Sponsored by Nuffnang

When Federation Square first opened back in 2002, Chocolate Buddha was the hottest place to eat and drink. It was the first of the communal Japanese dining halls in Melbourne (before the advent of places like Wagamama) and at night there were queues for the rows of communal tables and bar area.

Over the years, the fickle Melbourne restaurant crowd has gone to chase the tails of other hot new restaurants, but Chocolate Buddha has remained busy  – now from what I can tell mainly from domestic tourists and families. And so it should. The large restaurant holds prime position in one of Melbourne’s most iconic spaces, with uninterrupted views of the big screens from the outside tables and a light-filled dining room serving quick and easy Japanese food.

On a Saturday afternoon, the place was swinging with hungry visitors ending their trip to the Tim Burton exhibition at ACMI and the NGV Australia’s Ian Potter Centre. Chocolate Buddha presents a non-intimidating atmosphere and familiar favourites menu for those who are not looking for haute Japanese cuisine. For that reason I think it’s particularly well suited for urbane kids who are used to eating, or are up for being introduced to, sushi, sashimi, yakitori, ramen and donburi. The communal tables make the restaurant noisy and convivial and there are lots of decorative elements to look at, such as the row of Buddhas that give the restaurant its name, making it the perfect the space for families.

The menu has been revamped beyond the original paper menu placemats featuring rice and noodle dishes. There is now a sushi and sashimi selection (with the fresh slabs of fish presented uncut in a glass case, very encouraging), noodles, donburi and most impressively, a whole page of gluten free options. The menu incorporates free range eggs and beef and organic chicken.

RM and I decided to sample the Ebi Tempura ($18.80) from the Zensai (light dishes) section, then a Ton Katsu Kare Don ($19.80) and a Bento box ($28.50) consisting of beef skewers (though I requested chicken), nori rolls of the chef’s choice and Tori Tatsuta, all washed down with individual pots of T2 Gen Mai Cha Sencha, green tea with roasted rice ($5 each).

The Ebi Tempura came out quickly and the king prawns were so huge they were a bit unwieldy when dipped into the fresh ginger, daikon and dashi dipping sauce. The prawns were very fresh although I found the tempura batter to be a bit floury in the centre.

The Ton Katsu Kare Don was a huge bowl of rice topped with a deep fried panko crumbed pork loin cutlet and vegetables and a liberal ladle of curry sauce. I do not enjoy having my food doused in any sort of sauce so if you’re like me and you’re going to order this dish then I would request half the amount of sauce or to have the sauce on the side (not authentic I know, but so much more pleasant). Japanese curry is very mild and this was a good representation of the dish.

The Bento box was equally enormous. The chicken yakitori marinated with a sticky mirin-soy sauce was very juicy and perfectly accompanied by the rice. My favourite, however, was the Tori Tatsuta (deep fried ginger and teriyaki chicken pieces) because of the piquancy of the accompanying wasabi mayonnaise. Wasabi mayonnaise can often be a bit wussy and this version’s pleasant kick cut through the batter of the chicken. In contrast, the pumpkin nori rolls were bland – perhaps I would have been better off with the raw fish options.

Both the Ton Katsu Kare Don and the Bento Box were served with a bowl of steaming miso soup, which really tipped us over the edge with no room to try dessert.

If you’re visiting an exhibition or gallery at Federation Square, then I recommend Chocolate Buddha as a pleasant location for a meal or tea break. Don’t expect cutting edge dishes or challenging ingredients, but its offering of Japanese staples in a pleasant environment is a cut above some of the other offerings in the vicinity.

WIN! To be in the running for one of two $50 vouchers for Chocolate Buddha, just leave a comment before 5pm Friday 30 July. The winners will be randomly drawn out of the Kitchenaid of Fortune.

Thanks to Nuffnang and Chocolate Buddha for inviting us to lunch. The fee for this sponsored post has been donated to STREAT, a social enterprise organisation that runs a mobile food cart at Federation Square.

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