620 Collins Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9629 3988
On a street that’s littered with dime-a-dozen bastardised Japanese kiosks that sell mediocre udon dishes and overly-vinegared sushi rolls, one can’t help but wonder why owner Peter Handras decided to open his own Japanese café on the Southern Cross end of Collins Street, Purple Peanuts. But when you walk into the former Boost Juice site, however, and take in the quirky artefacts such as memorabilia from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the little neat rows of brown rice sushi rolls and fresh salads at the counter, you know that you’re not standing at an ordinary sushi kiosk.
This place has got to be one of the coolest Japanese eateries around. Sure, Don Don on Swanston Street has its own steez going on, what with a repetitive jazz soundtrack playing as your beef sukiyaki don is being dished out while Shoya is cool in a grown-up sophisticated kind of way. I am, however, hard-pressed to find a place that’s like Purple Peanuts. Where else can you find a Japanese eatery that plays music from The Clash to Stevie Wonder while you watch a wickedly cool Japanese chef with the most amazing dreadlocks make you a prawn burger in less than one minute? Here, punters walk in and out clutching bags of not just those aforementioned burgers but also bags of fried onigiri, brown and white rice sushi rolls while many more scramble to find a seat in order to enjoy their dish – either chicken curry on rice or a Kyoto bean minestrone, a hearty soup dish that takes cues from Italy and Japan.
The first time I visited, I ordered the Gammodoki tofu vegie burger ($9), a dish that was bestowed the honour of being the best vegetarian dish of 2011 by The Age Cheap Eats Guide. I’m not usually one to order vegetarian dishes when I eat out, but I decided to give it a go. A Turkish bread roll enveloped the tofu pattie, which consisted of a lovely mixture of tofu, beans, carrot, onion, oats, egg, sake, sesame and ginger, some mixed salad greens and a generous splash of teriyaki sauce and Japanese mayonnaise. I actually had it sit in my shopping bag for at least an hour before devouring it so you’d think that the bun would turn into a soggy mess but no, the bread remained chewy, the tofu stayed crispy while the flavours worked their magic.
I also love the tsuke don ($10.90), a warm rice dish that I’ve ordered on several occasions. Traditionally comprising of huge chunks of raw tuna on top of a dome of rice, this version was slightly tweaked to make it look prettier. Instead of tuna, we got small cubes of fresh salmon sashimi marinated in mirin, sake, soy and sesame which mingled effortlessly with cubes of pickled daikon, cucumber and onions and a sprinkle of seaweed salad to counter-balance the vinegared rice. It might look like a light dish but it was surprisingly very filling (though I shouldn’t really be surprised because, well, rice equals carbs, duh) – filling enough for me to eat late in the afternoon and not have dinner afterwards. Yeah.
For something lighter, I implore you to try the prawn salad ($9.50). On a hot day, nothing beats a handful of organic soba noodles, five fresh prawns (big ones, too!), inari tofu skin strips and crispy vegies (sliced avocado, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, Spanish onion, salad greens) and shredded nori all held together seamlessly by a creamy sesame dressing, with chilli on the side for those who like it hot. Light, fresh and delicious – you’d be hard-pressed to find anything within a 50 metre radius that tastes as good as this.
I’m reluctant to made a comment about their sushi rolls, though. Yes, I’ve had them before (both the lobster roll and the teriyaki chicken roll – two of the four rolls that Shirley ordered one evening but couldn’t finish so she kindly gave them to me to take home and try), however I did not actually eat them until the very next day. As a result, the rice was dry and the lobster and chicken respectively were starting to lose their flavour. For what they’re worth, though, they weren’t too bad but I really have to come back and try them fresh before I can give a thumbs up or thumbs down. Given how much I like their other dishes, though, I can’t see myself telling you guys that you’re better off buying your sushi at one of those crappy sushi kiosks further down Collins Street. Not even if they’re cheaper than, well, peanuts.