Where: Calia, Shop 8, Level Three, Emporium, 287 Lonsdale Street Melbourne
What: Highly photogenic dishes
Who: Beer Jenga Master, Ambivalent Egg
Bloat score: 3 – I could have balanced a glass of wine on my bloated stomach
It’s a tricky task finding somewhere in the city that is a) new and b) intolerance-friendly but I found the perfect place in Calia, a Japanese retail grocer-cum-cafe in Emporium with an adjoining restaurant. Calia intrigued me, with a kitchen designed by international Michelin-starred chef Francisco Araya.
I don’t typically dine in shopping malls, but Emporium is an exception – from the two sublime food courts on level three and the lower ground to gems like New Shanghai, Tetsujin and Din Tai Fung, you could do worse than dine in Emporium. Calia was a lot cosier and less clinical than I expected – the restaurant had a consistent stream of diners, and the ornate timber joinery in the restaurant’s interiors was replicated in the tiniest of things, right down to the wooden chopsticks. Visiting for an early dinner on a Tuesday evening, we didn’t have to queue – something that seems to be commonplace at Calia during lunchtime and on weekends.
Calia serves a selection of akitakomachi (Japanese short-grain rice) bowls with a selection of seafood, beef and pork, and a solitary vegetarian option for those lucky enough to be able to ingest mushrooms without getting farty after. It also serves a selection of somen bowls, incorporating one of Japan’s lesser known noodles after ramen, udon and soba – somen is a thin wheat flour noodle, so you guessed it, out for the wheat-intolerant and anyone whose gut is irritated by wheat i.e. me.
On this rare occasion there were several options on the menu suitable for me. The Marbled Sukiyaki Bowl came with premium marbled wagyu slices and a 63-degree poached egg (otherwise known as an onsen egg). The O’Bara Bara, which I typically would’ve gone for, came with marinated diced tuna, salmon, kingfish, tamago and edamame. I was also tempted by the Crispy Roast Pork Bowl, which came with a ginger sauce and the same onsen egg. In the end, however, I settled on the Aburi Salmon – flamed, seared salmon topped with ikura (red caviar) and a self-proclaimed secret Calia sauce.
Calia’s menu has a range of highly divergent price points, so you’re best off studying it closely before you place your order. My Aburi Salmon bowl was $18.90 – highly reasonable – but the Chirashi bowl was a heftier $29.90. Move further down the menu and you’ll notice the Calia Wagyu Bowls come with either Australian single-origin wagyu at $34.90 or Japanese air-flown A5 wagyu at $79.80. I’d hate for your cheap Tuesday night dinner to culminate in an awkward moment at the cash register, so practise ‘constant vigilance’ as Mad Eye Moody would advise.
Because there were no spirits on Calia’s alcohol menu, I refrained from a drink, though I must confess at being tempted by their specialty hot drinks, which included the likes of an iced hōjicha latte and a purple sweet potato latte.
Beer Jenga Master had never tasted matcha, and got a rude shock when her IPA resembled the colour of spirulina once poured out into her glass. Turns out it was a matcha IPA from Kizakura, a famed brewer in Kyoto. I had a sip and the IPA had the pleasing bitter aftertaste of matcha, though the same effect could be described after having a beer, so who knows if my ill-refined taste buds picked up on anything different.
Calia also has a rotating page of daily specials, and we ordered an entrée of flame-grilled slices of pork belly from that menu. I’m not typically a fan of pork belly with its high fat-to-meat ratio, but these thin slivers were marinated in a sweet yet savoury soy reduction, making them moreish and incredibly hard to stop snacking on. They were also artfully presented, flanked by florets of orange cauliflower and thin discs of pink daikon.
These daily specials also included ‘umami fries’ which appeared to be shoestring fries blanketed in furikake i.e. heaven. I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist this if it were on the table – commercial chips fall under ‘high-histamine’ foods – and so I stubbornly looked away when the savoury smells emitted by bowls with towering fries wafted past.
My Aburi Salmon took the cake when it came to photogenic dishes – thin triangles of flame-seared salmon enveloped a small heap of rice, framed by pickled ginger, seasoned kelp and wasabi. The blue ceramic plate my dish was presented on only served to accentuate the deep pink hues of the salmon. The secret ‘Calia’ sauce turned out to be soy tinged with what I guessed to be mirin and sugar – subtle enough to bring the flavours of the salmon to the fore, but without overwhelming it. This was an A+ dish.
Beer Jenga Master ordered the Ochazuke Salmon bowl, which featured grilled Tasmanian salmon with a light dashi tea broth. This dish came with a side of theatrics; the waitstaff poured tea into Beer Jenga Master’s bowl with a flourish to create a broth-filled rice dish. The teapot was left on the table for Beer Jenga Master to periodically replenish her dish with, which she happily did. This bowl was refreshing yet comforting – another A+ experience.
Interestingly, I’ve read that this dish is intended as a quick meal or supper, as opposed to a proper mealtime dish, due to its lightness and seems to be the Japanese equivalent of bubble and squeak in that you craft it out of ingredients you’re likely to have in your pantry.
Ambivalent Egg feels indifferently about eggs at the best of times, but was the only one among us to order a dish with an onsen egg – the Marbled Sukiyaki Bowl. It didn’t detract from her enjoyment of the dish, with the runny egg coating the thinly sliced wagyu, the result of which was a rich and filling meal.
Most of the reviews I read of Calia revolved around how the serving sizes were small and despite being satisfied, I wasn’t ready to stop. Having resisted the Japanese specialty drinks and the umami fries, I’d exhausted my reserves of willpower, which is how I came to end this meal with three bloats instead of the intended zero.
Knowing fully well I was hurtling towards a bad bloat situation, I sweetly requested a dessert menu off the waitstaff despite knowing I couldn’t eat anything on it. Beer Jenga Master and Ambivalent Egg obliged and said they’d share a dessert with me, so we chose the miso cheesecake (other options were a mascarpone-matcha cream tiramisu [!!] and a chocolate lava cake with warm matcha ganache oozing out [!!!]). The miso cheesecake was very much worth the bloat – rich and velvety without being cloying, the cheesecake had a crust embedded with popping candy, making for an entertaining time in my mouth.
I had a great meal at Calia – I wouldn’t call it cheap, but the selection of speciality drinks and desserts as well as the range of rice bowls were unlike what you’d find in a stock standard Japanese restaurant. I’ll be back to try the umami fries, the hōjicha iced latte and that chocolate matcha lava cake.
Calia is open from 10am to 7pm Saturday to Wednesday and from 10am to 9pm Thursday to Friday.