Wabi Sabi Garden may not be running in St Kilda anymore, but it never really closed. It just turned into this place: Fuji Tei.
Owner and manager Ryoichi Saito took over the old girl after Wabi Sabi moved out, and he says not a whole heap has changed.
“We kept the tree, because why wouldn’t you, right? And the menu has changed a little. The main thing I wanted to do was bring back that sense of welcoming.”
The tree he’s referring to is Wabi Sabi’s famous wrought iron, lantern-hung arbour, which spreads over the main dining room like something out of a Miyazaki movie. The tranquil courtyard is still out the back too, along with a private dining room for big groups or corporate bookings.
“I cleaned every rock in that courtyard by hand,” Ryoichi says. “When I took over the restaurant, my dad said ‘You have to put yourself into the restaurant’, so I did. It’s taken a while to get it up and running, but I’m really proud of it.”
So he should be—Fuji Tei is great. The menu isn’t about ‘signature dishes’ or gastronomic fireworks—just delicious, consistent Japanese food, drawn from all parts of the country. You can sit down and load up on Hamachi nigiri and softshell crab rolls, or maybe a big bowl of tempura udon.
At night, the lights dim and Ryoichi cracks open the restaurant’s substantial whisky collection (an awesome range of Hibiki and Yamazaki drops, aged up to 17 years). You can also get sake and umeshu plum wine, if that’s more your speed.
Our picks for dinner? Don’t go past the assorted vegetable tempura, grilled eel fillet with sweet soy, and cured black cod, glazed in the chef’s special miso.
The good times at Fuji Tei start when you push through the front door and get a hearty “Irasshaimase!” from the staff. And that’s deliberate. Ryoichi has worked in just about every Japanese restaurant in town, and he says the thing customers value most is friendliness, that sense of community.
That and a bloody good prawn tempura.
Image credit: Jenna Fahey-White