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Kenji Ito Opens Wa Kenbo In Fitzroy

Chef Kenji Ito has opened his first Melbourne restaurant, Wa Kenbo in Fitzroy and The World Loves Melbourne was invited along to experience this already highly acclaimed Japanese restaurant. Chef Kenji, who for the last 11 years ran the award-winning Adelaide restaurant, Kenji Modern Japanese in Adelaide, opened the doors to Wa Kenbo in September 2018.

We were highly impressed with the Wa Kenbo experience; there's a respecting of traditional techniques without going into "pop fusion". Classic Japanese techniques underly the modern expression.

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Kenji is totally dedicated to his culinary craft. Not just a job for this dedicated chef, but for Kenji it's a passion and a lifestyle. Tending his stunning foodie garden at home to bring the first class produce to the restaurant is one example of this.

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Sake featured the same sake the owners enjoyed on their first date.

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The service at Wa Kenbo was top notch, with care and attention to detail from the owners Kenji and Noriko - for them it's a labour of love with hands on approach. 

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Austrian wine to match the first course was a welcome surprise. While we love local wines we also love to experience international gems like this from one of the best Austrian winemakers of the last 25 years.

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Wagyu beef tartare with Itokonnyaku, red turnip, truffle egg yolk sauce, Monaka wafer; eat it like a sandwich. Playful fun dining but with a seriously delicious tartare filling and don't underestimate the impact of the truffle egg yolk sauce. Presentation throughout the meal was top notch and this was no exception. The Japanese wafer gave perfect crunch and texture against the tartare.

Kenji chose to come to Melbourne to challenge himself. “I’ve often visited Melbourne and loved the food here. I moved here because I’m looking for the challenge of a big city, I want Wa Kenbo to be one of many great restaurants - not the number one restaurant.”

Humble words from a chef of 23 years who first sharpened his knives at the renowned Tsuji Culinary Institute in Tokyo, and then went on to refine his skills in Akasaka and Ginza. Wa Kenbo is not on a main street with heaps of foot traffic, but the flair and effort put in to each dish means it's well worth coming here as a destination.

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Freshly shucked Pacific oysters, creme fraiche, caviar, Koji jalapeno, tomato Dashi were stunning. Not sure if I've ever experienced fresher oysters (freshly shucked) and we loved the hit of jalapeno. I could have eaten a dozen of these no problem.

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Kobachi Trio was an exceptional starter. So much going on here with Fried broad bean soft cake, soy ginger Dashi, Parmesan cheese, rice cracker/ Roasted orca yam potato, Nashi, Tonburi & rocket with Tofu paste/and Daikon roll with red Shisho, Wakame, fried bean curd, spicy miso olive. The work that has gone into this dish as a starter is phenomenal and for only $14.

The menu is a wonderful synergy of Chef Kenji’s two worlds, using refined Japanese technique on both Australian and Japanese ingredients, including vegetables and herbs that he grows at home. Respect is given to both Japan and Australia and it works.

Alongside the homegrown ingredients, the innovative and progressive menu is made up of dishes that Kenji shops for daily. The white fish sashimi changes regularly, always with two kinds of fish and always using two preparation methods such as cured, seared or raw fish depending on the fish’s condition and season.

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Satsuma plum wine vinegar cured fish, abalone and bamboo chilli salsa was a refreshing dish with a rewarding salsa.

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Sushi and sashimi are personal favourites. Sushi roll of grilled Anago eel, Mitsuba omelette, cucumber, buckwheat soy sauce is a gem. Eel has such a unique taste and most would probably not be familiar with it, but here Kenji is pushing boundaries and the reward is great.

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Kenji excels with the Ninmono Japanese pumpkin & ricotta wonton tortellini, pea smash, Tempura Ashitaba leaf, soy burdock cream sauce. Pumpkin wonton tortellini you ask? A fusion that works wonders. The delicate casing of the tortellini unearths a treasure of sweet Ninmono Japanese pumpkin. The other elements complement perfectly and the sauce is more of a foam. This dish was a highlight of the meal and a sophisticated dish.

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Pan fried squid, blue swimmer crab & dill tartare sauce, grilled zucchini, crab Miso, charcoal vinegar powder. 

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Sumiyaki octopus marinated with tomato & Kabosu, avocado smash, baby turnip, noodle pumpkin, crispy chicken skin, Nori sauce. We enjoyed the interplay of crispy chicken skin with the marinated octopus. Once again loads of technique being shown and a cacophony of both texture and flavour. Kenji sources the best of ingredients and the WA Octopus was a highlight.

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The Octopus dish from another angle.

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Pan fried Hapuka, Sake poached mussel, Mozuku, Chinese cauliflower, snow pea, pink rice cracker, Ponzu butter sauce. Another highlight of the evening the fish was exquisite and cooked to perfection. The butter sauce was unexpected from a Japanese dining point of view but welcomed. It wasn't just any butter sauce but a Ponzu butter sauce with a citrus nuance.

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The room is a blend of stonework, wood and textured fabrics in natural tones referencing water and earth. It's a chic and smart design.

The 25-seat dining room is intentionally cosseted, to bring focus to the food. Its location is on a side-street in Fitzroy - in between Brunswick and Nicholson Streets - with no signage is a homage to many great restaurants in Japanese cities often found off-the-beaten-track.

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Pork belly lover? Then we highly recommend this Slow cooked Kuro-buta pork belly, seared scallop, mustard pickled Hakusai, Edamame, Shitake and barley risotto. The heritage breed Pork belly is exceptionally tender and juicy with outstanding crackling to accompany. The barley risotto brings a rustic pleasure. And the scallop a touch of indulgence. Kenji brings the little touches to every dish and the mustard pickled Hakusai was a wonderful piquant accompaniment to the pork belly. Edamame and shitake were also part of the range of flavours that competed the dish. This was Kenji's signature dish in his Adelaide restaurant.

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Kenji is equally adept with seafood, vegetables and meat. The Chinese cauliflower was wonderful and a crunchy texture contrast to the creamy fish, as was the refreshing snow pea. The texture of the fish itself was perfect keeping its form with crispy outside with caramelisation nuance and wonderfully soft inside. The mussels were also top notch adding to the dish. A triumph.

Junmai sake with wonderfully eclectic nose filled with dried fruit, leaves and earthy nuances.

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What beverage to pair with pork belly is always fascinating. How about sake?

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Another highlight was the Hoji tea smoked duck breast, duck neck Chorizo, soy soaked grilled Shishito, pickled quandong, Sansho pepper corn jus. This was duck done two ways with Kenji not wasting any of the produce. Succulent smoky duck breast along with the duck neck made into a chorizo made for elevated dining.

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Highlighting the duck neck chorizo.

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Stoney Vineyard Tasmania 2017 Pinot Noir by Domaine A was perfect with the duck dish.

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Champagne with dessert, a great idea! 

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Passionfruit sorbet, riberry jelly, amaranth flakes, grilled yellow peach, Blackburn honey is a refreshing dessert.

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Green tea & chocolate soft centred warm pudding, banana ice cream, crystallised rose nibs was an impressive dessert, bold and comforting. Kenji excels when it comes to puddings and a warm pudding was somewhat of a welcome surprise. Rose nibs are small but play an integral part in the dish, the combination of green tea and chocolate is compelling, and the oozy chocolate hit inside the pudding is rewarding.

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Soufflé! We were treated to another warm pudding, this time the Raspberry & Gorgonzola dolce soufflé, walnut ice cream. This was another example of Kenji pushing boundaries with fusion cuisine. Personally I enjoyed the combination of raspberry and gorgonzola, and the idea was to also put a taste of the ice cream on the spoon to get the full balance of flavours. We understand Kenji often has a soufflé on the menu of various flavours.

This was quite the culinary journey at Wa Kenbo! We've also heard great reports about the Sumiyaki chargrilled Ichiyaboshi whole fish, Myoga & Mitsuba soy vinegar sauce with Goma-ae broad beans.

The drinks list, crafted by Kenji’s wife Noriko, is a selection of wine, sake and cocktails designed to delicately complement the food. We enjoyed a wine pairing with our meal and the matching was perfect. Local and international wines featured and the selections were premium.

This is a restaurant where every detail is thoughtfully arranged. Kenji Ito's precision and attention to detail is evident throughout, he is a man who truly dedicates himself to the craft of looking after people and creating great dining experiences for them.

Wa Kenbo is a triumph in flavours, textures, seasonal produce and fusion dining with loads of technique. Highly recommended.