Ichi Ni Nana is a new Japanese restaurant inside the Old Colonial Inn redevelopment on the southern end of Brunswick St. Upstairs is cohabitant Village People, a Thai / fusion hawker style restaurant, and above that is a large bar space. The inside of the pub has been completely transformed and it is highly impressive, colourful and fascinating to witness on your first visit. I went for lunch last Saturday with a friend, when it had been open for just over a week. It wasn’t busy.
Evidently a lot of money has been spent on the development and this is reflected in the prices. Both restaurants are expensive in relation to places offering comparable food. What would you pay for a popular dish like char kway teow at somewhere cheap and cheerful – $12? Here (as I recall from a quick view of the Village People menu) it’s $20. To me that’s more than posh markup. It’s posh markup and fuck you ignorant tourists Southbank markup combined. The tap beers are expensive too. There’s much to grumble about.
But onto the food, which is very good. We ordered mainly from the small shared plate section of the menu: seaweed salad (below, a tiny serve for $9); tuna tataki (delicious, about $22); char shu pork (above, beautifully presented with wide charred baby onion rings and nasturtium leaves, also about $22); and prawn gyoza (4 for about $14). Everything was smaller than you’d expect for the price.
These left us still hungry so we then ordered whitebait (outstanding and a good sized serve for about $12) and agedashi tofu (5 pieces of silken tofu for $12) which was inexplicably large and covered in a mountain of enoki and slices of garlic chives or a similar green tubular vegetable. Given the pricing and proportions of all the other dishes, this was a welcome though implausible anomaly. Apart from the inconsistent pricing and sizing of these dishes, I have no complaints, and I think there’s sufficient variety to satisfy vegetarians. The quality of the food is impressive, and the staff were very friendly and attentive.
Like Transformer (the previous most recent significant restaurant development in Fitzroy, which I still haven’t visited) Ichi Ni Nana and Village People have a terrible single page pointless website with no menus, so I can’t verify the prices. I wonder whether some people will wear these prices, or read the menus and walk out. They seem to have been given no budget for online marketing, but the architects and interior designers have apparently been well paid (which is not entirely deserved).
Whoever chose the chairs should be ashamed of themselves. The chairs in Ichi Ni Nana are the most diabolically uncomfortable things ever labeled chairs. The wooden frame is of a standard height but the thick leather covered cushion part on top makes the seating position unusually high, so even relatively tall people find their feet barely touching the floor.
A solid panel stretches across the space between the front legs, making it impossible to slide your legs and feet back under the chair beneath your body. Your feet therefore have to be forward of your body and this makes you slouch. The chair back is extremely low and the padded bit is too low, so when you slouch your back finds itself pressed painfully into the sharp edge of the horizontal top of the wooden frame (above the padded bit). As chairs go they would make excellent firewood.
Accessibility is questionable. There’s lots of stairs. There’s no info on their website to help visitors, but we learned from staff that the internal staff lift doubles as the accessibility lift for customers who require it. Presumably you’d have to call first and ask to learn this. The entrance is dark and not inviting and needs better signage.
Whereas Village People is open for dinner only Monday to Thursday, and lunch and dinner Friday to Sunday, Ichi Ni Nana is open from 7am every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Fancy Japanese fusion breakfast. I think I saw something like crab pancakes on the menu. For most people that’s not going to be an everyday meal.
Transformer was offering weekday breakfast. No more. Palinka was open Monday nights. No more. Do you detect a pattern here? Mondays are quiet nights and many people can’t imagine huge schnitzels and hard liquor as the answer to Mondayitis with the rest of the working week ahead of them.
Being off the main street, Transformer is invisible to a lot of passing trade and couldn’t make weekday breakfast work. There simply wasn’t much demand for fancy expensive breakfast (often a planned, social experience for suburban tourists) at a ‘destination’ cafe on weekdays (as opposed to the kind of quick, casual, inexpensive, often solo, breakfast many locals have at cafes like Atomica or Gutz on their way to work).
Away from the core of the cafe strip, can Ichi Ni Nana succeed where Transformer failed? I will be amazed if they can sustain 7 day a week breakfast service. I seriously doubt there is sufficient demand on weekdays for that kind of expensive breakfast (some dishes break the $20 psychological price barrier) on offer.
Ichi Ni Nana is never going to be a cosy local regular for me. No doubt it will be loud when full and while the food is good, the food and beer are overpriced. There’s great beer on tap at many pubs now, such as the Rainbow, at more reasonable prices, and excellent Japanese food around the Smith St precinct. So there’s nothing particularly unique on offer here for lunch, dinner or drinks. What is unique is breakfast, and that is as yet untried. I’ll likely try it soon, while it’s still available, just out of curiosity.
This development is hugely ambitious and I have doubts about whether it will prosper. What may save it is the fortuitous recent announcement that Little Creatures, a couple of blocks further north on Brunswick St, is to close in February 2016. It’s a large venue that is often full, and that crowd needs somewhere to migrate to.