Robata Japanese Grill marries two of Melbourne’s great culinary loves – Japanese food and the char of a grill – in a funky space which successfully manages to evoke some of the magic of a Toyko izakaya.
Location: 2 Exhibition St, Melbourne, VIC 3000 Ph: (03) 9989 3575
The concrete-walled, high-ceiled dining space within 2 Exhibition Street has had some interesting incarnations. Not so long ago it housed Gazi and hundreds of terracotta pots dangled overhead whilst customers ate Greek-leaning dishes.
Now, it’s home to Robata Melbourne and once again the ceiling is the most striking feature when you enter the restaurant. Only this time, it’s hung with boxy illuminated signs evocative of Tokyo nightlife.
For more of the Best Japanese Restaurants in Melbourne, see here.
Interestingly, Robata is part of the San Telmo Group. Other eateries in the stable include Asado, Pastuso, Palermo and San Telmo itself – which all share a South American influence. So at first glance, the connection to a Japanese izakaya-style establishment seems a little strange. However, what all of the venues have in common is a focus flames and cooking on a grill.
In fact, the name Robata comes from an abbreviation of robatayaki which is a Japanese take on charcoal grilling.
So it’s no surprise that the go-to plates here are their flame-grilled skewers. The Yakitori centres on Chicken, and the Kushiyaki on everything else – think Pork Belly and Wagyu Short Rib, amongst others.
But that’s not all that this hip spot has to offer.
For delicious modern Vietnamese cuisine in a funky space, see our review of Straight Outta Saigon
Enter under the blue Robata sign facing onto Exhibition Street and you step into a futuristic place of neon lighting. The greeting area is bathed in indigos and reds. It has a honeycombed feature wall to the left with each circular cavity containing a Japanese object – from bottles of sake to a sprig of Japanese maple.
From there, you turn right into the restaurant proper. And what a contrast. Whilst the entrance is vaguely womb-like, the dining room itself is buzzing and bright. Those gorgeous windows that look out over passing pedestrians are flanked by bare concrete walls. The tables and chairs are plain, dark wood and banquettes run along one side, behind low timber screens.
But the real design statement comes from the multitude of square and rectangular signs suspended from the ceiling.
Cultural touchstones such as SEGA, Atari and Tyrell hang side-by-side with local train station signs. The lettering is an eye-catching mix of English alphabet and Japanese characters. It’s reminiscent of the nightlife districts of Shinjuku and Roppongi in Tokyo. And it’s really rather cool.
The other standout feature of Robata Japanese Grill is the open kitchen. The prime seats in the restaurant are arguably those at the kitchen bar, directly facing the fire and smoke cooking action. It’s Japanese hibachi cooking on steroids. What’s more, it’s a great place to sit with a drink and a plate of nibbles and watch the drama of dinner orders coming together.
If you’re planning a trip to Daylesford and love Japanese fine dining, then read our review of Kadota Restaurant
The a la carte menu roams naturally from Small plates to Sashimi & Sushi, through to Yakitori & Kushiyaki and then Larger portions of protein (including Steaks), Sides and finally Desserts. This approach makes it easy to grab a couple of dishes if you’re not too hungry, or to commit to something from each section if you are.
However, Robata have also, kindly, put together a number of Set Menus which really make the most of the sharing nature of the food.
Currently, there are 3 Set Menus available at Robata, plus a Feed Me Chef’s Selection which changes on a daily basis.
The Robata ($80 pp) opens with Pickles & Edamame and moves into Seared Salmon & Japanese Mustard Miso followed by Yakitori. Then there’s a Black Opal Wagyu Flank, plus Sides. Dessert is an Asian-inspired Parfait.
The Sequel ($110 pp) builds on the previous menu with a Platter of Assorted Market Sashimi & Nigiri, a better cut of Wagyu and extra Sides, amongst other things.
The Director’s Cut ($150 pp) this is everything that came before, plus all the bells and whistles. Those whistles include Grilled Australian King Prawn with a Lemon Butter Ponzu.
On our visit, we went with the Chef’s Selection at $75 pp
We began with Pickles and Scorched Edamame and then had a light, zingy Salmon and Kingfish Ceviche with Tomatoes and Fresh Edamame.
The next course involved a little bit of participation on our part. It was a do-it-yourself Salmon, Avocado & Cucumber Nori Hand Roll – the salmon chopped and mildly spiced. Our server advised that we start at the more filled end of the nori sheet and rolled our cylinder as tight as we wished. The rolls came paired with Pickled Ginger and were both fun and delicious.
The fish entree completed, it was on to the famous grilled skewers.
A plate arrived with fat, bulbous Chicken Meatball Yakitori and flame-licked Thigh chunks. They were both appealingly scorched and packed with flavour. On the side sat a cured Egg Yolk island in a pond of salty sweet Tare sauce. You mix the globe of gooey egg through the soy mixture and then bathe your meatball skewer in the delicious concoction. The result is a perfect marriage of meaty umami and sticky goodness.
After that, we faced the final savoury course. We’d negotiated 2 dishes, just for a contrast. One was the Wagyu Flank with Shio Koji & Karashi Mustard which as charred, juicy and well-rested. The second was a truly special hunk of swordfish. The fish flesh was meltingly soft and yet carried a hint of smoke. It was divine.
For dessert, we had the Black Sesame & Green Tea Parfait. Generally, the sight of a green tea based pudding leaves me more ambivalent than thrilled. However, the parfait at Robata Melbourne proved to be an exception.
The ice cream was super creamy and pleasingly sweet, whilst the black sesame cut the richness with a blunt earthiness.
All up, it was a well-considered meal with all the dishes working harmoniously together. That said, it wasn’t the most generous of Feed Me menus that we’ve eaten in recent months. None of us were starving and we ate everything. If the menfolk in our party had been hungry, it might not have been enough.
As I said previously, there’s a pretty cool bar at Robata where you could happily pass an hour watching the chef tame the flames in the kitchen.
Although we sat in a booth, we felt inspired to try a cocktail or 2 and sampled the Sakura ($19) and the Kara-garita ($22). The Sakura – 42 Below Vodka, Sake, Sour Cranberry & Cherry Blossom was light, fruity and very drinkable. In comparison, the Kara-garita with its Charred Chillies, Tequila, Umeshu, Citrus and Shichimi Salt was a fiery wallop around the chops.
If cocktails aren’t your thing, Robata also have an Aussie focused Wine List and Sake, Shochu & Japanese Liqueurs, along with Beers and Soft Drinks.
Why not spend the evening hanging out with the beautiful people on the Rooftop at QT, sipping iced drinks?
All in all, Robata Japanese Bar & Grill is a funky dining space serving an interesting spin on Japanese fare.
Dishes hit the table perfectly cooked on that tough-to-master grill and the char makes everything – from Soy Beans to Swordfish – taste fabulous.
Whilst we’ve eaten bigger Set Menus at a similar price point, the service was excellent and the unique Tokyo-centric vibe makes this Asian eatery a little different from it’s rivals.
Following on from the love shown for their previous event, Robata are planning another Nikkei Nights.
What is Nikkei Nights? Well, way back in the 19th, Japanese immigrants landed in Peru. And one of the most exciting things to come out of this was a blending of the culinary heritage of Japan and Peru.
This year, the team from Robata are heading over to their Peruvian-hearted sibling venue Pastuso for an evening of innovative cuisine that you’ll want to be a part of.
The event is scheduled for Wednesday August 16 and you can find out more about it by clicking on this link.