Wabi Sabi Salon, 94 Smith St, Collingwood. Phone: 9417 6119
A trip across town to visit Books For Cooks allows an opportunity to have a look at a neighbourhood that was once as familiar to me as any in Melbourne.
The area around the nexus of Smith and Gertrude streets in Collingwood/Fitzroy has certainly changed a lot since I lived in the area after moving to Melbourne in the late 1980s.
There’s not a trace, so far as I can tell, of the Eastern European vibe that was then a bit part of Gertrude St experience.
The area has even changed a bit since the end a few years back of a radio gig that saw me visiting – and eating – on a weekly basis for decades.
There’s an intriguing range of retail establishments.
And there’s eating houses – lots and lots of them.
And while there’s a few closed at Monday lunchtime, most are open and doing brisk business.
I choose one such and proceed to be knocked out by the quality of the meal that unfolds.
Wabi Sabi Salon is a long-time Smith St resident and feels like it.
There’s no stainless steel here. Instead, there’s funky old floorboards, Japanese adornments on the walls and deep, cool shadows.
I’m tempted to say it feels like old, authentic Japan, but as I’ve never been to that country I’d be crapping on.
But you get the drift … it’s got a nice lived-in feel.
As with its neighbouring joints, Wabi Sabi is quite busy for a Monday, and as ever there’s a constant stream of regulars stopping by the counter at the front to obtain takeaway sushi rolls.
I vaguely recall a few concerns about service and lengthy waiting times from previous visits, but have no such problems this time.
I yearn for a lightish meal, so order the vegetable bento ($16). More than that, I do something very unusual for me – I order it with brown rice.
My lunch starts with a very fine bowl of miso soup – studded with a lightweight quotient of seaweed and chewy tofu, it’s of just the right temperature and boasts intense flavour.
My bento (top photo) is even better.
In fact, it’s superb – and puts to utter shame bentos shoved out all over the city in the sort of cheap ‘n’ cheerful “Japanese” joints found in alleyways and food halls.
A crunchy, fresh salad of leaves with a few small tomato pieces and a smooth, creamy sesame dressing.
Two crisp gyoza-style dumplings that are both cold and delicious.
A small bowl of slithery buckwheat noodles in tangy dressing, joined by an even smaller serve of some sort of vermicelli matched with the same chewy tofu found in the soup.
Nutty brown rice topped with black sesame seeds.
And, finally and best of all, a wonderful stew of carrots, beans, lotus root, broccoli and several large chunks of incredibly lovely tofu, soft and silky on the inside and with slightly crusted outsides, all swimming in a light broth that is eventually mopped up with the rice.
I’m not too proud to request a spoon for just that purpose.
Check out the Wabi Sabi website, including full dinner and lunch menus, here.