being a bit expensive. I loved the atmosphere and the intricate little details Wabi Sabi put in to the decor. I would love to have lunch here in the garden when the weather’s good to enjoy the outdoor setting. However, I would stay clear of the ice creams.
Question time: Do you like ‘wabi sabi’ or imperfect things when it comes to crockery and household items, or do you prefer the more perfect ones?
Wabi Sabi Garden
Phone: (03) 9529 8505
17 Wellington St, St Kilda VIC 3182