Until Next Time, Japan…

So I’ve FINALLY finished writing about my Japan foodie adventures. It’s been an amazing and eye-opening trip – probably the best in my life so far. I learnt a lot about myself, met so many unforgettable people (and admittedly, some that I DO want to forget because ew) and of course, ate a lot of delicious food.

I’ve tried my best to recount all the important dining experiences for each post but there were some that I could not find a home for. These included the following:

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Compartmentalised breakfast at the Tokyo business hotel I stayed in on my first night. This sort of stuff is probably the equivalent of a stodgy western breakfast buffet meal plate but better – rice over sugar-laden cereal any day (even if I think the amount of plastic wrapping they used is excessive).

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The plethora of cheap and surprisingly decent quick snacks and meals one could find at any given Family Mart (the Japanese version of 7/11). Those AUD1 rice balls came in handy many times during my trip.

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The random mamma and papa bar I stumbled across just around the corner from Yudanaka Station in the Nagano prefecture. The further out of the bigger cities you go, the less likely you are to find someone who can speak English. This was evident when I trepidatiously walked into this little inn. The lovely lady owner knew no English, my Japanese skillz were extremely poor and the menu was written entirely in Japanese (no photos, no romaji!) but I was able to (just) order my lunch using, funnily enough, my very limited Chinese reading skills.

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Soba and tempura, yo.

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The random donburi restaurant that my companion for the night and I came across after a drunken night out in Shibuya. You place your order using a vending machine, chuck some yen coins in and your food comes out to you at the speed of light.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t quite like my sliced pork with raw egg and garlic on rice (think oyakodon but with pork instead of chicken as well as a motherload of garlic). It had way too much garlic in it – and I normally love garlic.

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And finally, the random alleyway restaurant I stumbled across in Asakusa.

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… that served horse sashimi.

Yup, I went there. It was leaner than horse and had a much cleaner taste. But by cleaner, I also meant blander. I’m glad I tried horse but it’s not something I’d quickly order again. Beef FTW.

It’s true what they say about solo travelling. As clichéd as it sounds, it’s life-changing and liberating and Japan’s the perfect place to start if you’ve never travelled alone before. It’s safe, yet there’s plenty of things to keep you occupied no matter what your interests are. Sayonara, Japan…

… for now anyway.

Review: Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum (Yokohama, Japan)

2-14-21 Shin-Yokohama
Kohoku-Ku, Yokohama 222-0033
Kanagawa Prefecture
Japan
+81 45 471 0503
http://www.raumen.co.jp/english/

If you love ramen as much as everyone in the Australia loves Tim Ho Wan right now, then you’d have to be silly not to visit Yokohama’s ramen museum if you’re ever in Japan. (btw, I’m still not sure why they spell ramen with a ‘u’ in it)

Founded in 1994, it was touted as the world’s first food-themed amusement park though it’s more of a food court boasting nine different ramen stalls, a ramen stall and a small museum section for all you noodle-slurping history buffs out there – unfortunately though, the museum section is entirely in Japanese.

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The ramen stalls, all offering different kinds of ramen from Japan’s many regions, are enclosed in late 1958-style Japanese streetscape replication. And why 1958? It was the year the instant ramen was invented, naturally.

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The museum’s shop has some pretty cool souvenirs, perfect for those who with foodie friends. You can get all manners of bowls, utensils and chopsticks as well as 10 billion kinds of instant ramen.

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Their DIY ramen kit is pretty pimpin’ too.

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‘though I wasn’t keen on buying one because hmm, dehydrated vegies.

What I was down for, however, was some piping hot bowls of ramen. Or rather, half bowls. I love how you can order regular sized bowls at each stall, or half bowls if you just want a taste at approximately AUD$5 each (thus, leaving more room in your stomach for more).

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My first bowl of ramen was from Zweite Ramen, a German-Japanese collaboration. I shall refrain from making WWII jokes here as some uber sensitive people on my friends list got upset after I did so when I posted this photo up on Facebook. Anyway, they’re a project from Muku Zweite, a popular Frankfurt ramen restaurant.

Tonkotsu ramen from Zweite Ramen
Tonkotsu ramen from Zweite Ramen

The Zweite Ramen stall is only at the museum temporarily so get in before you miss out. That is, if you’d like to try some soy infused tonkotsu broth with hints of sauerkraut in it and chashu that tastes and feels more like bacon. What, sauerkraut in ramen? Damn right. It’s weird but it works – the acidity cut through the rich broth beautifully. As for the ramen, they used durum flour so the noodles were denser and springier – very much like pasta. I loved this Eurasian hottie.

‘Pho ramen’ from Narumi-Ippudo
‘Pho ramen’ from Narumi-Ippudo

You’d have to be insane in the membrane (and also a genius) to come up with the idea of combining two of my favourite noodle soup dishes into one single dish: a pho/ramen hybrid. The broth was created by Ippudo chef Shigemi Kawahara and is a light yet flavoursome mix of French bouillon and dashi stock, kind of like a consommé. The ramen noodles were made out of baguette breadcrumbs that gave them a firm yet springy texture. Oh my word, easily one of the most interesting things I ate in Japan.

Traditional tonkotsu ramen from Najima-tei
Traditional tonkotsu ramen from Najima-tei

My last bowl was a simple tonkotsu ramen from Najima-tei, a Hakata institution since 1987. I figured that if I can’t go to Kyushu on this trip, I’d do the next best thing by ordering its speciality ramen from the ramen museum. The broth was perhaps only slightly heavier than the pho-ramen one above, but it was still milky and rich enough for me to call it quits for the night.

As much as I wanted to try more ramen, my stomach gave up at this point so I had no choice but to reluctantly end my night at the ramen museum.

Review: Dalian Chukagai (Yokohama, Japan)

148 Yamashitacho
Naka-ku, Yokohama 231-0023
Kanagawa Prefecture
Japan
+81 45 633 9199

When one goes to Japan, eating Chinese food is the last thing one is expected to do. But when one is deprived of good Chinese food on the Goldie and when one hears that Yokohama boasts the largest Chinatown in Asia, well, it’s a bit of a no-brainer. And given that Yokohama is only an hour away from Tokyo by bullet train, why the hell not?

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The rain may have kept the crowds away that evening but certainly not this lass, who was keen for some Chinese dumplings. There are approximately 250 Chinese owned/themed restaurants and shops in Yokohama Chinatown so you won’t struggle to find a place that does dumplings – and the usual dishes you’d expect to find at any given Chinatown around the world. I ended up at Dalian Chukagai, a place that specialised in dumplings. Think Melbourne’s Hu Tong.

Pan-fried pork dumplings
Pan-fried pork dumplings

I don’t recall how much these dumplings were – mainly because I was an idiot and deleted the photo I took of that particular page of the menu. I do know they weren’t overly expensive though and that unlimited Chinese tea was ¥600/AUD$6.10 per person.

The dumplings were beautiful – the pork filling was deliciously juicy, every bite punctuated by lots of ginger and garlic. I savoured every last bit.

Xiaolongbao (three for ¥650/AUD$6.80)
Xiaolongbao (three for ¥650/AUD$6.80)

I’m not used to seeing XLBs come in threes but it was probably for the best – I ordered probably just enough dumplings for one. The skins were thicker than what I would have liked but like the pan-fried pork dumplings, the XLB filling was tasty and the broth piping hot and delicious.

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I enjoyed a quick, easy and cheap meal at Dalian. Yokohama Chinatown is definitely worth a stop if you happen to be in Yokohama or if you’ve made Tokyo your base and have a couple of hours to kill one evening. You won’t struggle to find a decent restaurant but if great dumplings are what you’re after, then I’d recommend this joint.

Review: Mensakedokorowa (Nagoya, Japan)

1-1-4 Nagoya Shinkansen Street
Meieki, Nakamura-Ku
Nagoya-shi, Aichi 450-0002
Japan
+81 52 569 1775

I was in Nagoya for only 30 minutes, not long enough for me to do some sight seeing but long enough for me to grab a nice Nagoya-style lunch to eat before sprinting back to my platform to catch my west-bound train.

Nagoya Station boasts quite a few restaurants, each offering Nagoyan specialities – we’re talking fried Cochin chicken (a special breed of chicken), miso pork and kishimen, a type of flat udon. Luckily I stumbled across Mensakedokorowa, a place that did all three.

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This was the lunch set I ordered – I don’t remember how much it was exactly, but it was definitely around the AUD$10 mark thus making it a pretty cheap lunch.

Miso pork
Miso pork

So this is the famous miso pork, a bowl full of deep fried crumbed pork pieces with blobs of thick, sweet miso paste (called aka miso) on top and a handful of shredded cabbage for filler. It was a deliciously flavoursome dish, and one that I wish was more readily available in Australia.

In the background, there was a single piece of fried Cochin chicken wing. No batter, no sauce, no nothing. It was simple yet tasty; the meat was reddish and had much more flavour than the normal white chicken we’re so accustomed to eating. I wish I spent more time in Nagoya so I could give Cochin chicken sashimi (yes, raw chicken) a go but that’ll be something to aim for the next time I’m in Japan.

Kishimen
Kishimen

Then I had the kishimen, a flat udon noodle dish. I was given the option to have it hot or cold – not sure why, but I asked for cold – and the noodles came with a very pleasant dashi-like both with a hint of sweetness. Topped with shredded daikon and bonito, it was the perfect dish to end lunch on.

Mensakedokorowa might have been ‘train station’ food but it’s a good place to suss out if you’re just in Nagoya for a brief stopover and want to try some local foods without leaving the train station. I enjoyed my lunch so much that I’ve already decided I’m spending more time in Nagoya to explore more of the local food when I’m in Japan next.

Review: Gansozushi Shibuya Dogenzaka (Tokyo, Japan)

2-29-14 Dogenzaka
Shibuya
Tokyo Prefecture
Japan
+81 3 3462 0400

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It’s so easy to lose yourself among the bold colours and electric vibe of Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s busiest districts.

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Fellow Melburnian Joey and I spent quite some time exploring (almost) every corner of it, from the big flashy department stores on the main drag right down to the seedy sex stores tucked in the little alleyways.

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We also stumbled across a kebab store amongst all the bars and nightclubs, something that I did not expect to see in Shibuya. But hey, I guess post-clubbing kebab cravings are universal after all.

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Working up an appetite (but not for kebabs), we decided to indulge in a bit of sushi train for lunch. They’re very easy to come by in Shibuya – there’s practically one every five or so minutes. We ended up going to the Shibuya branch of Gansozushi, one of the bigger sushi train franchises in Tokyo.

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It wasn’t too busy when we got there, but there was a steady stream of diners coming in and out throughout our meal. We sat at the back, served ourselves some soy sauce, a shitload of ginger and fresh wasabi before getting to work.

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Every now and then, some specials will appear in front of you.

Salmon nigiri
Salmon nigiri
Scallop, salmon roe
Scallop, salmon roe
Prawn nigiri
Prawn nigiri
Salmon nigiri mk 2
Salmon nigiri mk 2
Crab, ginger, salmon roe
Crab, ginger, salmon roe

Each plate was about ADU$3-5 each, which wasn’t too bad at all (and we did double up on a few dishes). All the dishes we tried were generously portioned – I also loved the rice to salmon ratio in the salmon nigiri (i.e. big ass pieces of fish covering little balls of rice). The dishes were also delicious, but my favourite one would have to be the scallop nigiri – I just loved the combination of sweet succulent scallop meat and creamy mayo, punctuated by bursts of salmon roe. I do have to admit though, there was quite a bit of mayo used on a lot of the dishes which led me to think that Gansozushi was the sushi train Maccas equivalent. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed my lunch – even the crab sushi at the end, which turned out to be seafood extender, found a soft spot in my stomach and heart.

The bill was around AUD$35-38 for the two of us (I can’t remember exactly), making it a reasonably priced meal given how happy we both were.

Review: Tatsumiya (Tokyo, Japan)

1-33-5 Asakusa
Taito
Tokyo Prefecture
Japan
+81 3 3842 7373

One of the highlights of my Japan trip was meeting a fellow Australian (thanks Tinder), doing drunken karaoke with a bunch of random Japanese people at a karaoke bar and getting locked out of my hotel in Asakusa. Okay, the last bit wasn’t exactly a highlight but at least it made for a funny story to tell.

Prior to getting our drinking (and Britney Spears singing) on, our night started off relatively quiet. We must have walked around Asakusa for 20 minutes, looking for somewhere cheap and decent to eat before deciding to stop at Tatsumiya. I can’t remember why we chose this place – it was no more remarkable than the other establishments on the same block, not far from where Senso-Ji temple sits. I think we just couldn’t be bothered walking any further.

Sashimi
Sashimi

I wasn’t terribly hungry but I was happy to nibble on some kingfish and squid sashimi. After having super fresh raw fish at Tsukiji a few mornings back, it was hard not to be (unfairly) critical tonight. The fish was fine, but just not OMG WOW FRESH.

Tatsumiya also happened to have whale on the menu; it was the first time I had seen it being advertised on a menu in Japan. I know it’s not something that the Japanese would casually eat on a daily basis but I was expecting to see if featured on more menus – either more and more restaurants stopped serving it due to social pressure or peoples’ tastes are just changing. And I may get crucified on social media for this but I actually did consider ordering a small serving of it just to see what it tasted. In the end though, I didn’t – my companion was giving me the judgey eyes.

Beef hot pot
Beef hot pot

The beef hot pot was generously portioned, the perfect serving size for my 6’0 companion who hadn’t eaten in hours. I didn’t find the hot pot supremely delicious – the stew had too much sweetness and a shitload of soy, making it very overpowering. My companion, however, had no complaints but did say that it was something he wouldn’t order again – there were Japanese dishes he liked better.

The owner of Tatsumiya was a lovely gentleman and the service was pretty good throughout – our dishes came out within 10 minutes of ordering and when it came to serving us our drinks, he was as quick as lightning. That said, he was a bit pushy in making us leave the closer it got to 10PM which was a bit of a turn-off (but on the other hand, totally understandable so, wash).

Tatsumiya is not a place I’d happily recommend to friends or return just for the fact that the food is just okay – there are probably better restaurants in Asakusa for a casual Tinder meet-up.

Review: Hapineko Cat Café (Tokyo, Japan)

2-28-3 Dogenzaka
Dogenzaka Kratos Building 3F
Shibuya 150-0043
Tokyo
Japan
+81 3 3770 1328
http://hapineko.com/#_=_

As a dog person, I walked into my first cat café with a bit of trepidation.

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It’s not like I hate cats – I’ve just never really been into them. When you’re away from home, however, you tend to do things that you don’t normally do. Like sleep in love hotels, buy used panties from a vending machine and willingly spend half an hour in a room full of cats.

I was spending the morning with Joey, a twenty-year-old Melburnian who I had never met until this trip. He is a cousin of a friend of mine so when she messaged me, asking me to contact him if I was ever bored, I decided take her up on the offer. We explored quite a few random places together and one of them happened to be Hapineko Cat Café in Shibuya.

When we arrived, we were given a long list of rules to read before going in; they included no picking up of cats, no feeding them with your hands and no touching collared cats. We also had to wash our hands with sanitiser, leave our shoes at the door and change into slippers. That was totally fine with us, although I wish the lady in charge smiled every once in a while – she was so grumpy, which was surprising given that this was Japan.

As for the no touching of collared cats thing, Joey said that it was because these cats scratched and bit humans when they get touched because they get distressed. This kind of begs the question: WHY THE HELL HAVE THEM IN THERE FOR?

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For the most part, people were happy just to sit and chillax while taking photos and letting the cats come to them.

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Sometimes the cats would wander off and climb up onto shelves, cubicles and scratching poles.

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Included in our ¥1060 (AUD$11ish) fee was tea, chocolate and a mini donut biscuit, hardly the stuff that Michelin stars are made of but hey, it’s a ‘café’ after all. I think there was also the option to order extra stuff.

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Being around humans can be exhausting, I know the feeling (no, I really do).

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Okay, this dog person smiled when she saw this. Aw.

Hapineko was a fun place to kill half an hour and experience a quintessential Japanese tourist activity. While I’m glad I went, I don’t think I’ll go again – cats just ain’t my thing.

Review: Sadaharu Aoki Patisserie (Tokyo, Japan)

Boutique Marunouchi
Shinkokusai Building 1F
3-4-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku
Tokyo
Japan
+81 3 5293 2800
http://www.sadaharuaoki.jp/top.html

A short walk from Yurakucho Station led me to Sadaharu Aoki Patisserie, one of the best places to get macarons in Tokyo. There are currently four branches in Tokyo – I was at the Marunouchi branch – but the main boutique is in Paris, along with a few little sister branches there.

Created by Sadaharu Aoki, the eponymous patisserie franchise is famous for using traditional Japanese ingredients and flavours in French pastries, especially éclairs and macarons. I was due to leave Tokyo the next morning and needed to grab some more gifts for friends back home in Australia so I decided a few boxes of these specialty macarons would do the trick.

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This photo was taken just before the lady at the counter told me off for whipping out my phone to take shots. Grr. Apart from that though, the service was pretty tops.

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For example, they asked me how far I was from the hotel. I said that I was an MTR ride away from Shinjuku (which, from memory, required a change of trains at some point) – she said that it was too long a trip for me to be carrying boxes of macarons without ice. So she chucked some ice packs into the paper bag to keep my goodies cool. Although the macarons would then hop on a plane to Melbourne with me sans ice pack (thus rendering the packs useless), I really appreciated the gesture.

Matcha green tea éclair (¥460/AUD$4.40)
Matcha green tea éclair (¥460/AUD$4.40)

I ordered a matcha green tea éclair for myself to enjoy for afternoon tea. Unlike a lot of éclairs I’ve had in Melbourne, this one was soft rather than dense and doughy while the icing was perfectly balanced – it had the right balance of gentle sweetness and bitterness.

Macarons (four for ¥1100/AUD$10.80)
Macarons (four for ¥1100/AUD$10.80)

I bought a few boxes of macarons, all containing the same flavours: matcha, genmaicha (green tea combined with roasted brown rice), lemon and strawberry. I can’t remember how much they were individually but a box was just a smidgen under AUD$11, which doesn’t make them expensive at all given their quality. They were all perfect – crispy shells, creamy ganache centres and soft chewy biscuits. Best of all, they were overloaded with sugar like a lot of macarons you get in Australia. My favourite one was the genmaicha in all its glorious nuttiness, followed by the beautifully tangy lemon one.

My macaron boxes survived the flight from Tokyo to Melbourne – well, except for one box – I may or may not have eaten its contents during the flight. The remaining boxes were then presented to my recipients the next day, still in perfect form sans ice packs.

Review: Tonkatsu Maisen Daimarutokyoten (Tokyo, Japan)

1-9-1 Daimaru Tokyo
Tokyo Station, Marunochi
Chiyoda
Tokyo 100-6701
+81 3 6638 6871
http://mai-sen.com/

One of my favourite things to do in Tokyo was to spend an hour or two in supermarkets and department stores. Personally, I think you can learn a lot about a society just by spending some time in a local supermarket and it’s also fun to discover all sorts of interesting products that you wouldn’t find at a say, Coles or Woolies back home.

Tokyo’s department stores also come equipped with an impressive array of things that will get you salivating if you happen to be a hardcore foodie – and Daimaru in Tokyo’s main railway station was one of the more impressive ones I visited during my trip (not that I visited that many because I’m not much of a shopper). Growing up, I remember going to Melbourne Central’s very own Daimaru store every other Sunday and thinking it was the coolest place ever, even I found their book section pretty basic. Of course, the now-defunct Melbourne Daimaru has nothing on this Tokyo branch. So you can imagine how happy I was to spend the next hour or so gawking at all that was on offer in the food hall.

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Some really cute pre-packed lunch sets.

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All the sushi combinations you can think of.

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They even had a wonderful selection of foodstuffs.

I was delighted to find that this particular Daimaru had a Maisen Tonkatsu kiosk. They’re the guys that supposedly do the best tonkatsu (fried crumbed pork) in Tokyo so I was keen to give them a go. Due to the size of the kiosk, there’s no space for a kitchen so your pork won’t arrive all fresh and hot – your meal is pre-packaged. There is the option to get a staff member to heat it up for you but I think most customers (predominantly office workers) don’t bother because time is money, okay.

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However, the coating will still arrive crispy and the box will still be warm enough for you to eat its contents on the go. I happily ate my delicious tonkatsu with the accompanying rice and pickles – it was simple, tasty and filling. And all for ¥777(AUD$7.80) too, which made it a bargain.

Review: L’ATELIER de Joel Robuchon (Tokyo, Japan)

2F Hillside
Roppongi Hills
6-10-1 Roppongi
Minato-ku
Tokyo 106-0032
Japan
+81 3 5772 7500
https://www.robuchon.jp/latelier-en

Okay, I promise this is the last French restaurant I’ll talk about in this Japan instalment of my blog. In fact, it’ll be the last fine dining restaurant too. Funnily enough though, this restaurant – L’ATELIER de Joel Robuchon – calls itself a ‘casual dining’ establishment. I compared to the other Joel Robuchon restaurant in the world (there are heaps), the L’Atelier ones are considered less formal.

The Tokyo one in particular gets diners to sit at the long counter so they can watch the chefs prepare their meals and chat with them. Sure, the overall atmosphere is still pretty refined and up there (you can’t rock up in bum clothes, for example) but it was definitely the most relaxed Michelin-starred restaurant I’ve been to so far – and L’Atelier has two stars.

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I had a pretty big one the night before, involving lots of drunken karaoke with random Japanese folk at a bar, sharing a bottle of whisky with a fellow Australian from whisky and getting locked out of my hotel room and being forced to spend the night in a love hotel (don’t ask). So when I rocked up to the lovely Roppongi Hills restaurant, I was still feeling a little seedy; ordering that wine was probably not my best idea to date.

For lunch, there is the option of going two courses for ¥3050(AUD32), or three for ¥4050(AUD42). You also get to choose from three different dishes for each course. Again, my decision to go for three courses was not my brightest given my state at the time.

Amuse bouche: pork rillettes
Amuse bouche: pork rillettes

Still, I managed to act respectable and finish everything I was given – it wasn’t too hard, the meal was delicious. First up, I had some lovely pork rillettes served on crackers.

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A bread basket was placed in front of me and if I wanted more bread, I was told to help myself. I liked this idea – it saves the waiter from having to be all like “any more bread, madam?” five times during the meal. I love bread like the next person but I didn’t want to fill precious stomach space so I just stuck to the one piece of delicious warm white bread.

Creamy autumn mushroom soup with small croutons
Creamy autumn mushroom soup with small croutons

My entrée was a very generously sized (and filling) cream mushroom soup. I wouldn’t say it was anything special; it was just a really, really good bistro-style mushroom soup that ticked all the right boxes – wonderful smell, great flavours and depth – and not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Sautéed sea bream served with white wine butter sauce
Sautéed sea bream served with white wine butter sauce

My main was another rich one, a beautifully cooked sea bream drizzled in a sauce made with white wine, champagne and butter. Ooh yeah, baby. The sauce was also infused with clams from France, giving it that lovely extra depth while the potato wafers on top provided a lovely crunch.

Apple compote and maple syrup mousse served in a chocolate shell
Apple compote and maple syrup mousse served in a chocolate shell

I chose this dessert, not knowing what to expect (and the only reason why it was chosen was because it sounded like the least richest dessert on the list). Imagine my delight when I saw it plated up so beautifully and whimsically like this.

The pale pink quenelle is an apple sorbet and the white blobs are bits of coffee mousse. As for the toffee apple-looking thing?

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Why, it was a pink chocolate shell filled with frozen maple syrup mousse and apple compote. The playful presentation and the taste of all the elements (not too sweet, yet the flavours were still pronounced) made this baby one of the better desserts I had on this trip.

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After such a rich (yet delicious) meal, I was ready to call it a day. However, I still needed enough energy to get my ass from Roppongi Hills to my hostel in across town so I accepted the offer of a black coffee. It didn’t taste any better than a Starbucks long black but that was to be expected.

I don’t remember exactly how much I paid for the meal but factoring a glass of wine, service charges and taxes, it was still less than AUD100 which I thought was pretty good given the high quality of service and food being presented. And although I’ve never been a big fan of chain restaurants, I enjoyed my first experience at a Joel Robuchon – in fact, it left me wanting more.