17 Liverpool Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9654 6727
Marty flew into town the other weekend and brought in all the crappy weather that southeast Queensland had been experiencing in February. Let’s all throw rocks at him.
The cold weather meant that we felt like something hearty but nothing too far from the city. I tried my hardest to convince him to try the Meatball & Wine Bar on Flinders Lane but for some reason, he thought that a plate of meatballs wasn’t going to be hearty enough for him. We both love Mess Hall and even though I was keen to try something new, he knew that he could count on that Bourke Street haunt for something satisfying – so to Mess Hall, it was.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t Mess Hall’s night. The service was slow even though they were barely half-full and every time we asked them where our food was, they kept saying, ‘Oh, it’s… coming.’ We were like, ‘Look, I don’t care if it’s coming or not – just TELL us the truth and we’ll go elsewhere if it’s not going to come in the next 10 minutes. No hard feelings, we’ll still come back because we love your oxtail ragu and polenta chips so much.’ 45 minutes later, our food did come but our dishes were too rushed, too unsatisfying… and we were left still hungry after 80-odd dollars.
Enter Shimbashi Soba & Sake Bar, virtually just across the road from Mess Hall. It is Melbourne’s newest – and probably only – soba-specialising eatery and we’re happy that it’s here. Funnily enough, I had heard about Shimbashi sometime last year and on the Gold Coast, out of all places. I had heard about some awesome soba restaurant on Chevron Island so Marty, Dom and I set out to find it one Saturday afternoon. After walking up and down Thomas Street, we eventually discovered that the owner, Yoshinori Shibazaki, had sold the business and moved back to Japan. And that was that.
Half a year chef Taka Kumayama, who once trained under Shibazaki, opened up Shimbashi Soba & Sake Bar in good ol’ Melbourne. And so us Melburnians can now rejoice…
… preferably with a couple of bottles of sake!
Shimbashi keeps things simple. The menu is predominantly soba, but Japanese classics such as sushi and sashimi make appearances. I wouldn’t have minded a nibble of those and some agedashi tofu if I hadn’t had a mediocre pizza at Mess Hall earlier on.
You know you’re at a legit soba restaurant when you can see this in a restaurant. Every morning, Kumayama makes the buckwheat noodles by hand using this stone flour mill. As a result, the soba noodles you get there have a lovely earthy taste and tastes a lot well, fresher, compared to the store-bought stuff.
Marty ordered a glass of Suntory premium malt…
… while I went all out with the umeshu (plum wine) tasting set, which came with three glasses of umeshu ($12). We chose the following flavours: original, green tea and brown sugar from a list of about five flavours. I’d have to say that the green tea one was my favourite (hey, anything green tea-flavoured gets points from me!), though I did like the fruitiness of the original one too. And while Marty liked the brown sugar one, I did find it a little bit too sweet.
We were both given complimentary seaweed salads. We had barely made a dint into them before our food arrived.
Marty ordered the seiro, aka the chilled soba with ‘tsuyu’ dipping sauce ($10). This is Marty’s favourite Japanese ‘snack’ so he attacked it with much ferocity.
Once he was done with the noodles, a waitress came around to give him a glass of warm water. He was instructed to pour the water into the remaining dipping sauce and drink the whole thing up – supposedly for good luck, although I reckon this is done to minimise wastage (something I fully endorse!). Marty was initially reluctant but after slurping the cup done, he had to concede that the mixture ‘didn’t taste bad at all.’
Meanwhile, I went ‘hot’ with my tempura soba ($18). I was given a miso-based broth with soba in it. A plate of assorted tempura was plonked on the side. My noodles were also delicious – and given how cold it was that night, I preferred mine to Marty’s. The broth was clean but full of amazing flavour that warmed my supposedly cold Taurean heart, and the earthy noodles proved to be the perfect accompaniment.
Sadly, after all that, the tempura was a bit of a letdown. The batter was soggy. Enough said. A real shame because everything else had been fantastic.
Now we were going to run off to Spring Street Grocer for dessert but Marty couldn’t resist ordering a sake pudding ($5) here. I’m a notoriously slow eater so while I was still picking at my soggy tempura prawn, Marty’s sake pudding had arrived. While I know that some people wouldn’t like the idea that one person gets served desserts while the other is still going with their main, we both appreciated the good ol’ Japanese efficiency.
As for the pudding, we both loved it. It had a silky texture all over and tasted delicate, punctuated by bits of tartness here and there. Definitely a must-try.
We were in and out in half the time it took for the chumps at Mess Hall to serve us and get our food to us. And apart from the stodgy tempura, the food was absolutely lovely too. Even though Gold Coast has better weather, it has lost yet another thing to Melbourne (lol) and for that I’m thankful. We’ll definitely be back.