An aria of an eatery

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Iori Japanese has been tucked behind a modest facade in East Row in the city for 11 years now, a few doors down from the best French pastry shop in town, Croissant D'or. Nearby is sister restaurant Coo and just around the corner another hidden Japanese gem, Tasuke. The less-than-glamourous, but increasingly bustling spot known as the bus interchange, has become quite an eating hot spot.

There is none of the gleaming glassware and starched tablecloths of West Row, just good, unassuming eateries, doing what they do very well, and Canberrans have caught on.

On a cold early week night the place is buzzing by 6.30pm, and full by 7pm, many customers clearly familiar with the menu and staff. The kitchen is mostly visible, if you are down the back, and staff are prompt and attentive. Menu advice is readily given.

One side of Iori is lined with a long, shared, sunken table which is crammed with people, clearly enjoying the meal and surroundings, as well as the surprising intimacy of sitting a little lower than usual with shoes off.

The rest of the tables fill the small space, but are well-spaced enough for easy movement.

At first look, the extremely long menu can be be bewildering. Some pun-heavy menu descriptions, Bara Aria (barramundi sashimi) have some connection to the food they contain, others are an altogether more eclectic affair - Torch Bearer is a degustation dessert.


But after a bit of reading - and perhaps a ''Tsunami'' (sparkling lychee and muscat sake drink, $7) - the menu becomes clear.

Many of the old favourites are here, and much more besides, plus a good number of large shared plates if you would like the chef to do the thinking for you.

Bara Aria ($25) is labelled a menu favourite - and it is clear why. The almost paper-thin slices of jumping fresh barramundi are arranged on ice, with some crusted with crunchy, salty fish eggs. Served with a slightly creamy wasabi, this dish is the best of the night, and a textural and flavour triumph.

Combination sushi and sashimi ($34) is a beautiful dish, that would make a good, light meal. Wafer thin slices of octopus are clean tasting, with a lovely just resistant texture. Salmon and tuna are both fresh and well prepared, with the lovely textural cleanness of good raw fish.

Large bowls of miso soup ($2.50 each) wash down the food with the usual warming, slightly salty whoosh. Teriyaki pork ($30) is a singular dish, really good slices of fillet, cooked just tender, in a not-too-sweet soy-based sauce. Vegetable tempura ($22) is a nice array of thinly sliced offerings, including pumpkin and eggplant. Dipped into the light sauce, it a pleasant dish, but not as good as what has gone before.

On the monthly specials list is an intriguing rice dish, age mochi ($12), deep-fried sticky rice, with soy and nori. The rice pieces are slightly crisp on the outside, and smooth inside with a kind of mild resistance to the bite that is rather good. This is the kind of dish that divides people, a simply flavoured rice concoction, with a texture like that of Chinese glutinous rice balls (usually sweet), you'll either like it or not understand the attraction at all.

The drinks list has seven sakes and a good range of beer. More than 30 Australian wines are on offer, with an oddly large number of heavy reds that would all-but obliterate most of the food. The rose´ from Delatite ($28) would be a good choice. We bought our own sparkling burgundy, and enjoyed Cascade beer off the list.

Dessert is a major feature at Iori. We choose Patisse of Torch Bearer ($19) a generous selection of many of the desserts,with a scoop each of green tea, red bean and black-sesame ice-cream ($10).

The combination dessert is a standout, and great value. There has been a mostly ghastly fashion for spring rolls filled with chocolate in recent years - and the deep-fried crepe filled with red bean and fruits looks frighteningly similar, except that it's great. At Iori, they know how to do a fried sweet treat. The wrapping is crisp and warm, without a trace of oil, filled with a lovely medium sweet red bean and slices of warm strawberry.

The glutinous rice - age - features again, but sweet this time, with red bean and strawberry inside, a great combination. Black sesame ice-cream comes encased in green tea yukimi daifuku, a sort of firm, mildly sweet wrapping, that adds another layer to the great ice-cream.

If you haven't tried Japanese ice-cream before you must. Much less sweet than other varieties, the green tea has a lovely acerbic edge, red bean crumbles with substance and sweetness, and black sesame is just delicious.

Iori is a place with real personality, warmth and great food. It is the kind of restaurant regulars would rather keep to themselves. More than a decade on is way too late for that, but many feel as though Iori is their own personal discovery.

Iori Japanese

Address: 41 East Row, city

Phone: 6257 2334

Website: iori.com.au

Owner: Mamoru Aizawa

Chef: Freddy Ng

Hours: Lunch: Monday-Friday noon-2pm, dinner Monday-Saturday from 6pm

Licensed: Yes, plus BYO, corkage $10 a bottle

Vegetarian: A good range

To pay: Visa, American Express, Mastercard, Eftpos

Wheelchair access: Yes, and also to toilets

Seats: 50

Food 3/4

Wine list 2/4

Style 2/4

Value for money 3/4

Servic 2/4

Summary: Iori is a bustling, eclectic Japanese restaurant, with a lovely feel and great food.

Score 15/20  

11 something went wrong. 12 not so great tonight. 13 fine for a cheap and cheerful, not so for a place that aspires to the top end. 14 good. 15 really good. 16 great, when can we move in. 17-20 brilliant. The stars are a quick reference to the key highs or lows. They do not relate directly to the score out of 20.

Catriona Jackson is director of communications and external liaison at the Australian National University and a food writer.