On a cold wintery Tuesday night, Akiba is not only busy, but bustling. Waitstaff stride through the dining room at pace, carrying steamer baskets laden with dumplings from the kitchen to hungry diners.
Just inside the entry, the brass plaque at our feet tells us that it's winter, or perhaps signals the winter menu. Either way it's a nice reminder that Akiba, and its food, changes with the seasons.
Although a few years old, Akiba's fit out still looks modern and up to date. Bright neon lights and lightboxes with street scenes from Japan grace the walls. The open kitchen is a central feature, with a raw bar where whole fish and rock oysters sit over ice.
It's hard to pass up ordering from the raw bar with the feature being such a predominant presence in the dining room. The tuna tartare with ginger ponzu, jalapeno mayo and nori salt ($16) is a simple dish, well-executed. Fresh fish and creamy mayo are a winning combination, and the gentle chilli kick from the jalapeno ties it all together. Fried prawn crackers add crunch; and they're the perfect vessel with which to scoop up the tuna.
Inside, all seating is at high tables with stools. Even with footrests, it's not particularly comfortable for a multi-course meal. There is, of course, the outside option of bench seating - it's a little less warm but protected from the winter chill in a sort of makeshift greenhouse.
The aim is not to linger here - the high chairs are awkward and we're seated so close to other diners that we can hear all about the university courses they're doing, and that their friend Katie is in medical school now and yes, she's fine - thanks for asking.
Nonetheless, there's a lot to like about this sensory overload way of Asian street dining, and Akiba has kept up the street food vibes by having waiters wander the dining room with pre-made nightly specials on trays. It's rather fun and creates an atmosphere similar to being at a yum cha restaurant.
Like Asian dining, the menu is share-plate style, and divided into five sections. It's not particularly clear how big dishes are, or how many to order but our waiter is helpful in this regard.
For a place that has Asian street food vibes, the dumplings are quite ordinary. Maybe it's the expectation that comes when a menu item is listed as "people's choice dumpling winner" that sets a high bar, after all Canberra has really upped its dumpling game of late - at least in my opinion.
The vegan laksa soup dumplings ($11 for four pieces) are neither flavourful enough to be exciting, nor soupy enough to be considered a soup dumpling. To be fair, it's no easy feat to try to create a vegan soup dumpling - traditionally, soup dumplings or xiao long bao are made by encasing a filling that includes meat stock set with gelatine. When steamed, the gelatine melts creating the soup filling inside the dumpling. Obviously, being vegan, gelatine is a no-no - and while it's great to see this sort of inventiveness on a menu, if you're a regular carnivore, these vegan soup dumplings are nothing to write home about.
The Peking duck soup dumplings with five spice and hoisin ($14 for six pieces) sound like everything I want in a dumpling, but again, are disappointing. They're not soupy, and the dumpling lacks discernible flavour, whether of duck, hoisin or five spice.
Fortunately, the mains fare much better. The beef short rib ($24) is tender and pink throughout, perfectly cooked, its rich meatiness cut with a tamarind caramel broth. Asian herbs add freshness and contrast, making this one of the better versions of slow-braised beef around.
Cone bay barramundi ($30) is great too. Served with a crisp skin and miso lemon butter, pickled enoki and fried capers, it's a clever balance of flavours and textures, brought together with a foundation of excellent technique.
There are three solid dessert options here, and while I'm intrigued by the thought of tofu cheesecake, my choice is made easier by the fact my dining partner politely vetoes this option. We opt for the Valrhona chocolate and miso salted caramel dome with luxe gold ($14) instead. My favourite desserts tend to feature a generous pinch of salt, and this one with its salty sweet miso caramel and dark chocolate ganache makes for a good end to a meal.
The wine list is well-curated and Australian focused. In particular, "Akiba's pick" is excellent - the Mallaluka Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec's ($11 a glass, $50 a bottle) spice notes and light tannins pair well with lots on the menu. There are beers and wines to choose from too, plus Akiba also lays claims to Australia's largest sake list - ask for the giant tome if you're a sake connoisseur.
There's no doubt that Akiba is good at what it does. Walking into its packed dining room is enough to let you know that almost five years on, this restaurant remains a Canberra favourite. But with several other modern Asian restaurants entering the dining scene in recent years, the question is whether Akiba will continue to hold its own in this particular niche.
Address: 40 Bunda St, City
Owners: Michael Harrington and Peter Harrington
Chef: Jake Horyna
Hours: Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11.30am-3pm; Yum Cha: Saturday, Sunday, 11.30am-3pm; Dinner: Seven days, 5.30-10.30pm; Bar: Sunday to Wednesday 10.30pm-midnight, Thursday to Saturday 10.30pm-2am.
Wheelchair access: Yes
Vegetarian: Some good options
Noise: Loud - both music and other diner's conversations.