The Chocolate Buddha at Federation Square, on the corner of Swanston and Flinders Streets in the CBD is an even more desirable eating destination during the festive season. Walking past Fed Square's magical Christmas Square put wings on my heels as I floated past joyous faces and Christmas cheer. By the time I reached Chocolate Buddha, I was walking on air, and my experience there did nothing to diminish it.
Tis the season to be going Japanese from Sun-Mon 11.30am to 9.30pm and Tue-Sat 11.30am to 10pm. Give them a call (03) 9654 5688 or make your reservation online. Keep in mind they only hold the table for 15 mins and request that you let them know if you're running late. Bookings however are not taken for the sushi train, though exceptions may be made if you give them a call. Surcharges apply on weekends (10%) and public holidays (15%).
Situated at a prominent corner as you approach Federation Square, it's not a difficult destination to find. Freshly renovated from February to September this year, it's even more spacious and airy with a view to the world outside. The windows have been pushed out to bring what was outdoor dining on one side of the restaurant; in, making room for more indoor seating. Perfect for our hot summer seasons for a more comfortable experience. A casual outdoor dining space has been maintained on the side, so you have a choice.
The choices are many. Indoors, outdoors, sushi 'bullet train' experience, communal dining, private dining booths or a singular window seat at the corner-most part of the restaurant, so you can watch the world go by, and there's always a lot of world going by at Fed Sq.
The epic collaboration yet again between well known, award-wining Maddison Architects (Peter Maddison - host of Grand Designs Australia) and restaurateur Angela Mathioudakis who has been running Chocolate Buddha since 2003 has resulted in this new fit out (see link for amazing full restaurant images) that looks fresh, but with a softer expression in soft blues, a natural palette of hardwood, timber panels and handmade Japanese tiles reflecting a modern Japanese feel.
Looking head-on from the front end, and at eye level, the all new stainless steel sushi train looks like the head of a train and holds center stage between the private booths and communal dining areas. Atop the sushi train is the additional Shinkansen like bullet train (essentially making it two sushi trains in one) that races over your individual orders like a speeding bullet and magically stops right at your seat for you to pluck off its roof.
Each seat is numbered, so when you're ordering outside what's on offer (such as your hot foods like tempura and so on) on the conveyor belt that floats past with a variety of Japanese tapas on this high tech sushi train, your order knows exactly when to dismount. The touch screen on the mini-tablet is user friendly and gives you a running count of all you've ordered and the amount of your bill, so you know exactly what delights to look forward to and what you're up for at the end of the day.
A lot of thought and planning has gone into this refurbishment to give you a great culinary and aesthetic experience. Angela Mathioudakis is a dab hand at what she does successfully and has years of experience behind her, having run a number of other restaurants with her brother Paul Mathis, another renown restaurateur; including Taxi, Transport & Transit, Automatic, Joe's Garage, Blue Train Café and Cerabona's, with Maddison Architects associated with most of the projects.
There's a lot to choose from the menu and on the tablet along with vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and kid's options. Sides include rice, miso soup, side salad and Goma-Ae, a blanched kai-lan (Chinese broccoli) with a Japanese house-made mustard sauce and sesame seeds. Salads can be ordered as a main or to share, though you might want to keep it all to yourself with delicious offerings like Green Tea Soba Salad, Tofu and Mango Salad, Crab Meat Potato Salad and Tempura Soft Shell Crab Noodle Salad. This is definitely a restaurant to bring your appetite to.
Brunch Trays are on offer from 11.30am to 3pm and perfect for popping in during your lunch break. They're served with a mixed leaf salad, goma-ae, avocado hosomaki, miso soup and steamed white or brown rice. Your choices include a Pork Curry, Tofu Katsu Curry, Salmon Teriyaki, Chicken Teriyaki, Green Tea Soba Noodles and an Ankaka Tray which is deep fried eggplant and zucchini in shitake mushroom, and ginger ankake sauce.
Your sushi choices include some of the usual suspects and the latest creation by sushi chef Angelito Bautista (formerly of Ichi Ni Nana and Nobu) called Buddha's Fire. It's an inside out roll with kingfish, asparagus, glazed and seared with a special spicy scallop sauce topped with spring onion and togarashi, a spicy Japanese seasoning.
With an expansive menu divided into sushi, izakaya, donburi and ramen, you'll still find some of the food on offer from the old menu, with new additions to tempt your palate.
The familiar Ramen and Soba meals perfect for that warm, satisfying feel in the belly with slow cooked rolled pork belly in a pork broth, marinated egg, bok choy, bean shoots, beni shoga shichimi, spring onion and nori are available along with Pork Katsu Ramen, Shake Ramen (salmon served medium rare in a veggie or pork broth), Green Tea Tempura Soba Noodles (for that vegan option) and Ramen Noodle Okonomiyaki.
Your Izakya has some exciting choices like Black Cod Moromisoyaki, which is chargrilled marinated black cod topped with moromi miso, and the Spicy Lamb Misoyaki served medium rare consists of chargrilled marinated lamb cutlet marinated with saikyo miso. The Don! Vegetable Curry, Teriyaki Chicken Don, Steak Don and Sashimi Don are in the house!
Asian restaurants are not big on desserts, however, here you have a choice of White and Dark Chocolate Spring Rolls, a Trio of Ice-Creams, Choya Apple Crumble, Chocolate peanut Butter Mud Cake, Black Forest Tartufo, Yuzu Baked Cheese Cake, and Caramel Chocolate Mousse. If you'd like to pair your food with drinks, there's also a wide variety on offer, and where would a Japanese restaurant be, without a bit of Sake.
Dining on my own, I opted to try the bullet train. I managed to grab a taste of the Mixed Seafood Ceviche which will no longer be on the menu. Aside from great food, a restaurant is only as good as its staff, and they were friendly, fast, and attentive.
The last of the Mixed Seafood Ceveche (no longer on the menu)
A lover of soft shell crab, I had two servings with Soft Shell Crab in a Roll and a Soft Shell Crab Tempura. No regrets there, with the tempura arriving HOT, light and crispy on the Shinkansen. It's a good thing the tablet keeps a list of all you've ordered as in a sushi train experience you could end up with ordering quite a few choices and not quite remember what all you've ordered.
The Salmon Belly was plump and melt in the mouth delicious. No regrets there. I had to hold back as I wanted to try two different desserts. The Black Coconut Ice Cream intrigued me, and I wanted to be sure I tried something that connoted a Japanese influenced dessert like the Yuzu Cheesecake.
Desserts arriving on the bullet train above while the conveyor belt offerings below continue its circular journey
What is Black Ice Cream? It's made by mixing charcoal with ice cream. The charcoal is made from the charred remains of a coconut shell (black coconut ash) which generally has been mixed with coconut flakes, coconut milk and coconut cream. Asian desserts are generally not very sweet, much like the Japanese (confections) Wagashi, hence the black ice cream may be a bit of an acquired taste. However, if you've tried and love the unusual taste of matcha ice cream and red bean ice cream, you're in good company with the Black Ice Cream.
I was told by the Restaurant Manager Janine that the Yuzu Cheesecake is a firm favourite and has been on the menu forever as she put it. It's no surprise as it's quite delicious and as a cheese cake lover, you might find the contemporary twist delightful. Those shards of peel just made it pop.
With the festive season upon us and a sharing menu designed for parties of 10 or more, Chocolate Buddha would make a perfect end of year work place party, or pre-Christmas get together for family and friends who may be doing their own thing and unable to catch up on Christmas day. Whatever the reasons, seasons and excuses you can muster up; use it, and enjoy beautiful food in an amazing setting with the added bonus of walking through Christmas Square for some holiday selfies and family pics with the resident Santa on-site during this festive period.