Nara City 630-8217
During my Osaka stay, I made a day trip out to Nara. The good thing about Japan and its wonderful trains is that it doesn’t take long to go from one city to another – my trip to Nara only took 30 minutes.
As some of you may know, Nara is famous for its thousands of deer that quietly roam Nara Park and surrounding areas. It’s also home to some beautiful temples, serene parks and probably a whole of other stuff that I didn’t quite get around to seeing because my Osaka hostel owner said Nara ‘wasn’t worth staying overnight for.’ Still, it’s definitely worth a day trip – or even half a day if you’re pressed for time. If I had my way, I could have happily spent an entire whole afternoon patting, feeding and chasing all the deer.
There are probably more selfie sticks in Nara than there are actual deer these days…
After I had my fill of deer and temples, it was time for a late lunch before heading back to Osaka. Not knowing where to go or what I wanted, I decided to walk around until I found a place that looked reasonably busy from the outside – because chances are the food would be, like, totes amazeballs, right?
I came across Mentouan, which is located just after Nara Park but before Nara Railway Station, heading back. There was a steady but not a terribly long line of people waiting outside as well as a sign with what looked like a bowl of dashi and a fried bean curd bag and ‘No 1’ next to it. Being a sucker for hyperbole (and bean curd, I suppose), I decided to give this dish a go.
I was told that there would be a 10 minute wait for a seat which was fine with me – I didn’t have anywhere else to go. Plus, it was pissing down rain so the last thing I wanted to do was walk around the streets looking for another lunch venue. Once I got in though, I was greeted warmly by my waitress and presented with a warm towel and a cup of hot green tea.
Mystery bean curd pocket in soup ¥850 (so, just under AUD$9)
My bowl of soupy goodness arrived within minutes. What was inside?
Oh mein Gott! Udon! And lots of them too! You should have seen me squeal in delight when I broke open the beancurd skin pouch and a motherload of beautiful slippery noodles came tumbling out. It was a bit Walking Dead-like in a sense – think guts oozing out of bodies but without the blood.
As for the taste? Delicious, absolutely delicious. It was such a simple and effortless dish that hit all the right spots, especially in the cold. Best of all, you got to eat the bean curd and the little spring onion ‘tie’ once you were down with your noodles. So so good. In fact, I’m surprised that this bean curd-udon-soup thing hasn’t caught on outside of this little shop in Nara.
So while Nara is famous for its cute deer, I think it should also be known for this amazing noodle shop that serves up reliably good (and tasty) noodle dishes for less than an Aussie tenner. They are closed on Tuesdays though and be prepared to wait if you decide to come smack-bang during the lunch peak.
1 Chome-3-37 Sonezakishinchi
+81 6 4797 2498
In Osaka, I discovered that Champagne and gyoza made for an excellent pairing. I also learnt that Tinder is a fantastic tool for solo travellers wanting company for a few hours. As much as I love travelling by myself, I do yearn proper human interaction every now and then – and this is where Tinder comes in handy. Swipe right, match, ask if the other is free for a drink and off you go.
My companion for the night was a Canadian-raised Malaysian-Chinese business analyst currently living in Shanghai. The guy, Chris, was in Japan for a work trip and was also on Tinder to meet some drinking buddies. After making pleasant small talk and establishing that the other one was not a weirdo, we decided to meet at Umeda Station after dinner and take it from there. Chris and I walked around the area, neither of us knowing exactly where we were going. Finally, we stumbled across a cute little champagne and gyoza bar on one of the little streets.
Champagne? Gyoza? Um hello, like we’d say no!
The place was called Le Comptoir de, a name which looked incomplete to me at first glance. Then again, my knowledge of French is very limited to words such as ‘canard,’ ‘terrine’ and ‘merde’ so what would I know? Anyway, Google tells me that Le Comptoir de neatly translates to ‘the counter’ and that’s pretty much what this establishment is – one little L-shaped counter topped with Louis Vuitton Damier-esque napkins, half empty bottles of champagne and happy people imbibing late on a Tuesday night.
Owned by quirky Osaka resident and Champagne aficionado Takeaki Motoda, the bar is a sophisticated yet warm and relaxed space for those looking to unwind. For a bar that specialises in Champagne, I was surprised to find the Champagne list very limited (in fact, the nibbles menu was bigger than the drinks list) but I guess this was one of those places that focus on a small number of things well.
Because we got around to ordering our drinks, an old business guy sitting next to us with his 20-something-year-old lady friend quickly started talking to us. Before long, we were talking and laughing like old friends – and he bought our section a bottle of Piper Heidsieck Brut. How lovely of him! I remember the price being something like AUD$85 a bottle, a mark-up that isn’t TOO huge for Asia (bearing in mind that you can get that bottle for AUD$50ish back home).
The food menu covers a neat range of nibbles, from cured meats to olives and of course, gyoza. They weren’t expensive either – we’re talking AUD$5-15 or thereabouts. I wouldn’t have minded some jamon to nibble on but in the end, we decided to split a plate of gyoza.
Pan-fried pork gyoza AUD$5-6ish
Takeaki-san’s chef cooked the dumplings in front of us while the drunk businessman gave us young(er) ones some sex advice because, I don’t know, apparently we needed it? Either way, Chris and I were both very amused though I’m not sure the dude’s lady friend was – she kept giving her man dirty looks.
As for the gyoza? They were predictably delicious; they were crispy and virtually oil-free, and the filling was a delicate mix of pork, ginger, cabbage and a hint of garlic. We were also given a variety of sauces to dip the dumplings with (soy, vinegar, garlic, chilli) but I found that I didn’t need the sauces so much – the dumplings were so tasty on their own.
Towards the end of our drinking session, I went to the bathroom and left my ring on the sink there. I only realised it was missing when Chris and I were at our second bar across town and after calling Le Comptoir de and asking if anyone had found a ring (in badly broken Japanese), we were told that it was long gone. However, it’s true what they say about the Japanese – the sleazy old dude’s missus picked it up after we had left, told her man, the man then rang the champagne bar and told Takeaki-san that ‘if the Australian girl calls about her ring, ask for her address’ because the man was going to post it to my house in Queensland himself. Seriously, how lovely was he?
In the end, the man ended up going back to Le Comptoir de at some point during the night with my ring, Takeaki-san then messaged me to say that he had the ring with him and 15 minutes later, I was back at Le Comptoir de clutching the AUD$5 ring I got from a non-descript market stall in Jakarta three years ago. Top marks for kindness and hospitality, I tell you.
And there’s Takeaki-san waving goodbye to us after a fun and eventful night.
If you love Champagne and gyoza (seriously, who doesn’t?), then you will love Le Comptoir de. The space is warm, the workers there are lovely and the customers are a friendly bunch. And even if you’re only so-so about Champagne and gyoza, I’m pretty sure you’ll end up having a great night there regardless.
2 Chome-9-5 Nishishinsaibashi
Chuo Ward, Osaka
I was walking along Osaka’s Doguyasuji (essentially a street filled with shops selling cooking tools) when I met Eric, a loud Jewish American lawyer from New York who was living and working in Osaka. This tall epitome of all the stereotypes I could think of was off to watch a baseball game at New Japan Hotel which has one of the very few, if not the only rooftop bar in Osaka – and he asked me to come along. I know jack shit about baseball and this was my first extended encounter with a stranger in Japan. In accordance with my promise to be spontaneous and meet new people on this trip, I accepted Eric’s invitation.
Doguyasuji, where I bought a motherload of crockery, cups and cooking utensils
Although I didn’t quite get into the game as much as Eric and his mate Dennis did (as well as the twenty or so Japanese patrons cheering with us on the rain-drenched roof), I had a good time. Dennis then decided to call it night, whereas Eric and I worked up quite a bit of an appetite. Having lived in Osaka for a few months now and befriending quite a few locals, Eric knew his way around the area and suggested we go to one of his favourite okonomiyaki bars in Osaka.
The place was called Très Bon, a rather odd name for a tiny 12-seater okonomiyaki bar in the depths of Namba. Translating to ‘very good,’ the little hole-in-the-wall joint is owned by a grumpy 85-year-old Japanese man simply known as ‘Jefe’ (Spanish for boss). He was a funny man yet got on my nerves by saying that it was bad enough that an Asian like myself couldn’t speak Japanese but inexcusable a Chinese person like myself could barely speak any Chinese (of course, the fact that I can speak fluent Bahasa meant nothing). That aside, he was great to talk to in bits of broken English, Japanese and Mandarin over a few beers – that is, when he wasn’t muttering phrases like ‘silly Australian’ and ‘what a pretty lady, shame she doesn’t know her own language’ to his head chef, Mitsuru-san.
Mitsuru-san whips up an okonomiyaki
Très Bon is hard to find, purely because it doesn’t have much of a web presence. However, if you can find Ganso Ajiho, then you should be able to find Très Bon – just look for the little corner bar across the street. Like most mama and papa joints in Japan, Très Bon does not take bookings so you need to rock up either early or late. They are open every day except for Wednesdays so don’t organise hump day drinks here.
Everything at Très Bon is cooked right in front of you though there is no Benihana-type theatrics or lame onion volcanoes here. There is no strict menu here either – you just tell Mitsuru-san what you want or get him to suggest a few recommendations and off he goes. Having been here plenty of times, Eric knew what was good so I sat back and let him order for us.
We started off with some very lightly battered Moroccan beans, served piping hot and crispy. I’m not sure why they were called ‘Moroccan beans’ – they were not like any other bean I’ve tasted, though they looked like snow peas but had a taste similar to broad beans. They were seasoned with a lovely and bloody addictive umami seasoning that could best be described as just as addictive as Red Lea hot chip salt but possibly with more crack.
Our next dish was Mitsuru-san’s take on an Osaka speciality. If you like okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pizza), then you should give the tonpei yaki a spin. It’s an omelette served with okonomiyaki sauces (creamy mayo and tonkatsu sauce) and bonito flakes. The omelette itself is also filled with shredded cabbage and sliced pork but Mitsuru-san does his own bacon version.
Tonpei yaki; Moroccan beans
It was shit good. It was lighter than a typical okonomiyaki as batter is being substituted for egg, which obviously contains less carbs. The bacon also gave it a lovely salty edge. If I can have this for breakfast every day, I’d die a happy woman.
Our final dish was the okonomiyaki. Diners can either choose what they’d like in their okonomiyaki or leave it up to Mitsuru-san. Because we rocked up late, there wasn’t a lot of ingredients for us to choose from by that point – we got cabbage, egg, squid crab though, which was enough for me.
Well, this okonomiyaki threw Ganso Ajiho’s one out of the window. It was not at all soggy, the batter wasn’t dense like the ones you get at many suburban food courts in Australia and best of all, I could still taste a slight crunch blended in with a lovely hint of smokiness underneath all the sauce on top. It was fresh, delicious and full of flavour – just how an okonomiyaki should be.
Don’t forget to order beer
I don’t know how much each dish was, the final bill came to approximately AUD$35 including a few glasses of cold beer. In terms of Japanese mama and papa joints, it’s not the cheapest but it was worth every yen – the okonomiyaki was probably the best I had on my trip, the atmosphere was electric and even Jefe’s gruff demeanour was strangely endearing. I highly recommend Très Bon for a fun night out – but if you’re a non Japanese-speaking Asian, be sure to cop a bit of shit.
+81 6 6213 8806
Day two of my Japan trip saw me take an early morning bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka, the city that many consider the Melbourne of Japan. By the time I almost managed to miss my train by hopping on the wrong platform, got lost wandering through all the stops at Umeda Station and got into an argument about bag storage at the capsule hotel I was staying at (yes, capsule hotel), I had worked up an appetite.
Without knowing where to go for a feed, I decided to get my senses direct me. Just around the corner from my hotel was a busy takoyaki-slash-okonomiyaki bar with men cooking takoyaki (octopus balls) out the front and tables filled with happy diners inside – I figured I couldn’t go wrong.
It took me a while to work out what this place was called (I used Google maps to trace my steps back from the hotel) but I finally got there in the end; Ganso Ajiho was what it was called. You can’t miss it – it’s decked with red lanterns and takes up two shops, whereas most places in this little enclave are tiny.
I was seated in a tiny table at the back, right next to a table topped with dirty plates and empty beer glasses – presumably because there was no room in the kitchen to store all the dirty dishes.
I started with some big fat octopus balls (giggles), a steal at approximately AUD3 and a large bottle of lager (another steal at ¥500, so less than AUD5). The balls were squishy and soft (har-har-har) and the filling much more gooey than what I’m used to back home. I’m not sure whether this was legit as was the surprising lack of octopus but at that price, I didn’t complain. I was also surprised that it didn’t come drizzled in sauce and topped with bonito like I’d come to expect in Australia (rather, a light citrus-y broth was provided for dipping). Again, maybe that was the legit way of eating them.
I was told that there would be a twenty minute wait for the okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancake), which was totally fine with me – it’s not like I had anywhere else to be seeing as check-in wasn’t for another two hours or so. Like the octopus balls, the okonomiyaki was massive and definitely filled me up. The sauce to dough ratio was great and the whole thing was nice enough; however, there was something missing and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Was it depth? Character? Did those dirty dishes put my senses off? I had no idea.
There are hundreds of places that do okonomiyaki and takoyaki in Osaka and even the ‘bad’ ones will do a decent job by Australian standards. I wasn’t in a hurry to rush back to Ganso Ajiho, especially after a life-altering okonomiyaki experience at Tres Bon across the road later that night.
Koto 135-0016, Tokyo
+81 3 5677 5176
My first meal in Japan was a comforting and insanely delicious bowl of ramen that sent me walking back to my hotel with change for AUD9. After a very long bus ride from Narita Airport to downtown Tokyo followed by two subway trips to Shirakawa, I finally checked into my hotel two hours after my feet touched Japanese soil.
I don’t know why I booked a hotel at a random slightly-out-of-nowhere district on my first night in Tokyo as opposed to the more popular Shibuya, Ginza or Shinjuku districts. In saying that, at least I was forced to learn Tokyo’s initially confusing subway system very quickly. Plus, staying in a relatively quiet district meant that I would be forced to sleep early rather than get distracted by lights, bars, restaurants and cheap whisky bars.
Despite my hotel being on a quiet street, there was no shortage of eateries within walking distance – as was the case almost everywhere in Japan. It was a bit chilly that night so when I came across a ramen restaurant, I knew that a steaming bowl of noodles would hit the spot.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Ramen Yamagoya is a ramen franchise famous all over Asia and I just happened to walk into one of Japan’s many branches. It was close to 11PM but the place was still happenin’ with a few solo diners polishing off the last dregs of their ramen. I was nervous because this would be the first time I’d be ordering food in Japan but thank goodness for menus with photos and English translations, hey.
Mukashi ramen ¥870
I ordered the default ramen, with the barest of trimmings – sliced chashu (roast pork), boiled egg, dried seaweed and pickled bamboo shoots.
The word ‘mukashi’ means ‘old school’ in Japanese and the menu described the pork bone broth as being ‘nostalgic-style’ – whatever that meant. Regardless, this simple bowl of ramen was amazing. It might have been a chain restaurant ramen but it certainly beat any ramen I’ve tasted in Melbourne; the broth was teaming with so much flavour and depth and the noodles beautifully chewy. Everything was perfect, from the buttery slices of roast pork to the gooey egg. Best of all, it was the perfect portion size to stave off my massive hunger pangs (after all, I flew Jetstar and didn’t bring enough food for the entire flight – silly me).
I never got to visit another Ramen Yamagoya in Japan but that was fine because I got to try heaps of other wonderful ramen places. Best of all, there are Ramen Yamagoya restaurants in Jakarta so I know where I’ll be getting my fix when I’m there in just over two weeks’ time.
Happy New Year, folks!
I trust that you also had an aiight Christmas and were sensible enough not to drink too much.
I’m not one to make New Year’s resolutions but one of my goals for 2015 is to see more of the world. Of course, achieving this goal is going to be a challenge because 1) booking international flights out of Gold Coast is a pain in the arse and 2) I’m trying to save up for a house deposit. Ultimately though, I’m the happiest when I’m away from home and exploring unchartered territory. Plus, who says you can’t travel while you’re saving up for a house? For the next month or two, this blog will move away from Australia and into Asia, more specifically Japan, Singapore and Indonesia.
First up: JAPAN.
Just in case you haven’t heard me talk about it enough on social media, during social gathering and in my sleep, I went to Japan for two weeks. And as clichéd as it sounds, it was the best trip of my life (so far); there is no doubt in my mind that I’d happily do it again and again. It goes without saying that Japan is a wonderful country with so much to see and do, however it is also a confusing place for first-timers like myself. With that in mind, here’s just a small sample of the many things I learnt about the beautiful country during my very limited time there.
Night walk along the streets of Gion, Kyoto.
1. Train or plane? If you’re planning to explore a few different cities during your time there, the best way to do so is via Shinkansen (bullet train). It is not cheap; for example, it costs ¥14720 to do the Tokyo to Osaka dash by bullet train (so, roughly AUD$140). Given that domestic flights between the two major cities are cheaper, many people choose to fly instead. However, there’s something cool about admiring the picturesque Japanese countryside while travelling at speeds up to 320km/h and what is three hours on a train compared to the time it takes to commute to and from the airports? Plus, if you’re organised enough to order a JR pass exchange order before you leave for Japan (and swap it for an actual pass once you’re there), you’ll cover a lot of Japan in a relatively economically-efficient way. I paid AUD$300 for my seven-day pass and used it to get me from Tokyo to Osaka and back again, all while seeing Kyoto, Nara, Nagano, Nagoya and Yokohama along the way.
2. Get to know the subway system in Tokyo (this also applies to other major cities such as Kyoto and Osaka). Taxis are ridiculously expensive in Japan (for example, a taxi ride from Narita Airport to Tokyo proper left my friend AUD$240 poorer) so it’s best that you got to know the subway system. For one thing, riding the subway is a lot cheaper and trains run every few minutes (and on time, even during the busy times).
The Tokyo subway system can be initially daunting at first what with all the different colours and criss-crossing lines but it’s easy once you figure it out (plus, signs are everywhere in case you get lost). If you have a smartphone, Google Maps and apps such as HyperDia are your BFFS – not only will they tell you what trains/buses to take to reach your destination, they will also give you a rough fare estimate too.
3. Generally, Japanese people don’t speak English – and this is more apparent the further away you get from the major cities. You don’t have to invest in a yearlong Japanese course to prepare for your holiday but learning a few words will get you a long way. Useful phrases include sumimasen (excuse me), arigato (thank you), arigato gozaimasu (thank you (more formal)), Nihongo ga wakarimasen (sorry, I don’t understand Japanese) and oishii (delicious).
4. Following on from 3, booking restaurants can be hard so it’s advised that you get a Japanese-speaking friend to make bookings for you. If you happen to stay at a hotel though, getting a concierge should do the trick. That said, the concierge at Hilton Tokyo were hopeless (promised they’d make the bookings for me, then heard nothing from them despite repeated follow-up emails). Conversely, Piece Hostel in Kyoto booked me spots at Kikunoi and the Yamazaki whisky distillery tour with no issues. Expensive does not necessarily mean the best service (although the bed sheets and Tokyo city views at Hilton were, to be fair, pretty nice).
Yamazaki whisky distillery
5. One yen coins are a pain in the arse.
6. I found that being an Asian female in Japan can be a good and a bad thing. People assumed I was Japanese which meant that I was able to blend in easily amongst crowds. However, this also meant that I was the ‘go to’ person when someone needed directions or when old men got lonely and wanted to talk to someone. More often than not, a nihongogawakarimasen from me resulted in looks of disappointment/shock/disgust from the other person. An American I met in Osaka said that if you’re in Asian in Japan and can’t speak Japanese, you’re stupid; if you’re a white person in Japan and can speak one line of Japanese, you’re a genius.
7. I normally carry a small bottle of hand sanitiser or baby wipes when I travel anyway but nowhere is this more important than in Japan. A lot of public washrooms (especially in shopping malls and major train stations) surprisingly don’t stock their washrooms with soap and paper towels. This is where a bottle of Dettol or a packet of baby wipes will come in extremely handy. If you’re pressed for luggage space and can ONLY carry one or the other, then I’d recommend the wipes because at least you can wipe your face with it after a night out drinking and you’re too lazy to wash your face completely before crashing into bed (may or may not be speaking from experience(s)).
8. Japan Tinder is full of:
1. Nice and well-meaning but socially awkward and shy Tokyo boys
2. French guys on working visas (either teachers or engineers).
3. Oddball westerners.
4. And downright angry westerners.
9. If you regularly do squats at the gym, you’ll find that using a traditional ‘hole in the ground’ toilet is MUCH easier than if you’re a pleb who just does cardio. Of course, you still have a choice between those and western toilets when you’re in major cities. If you’re at a country train station or pub, however, you’re pretty much screwed so suck it up, princess.
10. I’m a planner and I found that organising most things before I left Australia made things a lot smoother. However, there are some things that you can’t plan for. Things I had not planned for included organising transport from Jigokudani to Yudanaka (forcing myself to hike 10km to civilisation gave me a lot of thinking time and I got to admire the beautiful Japanese forest) and a night at a seedy love hotel (which would not have happened if – long story short – I had not logged onto Tinder the day before and matched with a lovely Sydneysider who I had a fantastic time with in Asakusa’s izakayas and family-run karaoke bars). Those moments were unplanned and undoubtedly the highlights of my Japan trip.
The 10km hike from Jigokudani to Yudanaka took me through the beautiful Kiso Valley.
For the next few weeks, I’ll be posting reviews of all the restaurants I ate at in Japan. Brace yourself for lots of raw fish, photos of cheap whisky and snide Tinder-related remarks.
28 Logan Road
Woolloongabba QLD 4102
+61 7 3392 3300
It took a fellow Melburnian and, in hindsight, a jerk Tinder date to lead me to my new favourite breakfast spot in Brisbane. After enjoying a night out in Brisvegas with Greg, it was time to soothe my head with a decent breakfast and what I hoped was decent company – at the very least, we former Melburnians would have heaps to talk about.
After an impressive Brisbane progressive crawl, my date then took me to Pearl Café, one of his favourite pre-work breakfast spots. Situated on charming Logan Road and only a short walk from the GABBA, the all day eatery effortlessly conveyed classy euro chic with its mirrors, antique furnishings and wooden bistro-style furniture. I was already in love – and I wasn’t talking about Mr Tinder.
Because we had already consumed our fair share of coffees, we decided to go with teas – I went for a soothing peppermint while he went for camomile. As for the food, Pearl’s offerings are whimsical, rustic and interesting with a smearing of European panache and good quality ingredients. In addition to menu staples such as the pecan financier with maple roasted pear and the house smoked trout with poached eggs, dandelion and homemade pumpkin sourdough with a dash of horseradish, a daily specials list also tempts.
Special: omelette with caramelised leek and fennel on homemade sourdough
My date had one of the specials, the omelette with caramelised leek and fennel. I didn’t get a chance to try any of his food but going by the way he happily wolfed it down, it must have been great.
Wild forest mushrooms, stone ground organic polenta, pecorino, hen’s yolk ($19)
Meanwhile, I opted for one of Pearl’s heartier dishes. The predictable but delicious combination of earthy mushrooms, gooey egg and rich polenta worked beautifully, both taste-wise and texturally. It was a dish that was more suited to Melbourne’s friggin’ cold winters rather than Brisbane at any time of the year but hey, I’d happily take it.
I never saw the Tinder guy again but his breakfast venue left a positive lasting impression on me. Pearl Café has become one of the few places I recommend to Brisbane visitors in addition to big guns such as Gerard’s Bistro, ARIA and GOMA. And given that it’s so close to the GABBA, it’ll be my pre-cricket breakfast venue for when I’m at the cricket next.
368 Brunswick Street
Fortitude Valley QLD 4006
+61 7 3195 1040
When a white Tinder match recommends a quasi-hipster dumpling restaurant in Fortitude Valley, I’m not normally one to pay attention. Bitch please, dumpling restaurants are meant to be cheap and nasty (in an endearing way, of course) and if I have to pay more than $10 for twelve dumplings, then we have a problem! However, this particular match seemed to know a fair bit about food so I decided to add Fat Dumpling to my list of places to visit in Brisbane.
I had not plan to go there the last time I was in Brisbane, but Greg and I had been drinking a fair bit after dinner and soon we were hungry again. We just so happened to be in the ‘Valley so I suggested we try out the dumpling eatery – after all, we’re both suckers for a good plate of dumplings.
Fat Dumpling’s name reminds me of that SBS show from the late 90s/early noughties, Fat Pizza. I’m not sure Habib and Claudia McPherson’s antics was what the owners of Fat Dumpling had in mind when they went about naming their northern Chinese restaurant. But whatever, it worked. Throw in a diminutive yet refined space in the heart of Fortitude Valley (but slightly away from the riff raff) and you have a place that’s packed to the rafters even at 9PM on a Saturday night. Thankfully, Greg and I were able to squeeze into a table, but not without some curious glances from the predominantly western clientele – we were the only two Asians in the entire place.
I don’t know why the chopsticks instructions are printed in Cyrillic…
Pan-fried pork dumplings (six for $7.50)
We ordered a few plates of dumplings to share. First up, the ubiquitous pan-fried pork dumplings. Like the restaurant’s name suggests, the dumplings here are massive in size. They were also big on flavour too – the beautifully crispy pork dumplings had a ridiculously tasty filling thanks to the generous doses of garlic, ginger and chives in it.
Poached fish dumplings (six for $8)
The poached fish dumplings were filled with minced white fish, chives and ginger, making them a bit more delicate than the moreish pork dumplings yet nevertheless still tasty as hell.
Xiao long bao (eight for $11.80)
The XLBs were nice, but paled in comparison to the first two dumplings. For one thing, the broth-meat ratio was a bit of a miss at times – some dumplings held sufficient broth while others held no broth at all! We were also not given spoons to hold each dumpling with so eating them was an exercise in all manners of awkwardness. The skins were also a tad on the thick side. One good thing about these? At least the pork filling was delicious.
We were tempted to try mains such as the seemingly popular soy poached pork belly and more adventurous dumpling dishes such as the chicken and asparagus dumplings but our inelastic stomachs stopped us. We were happy with our meals and promised to return again. Yes, Fat Dumpling does cater to a more western demographic and yes, the price points for the dumplings are a bit dearer ($7.50 could get you twice the amount of dumplings at a cheap dumpling joint in Melbourne) but I’ve yet to find a place in Brisbane that make dumplings on par with these babies. Until that day comes, I’ll keep coming here for my dumpling fix when I’m in Queensland.
Level 1, TCB Centre
315 Brunswick Street
Fortitude Valley QLD 4006
+61 7 3252 8888
Disclaimer: Wagaya gave Greg and me $70 to spend on food, the remainder of the bill was paid by myself.
These days, I’m not big on loitering around Fortitude Valley’s Brunswick Street with all the riff-raff (what am I, old?). A Saturday night in Queensland for me involves going to a mate’s house to chill on the couch, having a few beers by the beach or staying in with SBS on Demand and a glass or two (or five) of wine. As luck would have had it though, I needed to be in Brisbane several weekends ago and so I decided to kill two birds with one stone by doing a catch-up with my Brisbane friend, Greg.
Now, I was originally invited to have dinner at Wagaya down in Melbourne a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend – luckily for me, there happens to be a Wagaya in Brisbane so I timed my errands with a dinner booking there for two on a Saturday evening.
The place was a pain the arse to get to: Google told us that it was located on the first floor of the TCB Centre on Brunswick Street. I entered the centre via Brunswick Street, got on the lift, pressed the button to go to level 1 – and ended up in some random dodgy alley full of stinky bins. It turns out the restaurant’s entrance was on Duncan Street. Yeah okay, made sense.
Things were smooth sailing once we were in, though. We were lead through the modern timber-lined dining room, filled with private dining booths.
Each booth had a touchscreen menu where we could make our selections throughout the course of the meal as well as signal for service. The aim of dining at Wagaya is to try as many different dishes as you possibly can. There are plenty of dishes to chose from – udon, sushi, sashimi, skewers and so on – and there is not one dish that Wagaya specialises in, at least none that I can see.
We ordered a shitload of stuff.
Crab chawanmushi ($6.90)
First up, the delicate warm savoury egg custard. I was expecting the custard to reveal perhaps one or two pieces of artificial crabstick, however I was surprised to find that it had REAL crab in it. Drizzled with dashi broth, the chawanmushi was delicious and a perfect starter.
Assorted sashimi platter ($36.80)
The assorted sashimi platter didn’t just have your standard tuna, salmon and kingfish slices (though they were there). Rather, they introduced a mix of things you wouldn’t expect to find on a sashimi platter at a casual restaurant – we’re talking fresh Pacific oysters, tender octopus bits, oily mackerel, prawns and even uni (sea urchin). All of it was ridiculously fresh and delicious.
Assorted tempura with udon soup ($13.90)
While I can’t really give mad props for the tempura (the battered bits of prawn and vegetables were too oily and they weren’t crispy enough), we both loved the udon soup – the broth was delicate yet full of umami goodness and the slippery noodles were delightfully chewy.
Assorted skewers ($13.80)
The assorted skewer plate was a great way to suss out how well these guys can do a kushikatsu (grilled meat skewer). We got a king prawn, salmon, chicken and beef skewer. Drizzled with a teeny bit of teriyaki sauce, they were all nice enough but lacked the lovely smokiness I’ve since been used to after eating quite a few of these in Japan.
We probably could have stopped there but we were greedy and wanted to try some octopus balls so we selected that as our final order. I was impressed by the size of the balls (lol) and how generous they were when it came to creaming them (double lol) with lots of octopus bits. Thus, it was a shame that they erred on the soggy side. Bummer.
We loved the variety of food on offer at Wagaya and the service was fantastic (friendly and quick – we didn’t have to wait too long for our food to arrive), but we thought the food was a bit of a hit and miss. The good stuff was done really well while the not-so-good stuff were meh but by no means terrible. Wagaya is a great place if you want to go somewhere fun with your mates and if you want to introduce some noobs to an array of Japanese food – but not if you want to go somewhere with more substance.
Eagle Street Pier
45 Eagle Street
Brisbane QLD 4000
+61 7 3233 2555
Brisbane’s dining scene continues to surprise me and so far, no restaurant has surprised me more so than ARIA. Yup, celebrity chef Matt Moran’s Brisbane offshoot that has received a handful of negative to mediocre reviews. I LIKED IT. Who would have thought…
When it came to organising dinner with Canberra girls Rachi and Natalie on the final evening of the Eat Drink Blog conference weekend, we had a very limited pool of restaurants to choose from. After all, a lot of Brisbane’s upmarket restaurants closed on Sundays. ARIA happened to be one of the very few that we circled and after a bit of disagreeing, we finally settled on ARIA (apologies to Rachi who wasn’t initially down with the idea).
Because we’re approaching old age, we opted for the very early sitting of 5:30PM. When I rang up to make the booking, I was told that this sitting was limited to two hours as there would be another group taking our spot afterwards – essentially, this meant that we weren’t able to order either of the chef’s set course dinner. That was totally fine with us, I had been planning to go a la carte anyway.
ARIA Brisbane ain’t no ARIA Sydney. The Brisbane River may look pretty enough when the sun goes down but it definitely has nothing on the picturesque Sydney Harbour. That said, ARIA Brisbane works with what it’s got – and well too. Like the Sydney restaurant, the space is very elegant and refined yet there was that intrinsic Queensland casualness and charm injected to the package too.
As one would expect from dining at one of the country’s best restaurants (or at least the offshoot of one of Australia’s best), ARIA ain’t cheap. Entrees are in the mid-to-high $30 price range while mains are $50ish. And although I was ready to go entrée and main, I manage to let the girls twist my arm by doing the four-course chef’s tasting menu ($125 per head) with them. Even though the lady on the phone said that the ARIA won’t be able to serve the entire menu within two hours, the waiter assured that he would try his best to do so without rushing us. And so it began.
Squid ink and prawn cracker with chickpea puree and chorizo crisp
Our amuse bouche was a single squid ink and prawn cracker topped with chickpea puree and two pieces of sliced chorizo crisp. The cracker tasted like an Indonesian prawn cracker (we’re talking those massive crackers made from REAL prawns, not those pink Asian food court pretenders loaded with MSG) but with a lovely earthy kick.
Free-flowingly warm bread and butter, yew.
I should also mention here that the three of us received a complimentary champagne cocktail, similar to a Kir Royale. Mad props.
Cascina Ghercina Blagheur 2009 Nebbiolo ($25)
ARIA offers a nice selection of wines from all over the world in addition to local wines featuring the usual suspects like Clare Valley Rieslings and Yarra Valley Pinot Noirs. And as a nod to Queensland’s growing wine industry, they even had a Chardonnay from the Granite Belt. To this day, I remain sceptical about Queensland wines so I opted for a Nebbiolo instead.
Scorched king salmon with celery, radish, puffed rice and yuzukosho
Our first course was the beautifully cooked king salmon. Cooked confit-style before being scorched for a slight crisp, the buttery fish felt and tasted sublime while the yuzukosho added a bit of citrusy tang and the faintest of spice. The celery, radish and puffed rice were all very subtle, allowing the flavour of the salmon to shine through while still providing the dish with a bit of textural contrast.
Twice cooked sweet pork belly with bacon and mustard relish, nashi pear and palm hearts
The pork belly, unfortunately, was a teeny bit dry (and um, small?). Not sandpaper dry (that would have sucked), but definitely not as soft and juicy as I would expect from an establishment like that. That said, the skin was perfectly crispy and overall, the it was a well-balanced dish in terms of flavours.
Smoked wagyu beef brisket with beetroot and horseradish, jus gras
Thankfully, the brisket was much better than the pork. The meat was beautifully tender and smoky (gotta love hickory, hey) and the jus packed with flavour. I also loved that the beetroot and horseradish both gave the rich dish a much-welcomed level of acidity. It was the perfect pairing for my slightly smoky and acidic, and not to mention very aromatic, Nebbiolo.
Blueberry poached pineapple, coconut sorbet and toasted meringue
Our final course was the very retro-inspired dessert that just screamed out ‘QUEENSLAND, BITCHES!’ To a Melburnian like myself, it embodied my adopted state to a tee: simple, no fuss, vibrant, fruity and in some parts, stuck in the 80s (I mean c’mon, pfft meringues). However, it was one of the best desserts I’ve had in quite some time – I loved that it was unpretentious, I loved how fresh the fruits were and I loved how everything just blended together so effortlessly like silicone boobs in Surfers Paradise.
Petit fours: sesame snaps, Turkish delights and mini passionfruit slices
Our tasting menu included coffee, tea and petit fours to which we all said yes. At this stage, we were still way under our allocated two hours and we were almost done. This surprised me because I never felt rushed at all during our meal – it was very well-paced, well-executed and service remained friendly and attentive throughout. Kudos, ARIA Briabane.
But anyway, I ordered a sencha tea that was sweet to the taste with a clean finish – perfect with the petit fours we sampled. As predicted, everything on display tasted great but my favourite had to be the passionfruit slices – so tangy, so bold and so flavoursome.
White chocolate and raspberry macarons
Our evening wrapped up just before the two-hour mark with boxes of delectable white chocolate and raspberry macarons to take home, which I enjoyed for morning tea the next day. A lovely touch to what had been a fantastic meal.
People have criticised ARIA Brisbane for being mediocre and expensive for what they offer. Indeed, my friend Raphael once called it an ‘overpriced French bistro.’ True, it’s not cheap and true, it is no ARIA Sydney (and this is where people go wrong, I reckon – because they compare it to the original restaurant) nor does it pretend to be. And while the food isn’t exactly ground breaking (we can’t all be avant-garde Surry Hills chefs cooking sous vide walrus moustaches after all), the dishes are meant to be of high quality yet comforting and accessible. And the service? Oh man, the service. It was some of the best I’ve experienced for a long time – the waiters were attentive, helpful and friendly. Plus, little touches such as the complimentary champagne cocktail and take-home macarons really made a world of difference. I think if you judge ARIA Brisbane by its own merit, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that you’ll uncover a dining experience that is polished, refined and honest with a good dose of warm Queensland charm, minus the fake silicone boobs.