Level 3, Melbourne Central Shopping Centre
Cnr Swanston and LaTrobe Sts
Melbourne VIC 3000
+ 61 3 9663 1940
My least favourite dining format, apart from all-you-can-eat buffets and brash fast food outlets, is the sushi train restaurant. Like a lot of my friends, I have never had a positive experience in a sushi train restaurant. It goes without saying that Melbourne’s sushi train restaurants serve pretty average food and given that all those little dishes add up to an astronomical sum on the final bill, sushi train dining is not the most economical dining option if one feels like Japanese food. So when Shirley, a Japanese food nymphomaniac, suggested going to Tomodachi, a sushi train restaurant in Melbourne Central, for our next dinner she was met with reluctance. “Oh, but everyone says it’s crap… sushi train restaurants suck… this place is run by Koreans from Sydney and what would they know about Japanese food… this place doesn’t have an Entertainment Book coupon anymore,” I protested, hoping that she’d change her mind. “No, but you HAVE to try the salmon and enoki roll,” she insisted before bestowing various superlatives on this illustrious sushi roll. Sold.
Sharing the same floor as Cho Gao and Hoyts cinema, Tomodachi is a convenient place to have a pre-drinks or pre-movie nibble. One can sit on a bar stool and pick whatever dish takes their fancy as they churn past, or they can sit in a comfortable booth away from the train. In this instance, we decided to sit in a booth and order from the a la carte menu because the better dishes (such as the salmon and enoki roll) were apparently found in the a la carte menu.
Just because we sat in a booth and ordered off the a la carte menu, we were not prevented from jumping up and grabbing dishes from the sushi train. While other sushi train restaurants colour-code their plates and set prices for each colour, Tomodachi is giving all colours a Fair Go by charging $3.50 for every single plate that rolls out of the train. Not bad, you say. But when you bite into the extremely rubbery grilled unagi, a seaweed inari that fall apart after one gentle prod of the chopstick and a drier-than-morning breath fried prawn nigiri, you can’t help but think, ‘No wonder why people are quick to diss this place!’
Then came the agedashi tofu ($8.90), lightly coated in potato starch before being fried and served in a dashi broth. I liked the way they cut the silken tofu pieces up into manageable bits, but not the way the way-too-salty dashi broth overpowered the delicate tofu.
The takoyaki ($7.80 for 1/2 a dozen) were surprisingly good. They were well-formed crispy balls with the right amount of octopus in each one. Also, props for the generous lashings of mayo and tonkatsu sauce as most restaurants do not put enough, in my humble opinion.
The most disappointing dish from the a la carte menu was the beef tataki ($13.80). The cuts were too thick and too thick thanks to being overcooked on the grill. The lemon ponzu dressing not only failed to bring out the flavours of the beef (hmmm, it probably didn’t help that it had no flavour in it…) but tasted more like potent lemon warhead than sweet and vivacious Liz Lemon.
At this stage, I had not yet been won over by Tomodachi. Apart from the takoyaki, none of the dishes were worth going back for. I was about to throw in my towel but then the salmon and enoki roll ($17.80) came and boy, did it look spectacular. The roll could be best described as a basterdised, inside-out sushi roll featuring a very liberal use of mayo and the deep-fried battered enoki mushrooms on the inside was more likely than not to frighten Japanese food purists. Strangely enough, it worked. This is obviously not the healthiest sushi dish on the planet but one single piece had a wonderful array of bold flavours and contrasting textures that made me go ‘ZIIINGGGGG!’
Our last dish was the tempura lobster salad roll ($16.80) which wasn’t too bad, but not as awesome as the above dish. While I could not fault the lovely lobster filling and the crispy tempura coating, the fact that they stuck a raw bean in the filling annoyed me. Ditto the kecap manis-like sauce which I felt did not work with the flavours of the lobster roll.
Tomodachi reinforced my belief that anything that comes from a sushi train sucks (in Melbourne, at least). If I had chosen to sit by the train and ate only the dishes that arrived on a round coloured plate, I would have walked out of there unhappy. Thank goodness, then, for the few a la carte dishes that made me more inclined to return to Tomodachi. Sure, the a la carte menu had more misses than Tommy Lee and sure, most of the food can hardly be considered ‘authentic’ Japanese but when you have something that tastes as sickeningly good as that salmon and enoki roll and when you have takoyaki that is better than the place that claims to have the best takoyaki in Melbourne, you know that this is a place that you can’t yet dismiss for good.