Ichigo, Melbourne

Where: Ichigo, Shop 3/155 Franklin Street Melbourne

What: Stunning food in a stunning setting 

Who: Resident Photographer, Conflicted Pescatarian, Oxford Brosé, Indo Food Bud

Bloat score: 1 – Had to loosen my belt a notch

The gradually expanding 155 Franklin Street hub is my new go-to for good Asian food. Indonesian fusion restaurant YOI sits alongside Hong Kong cafe 852, while my perennial pan mee favourite Jojo Little Kitchen and Korean fried chicken franchise Pelicana are tucked away in the same complex. Flanking the Franklin Street edge is Japanese cafe Ichigo, where sun-filled interiors, cloud-like light fittings, earthy ceramics and marble tabletops provide the perfect backdrop for instagrammable dishes, though it’s not a case of style over substance here. Dishes as tasty as they look make up Ichigo’s menu, but be prepared to fork out a little more than you would for brunch. Uni (sea urchin) and lobster feature in several dishes, with sides of ikura (salmon caviar) and sashimi tartare supplanting your usual potato hash and wilted spinach breakfast accompaniments. 

Stalking the cafe and the photogenic people who frequented it, Resident Photographer and Indo Food Bud decided it’d be a good idea if we all showed up in beige undertones and everyone adhered to this but me – mostly because I forgot, partly because I don’t own anything beige. Thankfully my autumnal dress accidentally fit the brief and so we assumed the unenviable mantle of being people who not only take photos of our brunch, but pose for photos during brunch. 

Although Ichigo has an all-day menu, we decided to visit at midday because many of their bigger dishes felt more lunchy than your average poached eggs on toast. Before we received our meals, we got a complementary plate of yuzu jellies. Was it due to our colour-coded dressing!? We’ll never know. These were like a shot of flavour that invigorated all our senses – I am such a fan of the bright and citrusy mandarin undertones of yuzu. 

Oxford Brosé, who typically beelines for anything that has fried chicken, acted no differently this time and ordered the okonomiyaki waffle and chicken karaage ($23) that came with a fried egg, nori flakes, crispy bacon, honeyed syrup and bonito aioli. This was the most value-for-money dish on the menu – there were five huge pieces of chicken karaage which arrived on a spongy bed of okonomiyaki sculpted into a large square waffle, so much so Oxford Brosé only had two of his five fried chicken pieces.

This was an open invitation for me to try the fried chicken and it was exactly as crisp and impeccably fried as Oxford Brosé said it was. Oxford Brosé was delighted at the contrast between chicken karaage and other types of fried chicken. Double-fried in a light coating consisting of potato starch, chicken karaage has neither the grease nor the heaviness of typical fried chicken – a boon when you’re eating it as your first meal of the day. 

Conflicted Pescatarian opted for the lobster-scallop millefeuille ($27) – butter lobster with aburi hotate (seared scallops), butter millefeuille, potato terrine, a poached egg, avocado guacamole and nori flakes with yuzu aioli and yuzu kosho. This dish was artfully constructed. Millefeuille – an old-school French pastry that’s airy, crispy and flaky, and translates to mean one thousand sheets, layers or leaves – is traditionally a vanilla or custard slice. In Ichigo’s savoury version, however, the light puff pastry was layered with seared scallops, lobster and avocado guacamole instead of cream and vanilla. Meanwhile, the potato terrine was a compressed heap of Japanese potato salad.

Conflicted Pescatarian enjoyed this immensely at first – “there’s flavour and texture everywhere!” were his initial exaltations – but he eventually found the textural interplay between the cold and slippery scallops, the creamy aioli and the runny egg yolks too overwhelming. Underlining his Conflicted Pescatarian moniker, he sampled one of Oxford Brosé’s chicken karaage as a chaser to his rich meal. 

Resident Photographer adored his uni scrambled eggs ($26) – crème scrambled eggs with fresh uni, ikura, potato pressé, butter ponzo, finger lime caviar and chives. Similarly meticulous in its construction, the potato pressé was a mini tower of thinly sliced potatoes accompanied by a generous creamy knot of scrambled eggs with uni and ikura interlaced within. Utilising another French culinary technique, potato pressé features thin slices of potato being pressed into cups and baked into layered, cheesy perfection.

Resident Photographer said the entire dish was exquisite and that it tasted like walking into an aquarium (but in a good way). Uni is an acquired taste with its strong brininess and buttery texture, but Resident Photographer thoroughly enjoyed his first experience. 

Indo Food Bud went for the hitsumabushi ($27) – unagi no kabayaki (Japanese grilled eel) served atop sushi rice with a sprinkling of nori. On the side was a mini jug of dashi broth, which Indo Food Bud was advised to pour on to her grilled eel, and a ceramic condiments dish with an onsen egg, spring onion, wasabi and furikake. Indo Food Bud loved the freshness of the eel. 

Further reading revealed that though it may look like an unadon (grilled unagi on rice), hitsumabushi is a specialty dish from Nagoya eaten in a highly specific way. The dish is usually divided into quarters, with the first quarter eaten as it is, the second with assorted seasonings, and the third served like a soup with plenty of dashi stock. The fourth quarter can be enjoyed in whichever of the previous three manners you liked best. How interesting! 

I ordered the ichi-rashi – tuna sashimi, salmon sashimi, kingfish sashimi, hotate sashimi and aburi salmon belly on a furikake-seasoned sushi rice with shredded bits of tamago and avocado mousse interspersed throughout. At $33, it was the most expensive dish on the menu and I hesitated greatly before eventually deciding to go through with it for two main reasons – the first being that there is nothing better than fresh food (in this case, raw fish) for a histamine-intolerance person and the second being that I really like raw fish.

When this dish first arrived, I marvelled at how pretty it looked on the plate but was disappointed that it was rather small. Upon finishing it, however, I was left satisfied. The different types of sashimi were each incredibly fresh, and the ikura added a pleasing pop of sweetness to each bite. Besides, stealing one of Oxford Brosé’s pieces of chicken well and truly pushed me past the point of fullness. 

Resident Photographer and Indo Food Bud are both sweet tooths and between themselves and Conflicted Pescatarian, shared two cakes – the matcha pistachio jasmine cake and ichigo shortcake (Japanese strawberry shortcake). Ichigo shortcake is one of most popular and archetypal cakes in Japan, and is made of two to three layers of sponge cake, with fresh strawberry slices, whipped cream filling, and whipped cream frosting between.

Both arrived chilled. Being the sucker for matcha that I am, I sampled a bit of that cake and loved the bitter sweetness of it. Conflicted Pescatarian also preferred the heavier matcha cake but Resident Photographer and Indo Food Bud both favoured the ichigo shortcake, saying its lightness, fluffiness and airiness were more characteristic of the Japanese desserts they so enjoy.

Not wanting to miss out on desserts but not feeling up to having cake, I had the strawberry shortbread instead, which was a welcome injection of sweetness after such a savoury meal. 

Eating at Ichigo was an enjoyable, low-bloat and aesthetically pleasing experience, though one I may not repeat in a hurry due to the relatively hefty prices. At the same time, I thoroughly enjoyed everything I had, the ingredients were high-quality and fresh, and I may visit again for one of their shokupan katsu sandos or onigiris, which at their sub-$20 prices, are more in line with what I’d typically spend on brunch. 

Ichigo is open every day from 8am to 4pm. 

Author: Sonia Nair

Sonia Nair is a Melbourne-based food writer who persists with her love of everything deep fried and spicy, despite being diagnosed with a histamine intolerance and lactose intolerance after incorrectly thinking she was fructose-intolerant for several years.

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