Calia was on our list of must-visit places for our recent trip to Melbourne (admittedly, the list is long, ambitious, and ever-growing) after descriptions and pictures of their reportedly excellent Japanese food caught our eye.
Located on the third floor of Emporium, it is a standalone store. “Store” is the appropriate description, as it is more than an eatery. We realised this as we neared the entrance and found ourselves facing shelves of goods. Not what we were expecting, but then we looked to our left and saw the entrance to the restaurant.
The seating space looked full, and we were told by staff at the restaurant entrance that there was an estimated 45 minute wait. We considered the option of booking to come back another day, given the abundance of other food options in the Melbourne CBD and wanting to maximise the use of our time in Melbourne, but were then told that they don’t take reservations. After a little deliberation, we decided that since we were already there, we might as well stay, given we would likely have to wait regardless. We joined the waitlist, and the staff took our number down and let us know that they would call us when the table was ready.
We started by browsing the store in the meantime. There was certainly a lot to look at.
Calia identifies itself as a lifestyle store, allowing people to bring a touch of luxury to their home. That is a statement made in earnest. We saw gold pepper, gold salt, gold truffle infused olive oil, gold mustard, and of course 24K edible gold leaves, all available for purchase. There was an assortment of other fine foods, including items in the refrigerated section like Jamon slices, sashimi grade tuna, and caviar. They import a range of gourmet foods, as well as accoutrements like matcha whisks and painted stoneware dishes. Any foodie would agree that it is a foodie wonderland.
One of the items we recognised in the freezer was single serve tubs of Uji matcha ice cream. We had bought the exact same ones from a local convenience store when in Uji for about a dollar. They were a few times more than a dollar here, but one has to take into account the transport costs. We did realise that we were on to a bargain when we were in Uji though, and had..more than one. They must have been a very local item though, as we hadn’t seen them anywhere else outside Uji, even in Kyoto and Tokyo – until we saw them here.
We noted one of their wares to be a nonsensical (and expensive) sham though. Bottles of sparkling water that had been supposedly charged with the immersion of positively charged rose quartz or amethyst, bottled with the lunar moon cycle (whatever that means), which claimed to be able to bring one unconditional love, peace, compassion, positivity, clarity, balance, passion, creativity, a deeper connection with oneself, and improve inflammation (would one want that increased?), digestion, and enhance one’s mood. The only claim they made that could hold any water (pun intended) was that it improved hydration of the skin from within.
On the plus side, they also sell beautiful treats from Bibelot there.
We actually spent much of the anticipated waiting time in the store (maybe the waiting is just a clever ploy to get people to browse and buy from the shop), and not managed to wander too far away before Calia staff phoned and told us that our table was ready.
We made our way back to the restaurant, and were shown to our table, a compact round marble-topped table matched with wooden chairs in the Hans Wegener Elbow Chair style. It felt like it was a large space, with high ceilings and clean colour palette of concrete grey, warm wood, and black. Black oblong framed light fittings were suspended from the ceiling, doubling as geometric sculptures that punctuated the space. The mirrors at one end of the space cleverly give it the illusion of being twice the size it is on an initial look. Besides the round tables that fit four (though a tight squeeze), there were also a couple of longer communal tables to accommodate larger groups.
On one side of the space was the open kitchen, behind a long underlighted marble counter. You could see the chefs at work, although you couldn’t see the actual food until they lifted it up onto the part of the counter that served as the pass, in readiness for staff to take it to waiting diners. Music played over the speakers, not quite chilled house music, just audible over the crowd noise.
The menu was presented in a marble-look covered book, in keeping with the rest of the decor. Dishes were listed under the sections “To Graze” (entrees), “To Feast” (mains), and “To Indulge” (desserts). We were torn between a few options, given our love for Japanese food and how good many of the options looked, but between pictures and reviews from elsewhere, we eventually decided on the Toro Bowl and the Crispy Roast Pork Bowl. We also ordered their special of Deep Fried Beef Rib Fingers in their special sauce.
One of us needed coffee, and seeing that their coffee was from Seven Seeds, ordered a flat white. It had a good strength, and nice fruity, high notes.
Given their propensity toward imported, luxury items, we thought that this would be be a place to risk having a matcha latte in. We have unfortunately learned from experience that unless at a dedicated matcha vendor or proper Japanese eatery, if you order a matcha drink, you will very likely get something made from a premix that is more sugar and other flavourings than actual matcha. The matcha latte came served with a lovely piece of latte art on it, a manga comic-style drawing of a long-haired girl in a gown. The latte had a good, rich, earthy matcha flavour, without bitterness.
The Deep Fried Wagyu Beef Rib Fingers were presented as a small stack on a white stone serving dish. It was indeed a grazing serve, just three rib fingers making up that stack. They weren’t the prettiest or most photogenic food, essentially being dark brown sticks of meat, but they were good to eat. It had quite a high fat to meat ratio, so it was tender and juicy when bitten into. The deep frying didn’t quite impart it with a batter-crisp crust, but the outside surface did have a bit more of a caramelised cooked density to it. The glaze was sweet, salty, and smoky, and made the meat extra tasty.
The Toro Bowl had tuna belly glazed with suki sauce and tuna belly tartare. It was prettily presented, the bed of rice topped with brightly coloured, fresh microherbs, a fan of tuna toro slices, showing off their marbled grain, and a quinelle of the tuna belly tartare. A vibrantly violet flower garnished it in contrasting colour. The sticky sushi rice was nicely cooked, with the grains actually separate, and none of it gluggy. Those tuna toro slices were soft, tender, and literally melted in your mouth. They were definitely fresh, and the texture was perfect. The tuna belly tartare was an interesting idea, as when people have sashimi or sushi, part of what is sought is the mouthfeel, which changes entirely with a tartare. It wasn’t unpleasant though, and while would have been made with lower grade tuna, meant that you still had something to eat with your rice after you had finished your toro slices. There was also grated fresh wasabi at the side of the dish. There is a definite difference between fresh wasabi and the processed stuff from the packet. Fresh wasabi actually has a sweetness to it, and while it has heat, it doesn’t get quite that eyewateringly ferocious in the same amount. There was also pickled ginger. While it was a great palette cleanser, it packed a bit too much heat for us to have more than a couple of slivers each. All in all though, this was a delicious dish.
The Crispy Roast Pork Bowl had their crispy roast pork (of course), with ginger sauce, and a poached egg. The plating of this dish had more muted colours than the Toro Bowl, but it did display the pork pieces. Their crispy pork seemed to be so popular that you could get crispy pork on its own (it was on the special menu as a Grazing dish), and a slab of the crispy pork sat on the pass under the warming lights, waiting to be sliced. Each piece of pork had a cracker-like layer of crackling (hence the name), with no soggy bits. The meat was soft, and not gamey. People may have varying degrees of affinity for the thick fatty layers through the meat. As with the Toro Bowl, the rice was cooked nicely. The poached egg was done as an onsen egg, the white pearly and almost translucent where it was thin over the yolk. It had a runny yolk that served as another sauce for the dish. There was a swipe of mustard on the side of the bowl, for an additional flavour to go with the pork. The lightly pickled vegetables, in red and green, added a different crunch and tartness to lighted an otherwise quite heavy dish. Although less Japanese than the other dishes on the menu, it was quite nice, and meat lovers, particularly those who like pork crackling, will enjoy it.
Calia is more than your typical Japanese eatery. It not only blends retail into the dining experience by having the store there for you to wander and making you exit through the store after you have had and paid for your meal, but even enables you to purchase dishware like the ones you have just dined off. They do use high quality ingredients, and have ensured that the tone of curated richness carries through in the styling and ambience. It fits right in with Emporium’s tone. If you have the time to spare, and a pretty penny or two to spend, it is worth checking out. (But skip the crystal-dipped water.)
Price point: Entrees $9.90 to $25. Mains $15.70 to $39.80 (the Toro Bowl).
Value: Alright. While not cheap, you do get quality food.
Address: Shop 8, Level 3, Emporium Melbourne, 287 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 03 9662 1688