Small serves, artful presentation and the nostalgic joy of being served by a model train means you can have your salmon and eat your octopus too. So grab trackside seats and watch the dishes roll by.
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The best sushi trains in Melbourne
Why is it that Melbourne’s sushi train restaurants are characterised by either run-off-the-mill food or uninspired locales (read: shopping centres)? Brace yourselves Japanophiles: Ganbare Kaz on the Windsor end of Chapel Street is set to become your new destination for creative, top-shelf sushi, with low prices and a fitout that will impress the fussiest of hipsters. No matter where you plonk down along the large bar that curves around the sushi train, you’ll have a good view of the chefs flexing their impressive knife skills. Pricing is based on the failsafe colour-coded plate system: $3.50 for white, $4.50 for black, $5.50 for blue and $6.50 for beige. An iPad at each table is used to order drinks and hot food (think izakaya mainstays like gyoza and octopus takoyaki), or a particular kind of sushi that hasn’t yet docked at your station. The plates are your first clue that these guys are detail-orientated. Instead of cheap plastic, here they use polished, hand-painted ceramic versions to hold your makis, nigiris, aburi and gunkans. They also embrace the garnish, with each piece decorated with herbs, flowers or a smattering of seeds to add colour, flavour or texture. With so many plates whizzing past, how does one choose? Be led by your stomach – it’s all pretty good.
Sakura Kaiten Sushi strives to be as recognisable as the cherry blossom for which it is named. The restaurant is low lit, with the white cherry blossom designs against the shiny black walls giving the venue a sleek modern vibe. The space is narrow and almost all of the seating puts you right where you want to be: in front of the sushi train. Any seat gives you a clear view of the kitchen, where you can watch the chefs deftly cut and assemble each dish before placing it on a carriage plate, denoting price bracket in the age-old system of colour coding – at the base end it’s $2.80 for orange and $6.80 for the deluxe red plates. Expect high-quality versions of the classics: the mixed sashimi plate comes with salmon, tuna and kingfish; and the grilled snapper with basil nigiri is a standout for it’s combination of soft fish and tangy seasoning. For the more adventurous, the salmon with sea urchin roll is a mouthful of aquatic luxury, with the intense sea urchin flavour balanced by the cool texture of the salmon. If you’re craving something in particular and are just too impatient to wait for it to appear, you can order extras and hot food via an iPad and have it delivered by express train. It’s also a great place to take those unfamiliar with sushi trains, as each dish is preceded by a handy label, so you know exactly what you’re eating.
There’s nothing better than a train ride with a view, and that goes for sushi trains too. Located on the fourth floor of the Emporium, Tetsujin’s big floor to ceiling windows overlook Caledonian lane, providing a fresh perspective onto some of the city’s laneways. The décor is light and white, with tiled walls and bright train handles adorning the train in the middle of the restaurant. The tracks enclose a cluster of chefs, all working to keep it fully stocked with fresh dishes, removing anything that has had too many rides. There aren’t any surprises on the train or on the iPads from which you can order extras and drinks. Instead, Tetsujin focuses on doing simplicity well. The spicy salmon is dusted with chilli flakes; and the octopus inari sees creamy octopus salad wrapped in sweet bean curd, making for a delicious, if somewhat messy mouthful. Almost all the plates are $3.90, though the sashimi selection is a slightly pricier $8.50. Tetsujin isn’t just a sushi train – it’s also a bar and Japanese barbecue. The bar component means that Tetsujin’s cocktail menu is impressive and inventive. Go for the Mt Fuji Fury, a refreshing mix of grapefruit, orange juice and Nikka whisky.
The first thing you notice about Sakura Kaiten Sushi’s younger, wilder sibling, Sakura Kaiten Sushi II, is the selection of Dragon Ball Z stickers and figurines by the front door. This pocket of pop culture sets the tone for the rest of the venue. Like its counterpart on Little Collins Street, the Lonsdale Street restaurant’s prices are organised by plate colour, there are iPads for ordering, and an express delivery system. Unlike it’s older sibling, the express train is actually a red double-decker bus. The food is bolder too, including fluke fin, muscle and geoduck, a kind of saltwater clam that you should definitely not Google image search before eating. The steamed scallop sushi is a tasty twist on a sushi train mainstay, adding a new texture to the creamy meat. The range seems endless, and there’s never a gap on the train. The food is accompanied by a soundtrack of upbeat jazz and friendly waitstaff. Prices range between $2.80 and $6.80, and for dessert, look out for the green tea mochi ice cream, a glutinous rice cake with matcha flavoured ice cream at its core.
Sushi Hotaru Up the escalators in MidCity Centre is Sushi Hotaru, a not-so-well-kept Melbourne secret for sushi lovers on a budget. There’s almost always a line, but it moves quickly; the average wait time is about 20 minutes. Once you get inside, it’s clear why. The plates are cheap ($3.30 and $8.50 for the deluxe dishes), the service is efficient, and the sushi is ready to eat. The chefs work quickly, sometimes too quickly, so there’s a visible stack of dishes ready for the train. You’re not here for the decor – the focus here is definitely the food – but the friendly waitstaff and noisy patrons make for a buzzing atmosphere. The seared wagyu beef is layered between cheese and onion, like a bitesize barbecue on rice. The soft-shell crab is a must-try, as is the grilled eel and cream cheese sushi. It sounds odd to those who haven’t tried it yet and mouth-watering to those who have – the saltiness of the eel and the sweetness of the cheese melt together in perfect harmony.
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