4th January 2017
539 Plenty Rd
Preston, VIC 3072
I’ve heard it told that being a vegetarian in Japan is hard business, and being vegan almost impossible. As sad as that may be for some travellers, this lack of dietary flexibility is also fairly understandable. Given that Japan is comprised of thousands of mountainous islands, it is reasonable that the diet there comprises mostly of grains, meat, and seafood. In fact, one thing I noticed when I was over there was that on average, dishes with fresh veggies cost more than their meat-based counterpart! And just to top it all off, most meat-free dishes are also very likely to have some sort of seafood stock in it. In short, I hear that if you’re not at least a little lenient with your vegetarian/veganism, you’re basically stuck eating rice and pickles for your whole trip.
With all that in mind, it was no wonder that I was eager to try out Spiral Beans – a vegetarian/vegan Japanese restaurant in Preston that also caters to most food intolerances. Aside from a couple of dishes which give you the option of adding fish, pretty much everything here is vegan and gluten-free, which I have to admit is mighty impressive. They also serve a very serious selection of artisan Japanese teas, as well vegan wines. If you think this place sounds like it has something for everyone, you’d be right.
I was extremely taken with Spiral Beans from the get-go, mainly due to how much it reminded me of being in Japan. Although the space is small, it is bright, clean, and peaceful, and you get the impression that every single element of the decor was carefully considered. The restaurant also doubles as a mini art gallery, showing off some beautiful cloth prints by a local artist. (ADDIT: it has since been pointed out to me by a lovely reader that these actually aren’t by a local after all, but done by a Japanese artist by the name of Tomoko Nakada Domi Domi!) The atmosphere is so tranquil that you can almost forget that you’re in Preston, at least until someone hoons past in their scrap-heap of a car.
With such an extensive tea menu, I couldn’t pass up the Shizuoka Organic Sencha ($9), which is described as having a palate ranging from wild honey to tart white wine. Now I’m not enough of a tea connoisseur to be able to distinguish all those flavours, but the brew was incredibly aromatic, the floral notes mingling with grassy sweetness for an uplifting and refreshing drop. And the vibrant greenness of the feathery tea leaves was just a joy to behold.
The Homemade Gyoza ($12) made for a promising start. These vegan variants on the classic Japanese entree were stodgy and comforting, the chewy skins filled with a creamy vegetable centre, and dressed with sesame soy. For those of you expecting the traditional thin-skinned, meat-filled gyoza are going to be disappointed, but frankly I liked how hearty these were, and the coloured dough infused with beetroot and matcha was frankly delightful.
The Sashimi Salad of the Day ($23.5), garnished with just a few rocket leaves, was really more of a sashimi of the day. I found this dish to be less impressive; the slices of snapper were firm but not as fresh as they could be, but all in all they tasted good with the balsamic dressing, and a pinch of pickled daikon for crunch.
The 5 Element Meal Plate ($17.5) was jaw-droppingly stunning. It is essentially a bento box, but probably the most imaginative and beautifully presented one you’ll come across this side of the globe. Each box contains 5 vegetarian dishes (though you can get one of them substituted with fish – which I did), as well as a small dish of pickles. This was what was in my box (going counter-clockwise from the bottom left):
Potatoes Braised with Tomato: these hearty chunks of potato were wonderfully fluffy, and soaked up the rich, earthy tomato stew it was cooked in.
Konnyaku Fritters: I have never had konnyaku before, but this unusual yam, chopped up and seasoned simply with just a bit of a savoury sauce, made for an unbelievably moreish fritter with its earth-shattering crunch. And the best bit? Apparently this stuff is virtually calorie free (at least it was before it was fried)!
Grilled Salmon: these were some top-notch salmon fillets, grilled until they’re firm but still moist, and then dressed with a sweet yet umami sauce that reminded me of teriyaki.
House-Made Kimchi: pretty much as you’d expect, though it feels good knowing that you’re eating something that’s made with love and without preservatives.
Beetroot with Curds: once again, I think beetroot gets a bad rap thanks to the horrible canned stuff most people are familiar with. These chunks of lightly braised beetroot are delicately sweet and earthy, pairing well with the creamy dollop of curd on top.
House-Made Pickles: see the bit about the kimchi.
The portions were smaller than I had anticipated, so I topped things up with a serve of Nigiri Sushi ($12.5) on the recommendation of the lovely Yuka. I was incredibly impressed by the ‘tuna’ nigiri, which was in fact made with marinated tomato, but the vibrant colour made it look just like the real thing. The texture was also pretty spot-on, the tomato melting in the mouth like a piece of fatty, high-grade tuna. The cucumber nigiri was a refreshing contrast, the crisp julienned cucumber seasoned with a dab of tangy ume paste. It’s also worth noting that they pickle their own ginger, and the result is infinitely better than the lurid pink stuff you usually see.
The Coconut Milk Kuzu Pudding ($5.5) was a special for the day. Despite being vegan, this was as good as any milk-based dessert. The coconut milk gave it the requisite creaminess, and instead of gelatine, it was thickened with kuzu starch. To complement the pudding were purees of fresh mango and strawberry, and it was a lovely summer dessert all-round.
I couldn’t leave without trying the Green Tea Cake ($4.5) in the cabinet. This one actually tasted quite strongly of banana, with only a hint of green tea. Maybe I should’ve had the brownie instead…
I used to think that there was no way to make good Japanese food without the usage of seafood and meat, but once again, Melbourne has been clever enough to prove me wrong. Of course, I admit that I will always prefer carnivorous dishes, but I am extremely impressed by just how good all the food tasted, despite being almost fully vegan. The food is definitely on the expensive side, but given the quality of the ingredients and cooking, I think it’s justified. I might be biased because I love anything that feels authentically Japanese, but frankly, I think Spiral Beans is the Nutella in the (vegan) donut.
Rating: 15/20 – good stuff.
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit.
Sweet and Sour Fork dined as a guest of Spiral Beans.