14 Jan Spiral Beans, Preston
This little organic Japanese cafe was previously Disco Beans, before renaming itself to Spiral Beans after beginning its collaboration with Spiral Foods. Their focus is on the limitation of processed elements, and using seasonal, organic produce to make dishes that are balanced in taste and nutrients.
They show support for small artisans too. All the earthenware is handmade by a ceramicist in northern Queensland, and sumemono (the art of dyeing textiles) created by Japanese artist Tomoko Nakada, is available for sale.
The menu at Spiral Beans consists of either vegan or vegetarian dishes, and given I haven’t had vegan or vegetarian Japanese before, our visit was set to be a discovery. We pair our food with Kagoshima organic genmaicha, which is recommended to enjoy during meals because of its light sweetness and lingering tannins. I love the rice element of genmaicha, and its a tea I happily settle in with. We start with the nasu dengaku, one of my favourite vegetarian dishes ever. Rather than being halved or sliced, the eggplant is diced before being deep-fried. The thick sweet and savoury miso sauce is slightly sweeter and more earthy than other versions, and the eggplant is deliciously tender.
Bonsoy on-yakko is tofu topped with spring onions, and seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil. The tofu is soft, though not completely smooth when cutting through it with the spoon. I love sesame oil, but I find it hard to detect its fragrance here. Chopped chives piled on top add an element of bitterness.
Their signature dish is the 5 Element Set Meal. Said five elements are: bitter, salty, sweet, sour/pungent and umami, each incorporated into the five small dishes various ways. The set includes a small dish of pickled vegetables, which today is cucumber and ginger, sprinkled with black sesame seeds. It’s subtle and refreshing. The homemade kimchi is a little sweet, and not overly bitter. Potatoes cooked in tomato and miso are soft and creamy. We opt for the seafood version of the set meal, so we receive some kingfish as today’s fish of the day. The kingfish pieces come with a thick, salty soy-based sauce, though unfortunately one piece is overdone. Earthy beetroot comes with a squiggle of mayo flavoured with a slight tinge of soy, and is then topped with shiso powder. It’s a simple preparation that allows us to appreciate the sweetness of vibrant vegetable. The highlight are the konnyaku balls, which have a super crunchy exterior. The konnyaku is chopped such that it looked like rice, but it’s springy in texture and translucent in appearance.
The sushi rice used for the nigiri comes with flecks of quinoa, and two varieties are given: a julienned cucumber nigiri with a topping of ume (plum) paste, and another with marinated tomato. Grated wasabi and pickled ginger have been prepared in house, though we find the ginger a tad stringy. The tomato, possibly marinated in soy, still retains its inherent tartness, and has texture that’s smooth and slightly firm, but is still cut easily by the teeth. It’s an interesting foray into vegetarian sushi.
The soba salad comes with a balsamic dressing, mixed vegetables, fried shallots and mixed seeds. As well as the sourness from the balsamic, there’s a bitterness to the dressing. The soba is topped by two batons of firm, baked tempeh. The sour and bitter flavour of the soba makes quite it different from the salty and/or creamy versions we usually see. It isn’t quite to my taste, but M likes it.
We finish with the okonomiyaki, which I’d heard good things about. Sadly it’s not a course we enjoy. It’s done Osaka style, so the batter is mixed with the green onions, grated carrot, and potato then cooked in a teppan like a pancake. The inside is mostly potato rather than cabbage as in the traditional type. I do like ginger, but even here I found it a bit too much, being found both within the batter and also pickled on top. It’s gooey, particularly in the centre, and we feel like it may have been undercooked. The okonomiyaki sauce is also very salty, and we’re not able to find much sweetness to it. It is quite large though, so it should satisfy hungry stomachs.
Fortunately we have some more tea to end on a better note. We try some Kyoto Gyokuro, a single-origin tea that’s only imported by Spiral Beans and is recommended to have after meals. The tea crop is shaded when new growth appears in spring, so that the leaves don’t receive any direct sunlight. This results in a concentrated umami flavour, with a lower tannin content. We enjoy two pourings tonight. The first is done using water at 60C and its umami flavour is a smack in the face, almost like drinking broth. The second pour uses water at a higher temperature, which releases more tannins and is therefore more bitter, particularly in the aftertaste. It almost has a seaweed-like flavour. Tasting this tea is quite an experience that tea connoisseurs will enjoy.
As a non-vegan, Spiral Beans seems like a fair effort for vegan and vegetarian Japanese food, and it’s a place that coeliacs, vegans and vegetarians may enjoy, given their more limited options for Japanese cuisine. There’s evidently been quite a bit of thought put into certain dishes, particularly the five element plate, and I can appreciate that it’s more difficult to create a certain depth of flavour with a more restricted pantry. With refinement and more attention to detail, it may draw in a bigger crowd. Spiral Beans also does tea ceremonies, and even if you don’t feel like participating in one, their regular tea menu is impressive.