“Most Japanese households grow up eating onigiri, it’s like the sandwich equivalent in Japan. Everyone has their favourite fillings. They’re super accessible and work well in a lunchbox,” says Kantaro Okada, who co-owns Melbourne's 279 cafe. It specialises in the aforementioned Japanese rice balls.
Growing up in New Zealand, Okada remembers how his “very Japanese lunches” would garner attention from his friends at school. “It was a very interesting experience for me. I felt a huge cultural difference there, which was both good and bad. Now, I can appreciate it, but as a kid, it was sometimes embarrassing because it was different,” he recalls.
Fast-forward several years later, and Okada is running 279, which has a popular onigiri menu. And there’s nothing to be embarrassed about there.
The journey to opening the cafe started with him working in his parents’ Japanese restaurants in New Zealand: first as a dishwasher, and then moving his way up in the kitchen and to the front of the house. He later studied coffee and worked in Melbourne, before going to Tokyo to help friends open their Australian-style cafe.
Things came full circle when he returned to Melbourne to open 279 with coffee expert Austin Allen in 2019. Along with great coffee, they knew they wanted to focus on one specific food. “We ended up doing onigiri because it’s very takeaway-friendly and we’re limited in seating space,” explains Okada.
If you don’t mind veering away from tradition, look for the “musubi plus” section on the menu, only available when dining in. “We kept the size of the musubi and enlarged the fillings to keep it more lunch-friendly, more ‘plate-able’,” says Okada. The most popular items are the katsu (an onigiri sandwiched between tempura seaweed and big pieces of fried chicken) and the negi-toro (an onigiri topped with soy jelly, avocado and raw tuna). Even cafe favourites like bacon and eggs, as well as smashed avo, are transformed into onigiri-based dishes.
Whether you go down the classic route or the more creative one, you can be sure that close attention is paid to the main component of the dish, rice. “We use rice from Aomori, in the north of Japan. We’ve gone through eight or nine rice cookers to find the one that cooks our rice the best. It’s our core ingredient so we had to be very particular,” says Okada.
They’re also particular about their miso. Each bowl is brewed to order, using the same pour-over method as for coffee, which prevents the miso from burning. Making each bowl individually means there’s no waste at the end of the day, and that customers can pick between a bonito or kombu-based dashi, which is vegan.
“We use rice from Aomori, in the north of Japan. We’ve gone through eight or nine rice cookers to find the one that cooks our rice the best. It’s our core ingredient so we had to be very particular.”
And in line with keeping the menu accessible to people with dietary requirements, all soy sauce is gluten-free.
On the sweet front, you’ll find trendy desserts like yuzu-glazed mochi doughnuts and matcha tiramisu, but the highlight might be the shiro miso brownie. This white miso (made in-house), macadamia and white chocolate brownie dusted with kinako is a creation of Okada’s wife, Hitoe – like many items on the menu.
279 celebrated its first anniversary in March last year, just before Melbourne went into lockdown. “We always thought the first year would have been the hardest,” says Okada, reflecting on the last few months. “But our customers were very supportive and we made it through.”
279 Victoria Street, West Melbourne
Mon – Fri 7 am – 3 pm | Sat – Sun 8 am – 3 pm
More common in Eastern European cuisines, cabbage rolls have been adopted by Japan as part of yoshoku – Western food that has become part of the Japanese diet. When I lived in Japan, I ate these frequently at a little coffee shop near my office that only made them once a month, and I've had fond memories of them ever since.
Literally meaning "steamed in a tea bowl" this delicate and savoury Japanese custard is a lot easier to make than it looks. Just remember the ratio of 1 part egg to three parts stock and you'll get a perfect custard every time.