Cindy and I rarely make the trek across to Northcote - it's not as though it's particularly far, it just doesn't fit nicely onto one of the nearby north-south tram lines, so it tends to get ignored until there's a sufficiently interesting gig on at the Northcote Social Club. This is a shame, because there seems to be loads of interesting eating places around High Street for us to explore.
Take Otsumami for instance - it was a new entry in this year's Cheap Eats Guide, scored three stars and snagged a little 'v' for veg-friendly, so it's pretty remarkable that it's taken us most of the year to try it out. Still, it was only one candidate on the list of places I'd drawn up as options - the fact that it's more or less next door to the venue for our post-dinner entertainment was enough to make it #1. Luckily, we had no problem finding a table - Otsumami have a couple of large communal tables which I presume you can't book, so even on a bustling Saturday evening in Northcote, there's a good chance that they'll be able to find you a seat.
The menu is laid out in three sections: small food, medium food and big food, and a little blurb at the front tells you that the food will come out as soon as it's ready (i.e. there's no strict entree/main structure). There are vego options scattered throughout the menu, but the highest concentration of them is in the the medium food, so that's where we focussed our ordering, opting for three medium dishes and a small to get us through.
Our small dish was endamame ($5) - baby soybeans boiled in their pods and seasoned with salt - healthy chips basically.
The 'small' dish wasn't really very small (I was expecting maybe a dozen pods), and we were hard at work popping the delicious little beans out of the pods and into our mouths for some time. I don't think we were even half way through the bowl when the first of our medium dishes arrived: okonmiyaki! For $9 you get three little chunks of vegie pancakes, filled with capsicum, carrot and other bits and pieces, slathered with a Japanese-style mayo and sprinkled with nori (make sure you ask them to hold off on the fish flakes!). We've enjoyed okonmiyaki before, but these were in a different class - particularly the sauce. I was preparing to launch chopstick raids on Cindy's plate until she generously offered me most of the last chunk.
Next up were the gyoza: sweet potato and chive mash dumplings, served with a soy dipping sauce ($8). These were six impressive little parcels of flavour -lightly fried and stuffed with a sweet mash that combined well with the salty soy.
Our last dish was Nasu Dengaku: eggplant cooked in a sweet miso and sake sauce and served on a bed of spinach ($10), recommended by the Cheap Eats Guide as reason enough for a return visit.
They weren't wrong - this was easily the star of the show. The combination of sweet and salty flavours was again outstanding, and the eggplant pieces were lightly battered and superbly tender. I was most impressed by the sauce - by the end of the dish I'd stopped caring about the stares of our communal table colleagues and was happily scooping up the last dregs with my fingers. Shameful.
Cindy has her own shame of course: a crippling dessert addiction that no treatment can improve. So despite feeling pretty well satisfied, we weren't leaving until we'd tried something off the final section of the menu. It's not a huge section: two kinds of icecream and some sort of sweet bean dish. Cindy decided to try the black sesame icecream ($5), and I was happy to share.
It was quite pleasant, but I didn't find it a great revelation (in the way that kulfi, for example, was). Still, like me Otsumami is more concerned about divine savoury dishes than sweet fripperies, so the lack of a killer dessert is hardly a big deal (especially with Coco Loco down the road). Otsumami is probably pushing beyond our definition of a 'cheap eat', but at less than $20 each, this was well worth the money - I'm not sure how we're going to try all the other places in Northcote now we know about this one.
Address: 257 High Street, Northcote
Ph: 9489 6132
Price: vego smalls: $3-$8, mediums: $8-$10, bigs: $14-$17