A lot has changed in Adelaide’s dining scene this past decade but one small restaurant near the south corner of Hutt Street has been a constant delight: Kenji. But even Kenji is introducing some changes after opening 10 years ago.
Kenji, the Japanese fusion restaurant with the infamous lime-green interior, started by chef Kenji Ito and his wife Noriko, celebrated a decade of business earlier this year. One of the city’s most dependable eateries over that time, the restaurant was an instant hit and has remained part of Adelaide’s dining consciousness ever since with the ever-smiling Ito in the kitchen. Known for its fusion of Japanese and modern Australian, the restaurant features favourites such as sashimi and sushi, bento boxes and fusion mains that include wagyu sirloin steak and slow-cooked Barossa pork belly with hakusai and water chestnut roll. Ito says he has been introducing more traditional Japanese elements to reflect his heritage. “I’m getting mature,” Ito says. “I think my dishes are getting more mature. Getting mature means I’m trying to use more Japanese technique rather than risky things. Not too much fusion-fusion. More traditional. “I realised: I’m Japanese. I was a chef in Tokyo for a long time. I’m a farmer in the morning. I’m growing lots of Japanese vegetables now.” These home–grown vegetables, which include turnips, Japanese ginger, Japanese cabbage, watercress, yuzu and sansho (Japanese pepper), are making their way onto Ito’s menu. The fact he is able to own and run a restaurant in the city, keep his garden and can easily dash to the Central Market are reasons why this Japanese-born chef likes to live in Adelaide. “If I lived in Sydney or Melbourne, I couldn’t buy property. I live in Klemzig. From here [the restaurant], the Central Market is close.” Ito first experienced Australia as an exchange student in Sydney. He studied English Literature. He returned to Tokyo, and became a chef in the Ginza district. The restaurant was next to a fish market. It was here where Ito discovered that many of the fish were from South Australian waters. He decided to return to Australia and head for Adelaide. “I was an exchange student 25 years ago in Sydney. When I went back I became a chef and I was working next to a Tokyo market. At Ginza, we go to the Tokyo market every day, especially as an apprentice – that’s how we learn. And I learnt, these [the fish] are from Australia. That’s why I was interested. ‘Oh, I’ve been to Australia. Why not South Australia?’ I want to grow veggies as well. My dream. [Adelaide’s] not a big city, also, not too small, a medium city I can manage. That’s why I decided Adelaide.” Kenji has received a swag of awards in those 10 years, as well as more than favourable reviews nationally as well as locally. Over the last 10 years, the biggest change Ito has detected is the food knowledge of his customers. “Customers are educated [now].” Despite this change, Kenji has never had a website until now, as he doesn’t use the internet. “Without a website we were busy because we have a lot of regular customers. Good customers. Now, we are finding new customers.” Kenji Modern Japanese 242 Hutt Street Monday to Saturday, 6pm to late kenjimodernjapanese.com.au Photos: Andy Nowell