Diners Club

Posted: November 6, 2014 in Diners Club

About 8 or so years ago, I was dining in Sydney with one of my great mates from Uni – Shane, and we were discussing the food scenes in Melbourne vs. Sydney. After a few hours of discussions and refreshments, we felt the only way to truly be able to compare dining standards was to visit the best of the best in each city. But how to do that? Neither of us were particularly wealthy, how could we afford to go out for a Degustation for example at $300 a head? How could we spend that much without feeling guilty. A few more hours and a few more refreshments and we finally came up with the idea of the diners club. At the time, the plan was to put $50 a month into a joint savings account and when we caught up every 6 months or so we would have enough money to enjoy a fine dining food and wine experience. All without feeling guilty or blowing the budget. It took a few months to get our act together, but eventually we got organized and found ourselves with $600 to spend and table at Rockpool in Melbourne booked. We’ve been continuing the tradition ever since and as a result of our club, we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy some of the finest dining and best steaks Melbourne and Sydney have to offer, including Aria, Est, MoMo, Grill on the Hill, Vlado’s and Rockpool. We don’t always manage to catch up as much as we would like, but we do continue to put the money aside each month. Who knows where our adventures will take us.

I plan to detail our experiences in this section of my blog every 6 to 12 months. If only I had thought to write up some of our amazing adventures in the past, including that one time we spent $500 on a bottle of Champagne because we wanted to see if we could spend the whole $1800 that had amassed in our account – Yeah, we probably should have saved our money for next time – but we never claimed to be particularly intelligent.

Burgers

Posted: March 1, 2014 in Burger Hunt
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I like Burgers as much as the next guy, In fact probably more than the next guy to be honest. After all the blogs I’ve read lately that have talked about the “Top 10 Burgers in Melbourne”, I thought to myself, I need a burger… And then after that, I though, why not try some of these places and see for myself. And then after that, I though, hey, why not document the process. As you can see, I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, and my thought process is clearly long and convoluted and inefficient. That being said, tonight I’m off to one of these vaunted Burger establishments and my plan is to visit a few of these places and share the experience.

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Damo had been telling me all about Chew burger for some time now, claiming that they make some of the best burgers in Melbourne. Since Damo is a fairly critical judge of the burger, I thought it best to give this place a go. It took us a while to get to the northern suburbs from Elwood, pick up Damo and then head into Chew. I must say, I’m not all that familiar with the area, but Chew seems like it’s in a good spot, located next to a pretty lively bar – Chew and the bar have this cool partnership going on. Bar patrons walk into Chew, make an order, get a buzzer and then come back when their burger is done, buzzer in hand. They then head back next door into the bar and eat their burger as though they ordered it at the bar. Seems a very popular option for the punters . Chew itself isn’t as comfortable to dine in – well, not for Katie who was also on the hunt – there are stools to sit on which are rather tall and have a small seat, which is not ideal for a pregnant lady. Oh well, these are the sacrifices you have to make if you want to hunt down the best burgers in Melbourne! One annoying thing about this bar/chew deal is that you don’t realise that there can be a huge amount of people in front of you waiting for a burger. Chew looked rather quiet when we came in with only a couple of people waiting inside – we thought we’d get our burgers reasonably quickly, however, about 10 people from the bar came in while we were waiting – evidently they had ordered and gone back to the bar to wait. Again, not ideal when you are dealing with a hungry pregnant lady… Katie calls the stage where she gets really hungry now – “Hangry”… Thankfully the wait wasn’t actually all that long – it just felt like an eternity, as we watched and smelled the burgers being created before our very eyes! We had ordered the Plenty burger, which has 2 x 190 g Wagyu patties, smokey bacon, cheese, cos lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles and this spicy/mustard/mayo sauce that I can’t remember the name of, all for $16. We also ordered two sides of chips, one with parmesan salt and the other with ghost chilli salt and then some onion rings.

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The Plenty Burger is a fairly decent sized burger – although I was expecting it to be bigger considering that there was almost a pound of meat supposedly in the burger. First impression is that this is a very good burger – nice bun to meat ratio, not too big – but big enough, cheesy and saucy – it looks the real deal.

First bite you get a very beefy hit – there’s a lot of meat in the Plenty. Good quality patty with a hint of pink, juicy and well seasoned. The beef is clearly good quality, and the patties are the right thickness for a double. The caramised onions are the next thing that really stands out – they add a sweet element that complements the strong beefy flavour of the patty, it works well with the slight sweetness of the brioche. Damo made the point that the buns taste better take-away – that way they get slightly steamed in the bag, otherwise they are a little bit “cakey” – not stale, but a little like a croissant texture at times. The sauce is great, there’s a hint of heat which really adds to the burger and you get the richness of the mayo base, that then gets cut through by their lovely pickles – which I am glad to say they were not stingy on – I think I had four pickles (Winning at life!). The bacon is grilled and has that flame grilled smokey note – but with so much beef it’s almost just a background flavour. The salad does the job it’s supposed to do. I would have liked double cheese, one slice on each patty as I thought I was a little dry at stages, but really I’m looking for faults. Overall this is a damn good burger – I’d give it an 8.5.

 

Chew Burgers on Urbanspoon

wpid-1417944575465.jpgWe were down on the peninsular over the weekend and had plans to catch up  with Paul and Ness at some stage, either Saturday or Sunday. Eventually we decided on Sunday lunch, and to be safe I made sure that where ever we were going had a burger on the menu. Ness had suggested Merricks General Wine Store – a fairly centrally located venue if you are touring the vineyards of the Mornington peninsular. Before agreeing, I had a sneaky look at the menu and discovered they did in fact have a burger so everything was OK with me! I also really enjoy the drive up around the hills – through Red Hill/Merricks, so the venue sounded good to me. Although the day was pretty rainy, it’s still a beautiful part of the world and a lovely drive – even better on a nice sunny day. As a bonus, if you like Pinot’s then there are some really good wineries in the area as well that produce some excellent examples of the Mornington style.

Anyway, we made a booking online and organised to meet at the restaurant. Merricks General Wine Store serves as cellar door for three small winery’s, they also sell local produce such as olive oil which I have to say is also pretty good – there’s some really good oil available in the area, but it’s hard to know what to pick without tasting first. Generally, any of the local extra virgin Olive oil is good, so I’d recommend giving one a shot, you wont go too far wrong. We wondered around the art gallery situated next door and then into the restaurant which was pretty quite as we got there fairly early. There was a bit of a hiccup with the table, the online booking hadn’t been written down on the paper list so they didn’t have a table for us, thankfully the manager was more than helpful, and set up a table out in the bistro section in a good location – and then sent us on for a wine tasting (Well, just me since Katie can’t drink). I do have to have a little bit of a whinge here – one of my bugbears with the peninsular is the price of the wine – generally you have to fork out at least $35 for anything halfway decent and north of $50 for anything really good at most of the wineries. I’ve been to other wine regions and in comparison the Peninsular is just too expensive for what you’re getting. All I can think is, if I go to Dan Murphy’s and spend $30-$50 I can get some really good wine, and even some really good wine from the Peninsular! Look, I get that these are small producers, I get that I can’t get this from a regular bottle shop, but honestly, if you are asking me to spend north of $50 for a bottle of wine it better be damn good, and usually, it’s not that good. Suffice it to say, I didn’t buy any wine, although we did sample a glass with Lunch which really is the way to do it – If you are touring the wineries, I’d really only buy a couple if they were really good, otherwise stick to Dan Murphy’s et.al. to buy your more high volume Penisular Pinots – they’re generally pretty good and half the price, I rate the Paringa Estate PE which is generally sub $30.

Ok, so on to lunch – by the time Paul and Ness arrived Katie and I were pretty hungry. I ordered the Merricks burger, which is described on the menu as –  O’connor angus grass fed beef, caramelised onion, tomato, cheese, lettuce, pickles, mustard & mayo, comes with fries and it’s $28. Yep, the food on the peninsular isn’t cheap either, I guess you just have to deal with it, it’s a tourist area and these are tourist prices… The burger was very generous so that made up for the price, it was a two hander kind of burger, with a big meaty patty. The bun was nicely toasted and was quite soft, the sesame seeds on top had been toasted slightly just in the middle on the top – just a little kiss from the grill – this added a nice toasted note. The bun was a standard white, very soft, not as sweet as some, worked well with this burger. The first bite revealed a burger made from quality ingredients from start to finish. The patty was big, cooked to medium, seasoned perfectly. You got a strong beefy flavour suggesting the addition of a prime cut in the mince, with just the right amount of fat, the juices were flowing – this was the type of patty you think about when you are hungry. The next taste you get was the caramalised onion – almost a jam, sweet and savoury, a perfect partner to the meat. Then you got the cheese – melted, protecting the patty from drying, adding a creamy salty flavour. The salad was your standard lettuce tomato combination, although both were fresh and the tomato was tasty. Finally, the mustard and mayo were both quality, seemingly home made in style, probably Dijon mustard, you got a mature, more complex profile than your sweet American style. Finally the pickles added a sharp contrast against the sweet onion. This was a grown up burger, executed well. I wasn’t complaining about the price at the end, so you know they nailed it. I would get a burger here again without hesitation, well worth the trip. I give it an 8.5 – Quality.

Merricks General Wine Store on Urbanspoon

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As the working year winds down and the summer holidays beckon, my mind turns to the hunt, or more accurately the hunt for the holy grail (of Burgers). With the memories of grilled beef, pickles and cheese running through my mind I call out to my fellow burger hunters. They answer the call – Chris, Jo and Damo all keen to share in the thrill of the chase. I had heard of Grand Trailer Park Taverna through my cousin Meg, her husband Charlie (Who makes a damn good burger at his Fish and Chip shop – Old Salt) knows the guys who run Dandenong Pavilion and apparently they had decided to open up a burger bar in the city. My interest was well and truly piqued when I learned this little tidbit of information – I’m a fan of the Dandenong Pavilion so I knew that their burger bar would be top quality.

We arrived at around 7pm on the Friday night – as expected it was packed and there was a wait for a table. Thankfully there was some space out on the balcony where we could enjoy a drink while we waited. It gave us some time to think about the burger that we wanted to get. After about 40mins waiting we got a table – as I said, this place is popular, especially on a Friday night! Jo and I both ordered the “Mcdowell” ($15.50 +$2 for bacon) – a not so subtle nod to the Big Mac, of course we both added bacon, Chris ordered the “Atomic” ($16.50) – he likes spicy, and Damo went for “The Chunk Double Double” ($16.50 +$2 for bacon) – he might not look like it but he can put away a fair amount of food when he’s hungry. We also ordered sides, two large fries and two potato mac and cheese croquettes. We didn’t have a long wait for the food to come thankfully, we were all very hungry.

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My Burger arrived wrapped – I do like that, I think it “proves” the burger somewhat, nice size, looked good on first impression. The Mcdowell is clearly a riff on the Big Mac, double level, two patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese. We all love a good Big Mac if we are being honest… Anyway, so lets talk Mcdowell – The Bun was the first thing that grabbed my attention once I had unwrapped my burger, and I have to say, the middle bun section was too think for mind, and the top part a bit thin. Now you might think I’m being pedantic, which would be a fair assumption, but in this case the bun ratio was out and the burger fell apart on the last third. Not the end of the world, but structurally, there were some issues.

First bite, you get the sauce, this is good, sorry, great burger sauce. Jo thought it was better than Rockwell and Sons. That’s a big call, but I’d say it was pretty bloody good. It made the burger! The addition of bacon was a good move as you would expect, you just can’t go wrong with bacon. The patties were ok, thin, clearly good quality meat and cooked well so they were still juicy, however, the meat isn’t the star of the show in these burgers. Think good quality fast food style patties. The Mcdowell is a very cheese burger – they just got it spot on from a cheese perspective, ooey gooey, cheesy – my kind of burger. The lettuce was Butter lettuce which has a softer, sweeter flavour than Cos, but is more interesting than Iceberg – a good choice for these burgers. Overall this was a very tasty burger, but I felt the bun and the patties needed some work to take it into the great burger category – that sauce, wow, I’m still thinking about it right now. The other guys had different experiences – Damo wasn’t totally please with his burger, and he was the most critical of the patties – his were doubled up on top of each other and he felt that the patties felt a little overworked. Chris was very happy with his burger, but felt that a burger called Atomic should be hot, and he felt it lacked heat. The sides were a mixed bag, the fries were fine, however our croquettes were a bit on the bland side – not what we were expecting.

I’m going to give the burgers here a 8 which is in the very good category – I have to say they achieved what they were trying to do which was good quality fast food, but even still there were still some issues that stop the burgers getting into the great category. Although the more I think about it the more I liked that sauce.. I give the sauce a 9.5 easily.

Grand Trailer Park Taverna on Urbanspoon

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Decided to meet up in St Kilda with Katie and Mum who had been out doing some baby stuff shopping. Katie had suggested Fitzrovia on Fitzroy street and I said I’d meet them there. I didn’t realise how much of a walk it would be so by the time I’d finished what turned out to be a 4km walk I was pretty hungry! Thankfully they had some quality refreshments on the menu which helped to quench my thirst. Originally I had planned to get some form of breakfast option, but when I saw the steak sandwich on the menu I changed my mind. I’m sometimes sceptical of the non-minced cousin of the hamburger. I find at times that they’re just too difficult to eat, you feel like you should be able to pick it up and eat it like a burger, but you end up knife and forking it halfway through. The bread is often too thick, the steak too chewy and the whole thing just devolves into this annoying farce. On this occasion though, the waiter did some serious selling on the steak sandwich – claiming it was the best in the southern hemisphere. With credentials like that I’d be stupid not to try it! Katie ordered the doorstop bacon sandwich, which we’d seen come past, and Mum got the Mussels which was another recommendation from our friendly waiter.

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Ok, so we were impressed when our plates arrived – all of the meals were pretty big – the steak sandwich, which was cut in half, could have left one half behind in the kitchen and still been a fair sized meal. Katie’s doorstop sandwich could easily have been used in the way the name implies, and Mum’s Mussels dish was also very generous. My Steak sandwich was pretty special, it came out on char-grilled sourdough, thick cut, with that smell of the grill. The bread made it for me, thick cut but soft and pliant, a nice smokey char on the outside adding to the flavour profile of the sandwich in a really good way. Next you get the caramelized onions – they added that sweet/savoury depth of flavour – really rounding out the sandwich. The fired egg, added a yolky richness that was cut nicely by the rocket and the beetroot. Oh yes – The beetroot remoulade, even though my feelings towards beetroot aren’t particularly positive in a general sense, it worked here. Finally the steak itself – 200g of scotch fillet, perfectly cooked to medium rare – tender and easy to eat. No major problems with the eatability of this steak sandwich.

Both Katie and Mum really enjoyed their meals as well,all three of us waddled out feeling quite satisfied with ourselves. Thankfully I had a life back home so I could enjoy the feeling of being pleasantly full.

Definitely a place I wouldn’t mind going back to.

Fitzrovia on Urbanspoon

So with Dad down from Cairns for the weekend we all decided that a family catch up for a drink and a meal somewhere was in order. Of course getting my family to organise anything is a chore – the selected venue needed to be between my sister Jo’s place, my brother Christopher’s place and my place. Sounds difficult but if you triangulate all of that you get Chapel street! Taz and Fil were in for the catch up as well so we had quite a few mouths to feed – making things even more difficult to organise. I figured a drink first might help sort things out, so we organised to meet at Bridie O’Reilly’s. I almost suggested just eating at the pub but the others weren’t too keen, everyone had a different idea regarding food, but once Jo and I remembered that Third Wave have another place in Prahran, the deal was done and a booking made. It looked like BBQ was on the cards! Having been to the Port Melbourne version of Third Wave only a couple of days before, I decided that I was going to try something different on the menu – even though I knew their burger was pretty filling and rather tasty.

This time around we all ordered a couple of starters – I got the pulled pork sliders, there was some candied bacon and some wings going around – everyone was pretty hungry, and pretty happy with the starters. I’d order the sliders again – they were very good.

Pulled pork sliders - not bad.

Pulled pork sliders – not bad. Smokey pulled pork in a sweet brioche slider bun, sharp pickle and a refreshing coleslaw. 7.5/10

Next we come to the mains –  I really wanted BBQ – so I shared a large brisket with Jo, Christopher and Fil shared some beef ribs and Dad and Taz both ordered the Rubens. We probably went a little overboard on the sides – lots of Mac and cheese, chips and coleslaw. No one was going home hungry tonight.

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The brisket (Large $42) was ok, I found the serving size a bit smaller than I was expecting for the price – you wouldn’t want to share it with two hungry blokes, but the flavours were good. It needed a bit more fat as it had dried out a bit. The beef ribs (Large $44) were very good, although again, for the price, I’d want more. Fil and Christopher bit enjoyed the ribs , but felt they had had better for the price. Dad wasn’t all that impressed with his Ruben – which he quite rightly pointed out should have been corned beef not smoked brisket. But then it did say that on the menu… I guess sometimes when restaurants take a traditional dish and then do a new take on it – that’s non-traditional – they should make a bigger point of the difference, otherwise diners might have an expectation of what they will be getting, and then get disappointed when they don’t get it. Or Dad should just have read the menu…

We were the last people there but a fair magin, the waiters were cleaning up in the background, but they didn’t hurry us at all -It was nice to be able to digest all that food without feeling like we were being pushed out the door. The waiter even suggested dessert when it was clear we were going to be a while – Which Jo took them up on. Jo felt the dessert here was nowhere near as good as it had been in Port Melbourne which was a shame however. Overall, I think I prefer the Port Melbourne venue, just based on the ambiance. The Prahran venue is in a weird location and is far too brightly lit – it feels much more a café, and more a place you would dine at during breakfast/lunch than a dinner place. Still – both places are pretty good and serve pretty darn good American style BBQ. There’s not a whole lot of options for good BBQ in Australia – not a bad place if you are in the area.

Third Wave on Urbanspoon

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It has been too long since I’ve been on a burger hunt – work and uni (Oh and a side trip to Japan) have conspired to keep me from the beefy goodness that is the burger. Honestly, I feel like I have been writing those same words far too often recently. But I swear I’m back on the burger wagon. Anyway, I sent out the burger signal to the team on Wednesday night and the reply was a resounding yes! After about 30 texts and a conversation with Katie, the venue for our reunion was chosen – Third Wave cafe in Port Melbourne. We made a booking and Jo, Chris, Katie and I all met at the Cafe. Third Wave is located on a side street off the main Bay street area. It’s surrounded by apartment buildings and seems a little bit hidden away. In we went, quite a small venue – that feels more café than restaurant to be honest. But then you get handed the menu and there’s no mistaking it – by day it’s a café but by night it’s a meat lovers paradise. You have ribs and burgers and all sorts of delicious treats. I had already decided I was going to order the special – The three little piggies, which is advertised as a “half bacon half Porterhouse Patty, Mustard, Pickles, spicy BBQ Sauce, Cream Cheese, Candy Bacon, Tomatoes and Smokey Pulled Pork – hence 3 Little Piggies. All this in a tasty brioche bun”. At $20.90 that’s a lot of burger goodness. However it doesn’t come with sides – you can get a small serve which they say is enough for one and range in price form $7 to $10 or a large serve which will feed two which range from $12-$18. I have to say that this makes things on the pricey side, but judging by the smiles, no one really cared.

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We ordered a couple of sides to share – the smoked mac and cheese and the confit kipfler potatoes, and then a small coleslaw. Chris ordered a Rubens (Actually should be called a Rachel as it was pastrami not corned beef), Katie got the same as me and Jo got two starters – the chicken wings and the lamb quesadillas. Everyone really enjoyed their meals and we all agreed that the smoked mac and cheese was amazing. So lets talk about my burger. It’s a big burger there’s no doubt about that! One thing to note is that there was a lot going on in this burger – but they managed to pull it off reasonably well. The individual parts of the burger might not sound like they would work, but together you get a nice balance. One of the first thing that struck me was the piped cream cheese – I wasn’t expecting that at all! When the menu mentioned cream cheese I figured it would be spread on the bun… The piped cream cheese is one of those things in this burger that actually made sense (apart from the fact that it stuck the two halves together) when you consider it with the other elements, it added a cooling cheesy note that rounded out the smokey pulled pork and the spicy candied bacon.  Oh my sweet lord, that candied bacon – it was amazing , slightly salty, spicy, smoky and sweet – oh and very crispy. The pulled pork was also pretty smokey and when you add the BBQ sauce you realise why the cream cheese is there. The tomatoes do the job of adding freshness as well. The pickles in the burger were nice, another balancing element – cutting through the rich smokiness of the burger as a whole. The bun was a light Brioche style, so you got the sweetness there as well which worked to complement the smokey BBQ flavours. 

The patty was interesting – the bacon/porterhouse patty worked in the burger, however, if you got a bit on it’s own, it had that hammy, almost hot dog flavour – that was the bacon flavour that you kind of get in soups or when it’s not cooked but stewed. You needed all the other elements to make that patty work.

This burger was interesting to say the least, but it was also enjoyable. Not my usual type of burger, I’d give this one a 7.5.

 

Third Wave Cafe on Urbanspoon

The end of the night, I had a 1981 Macallan whilst Shane the 1979. Good vintages

The end of the night, I had a 1981 Macallan whilst Shane the 1979. Good vintages

Ok, so the reason why Shane and I decided to head to Japan for two days, or more specifically to Tokyo for two days, is 1) Because we got cheap flights, and 2) Because Tokyo has more 3 Michelin starred restaurants than anywhere on the face of the planet! Logically this would mean that it should be realtively straight forward to secure a table at one of these world class resturants. After much research and a few phone calls. Shane and I settled on Chateau Joel Robuchon in Ebisu. Joel Robuchon has more stars than pretty much anyone else so if you are going for the crème de la crème of fine dining then I’m pretty sure you can look no further. Restaurants Joel Robuchon does not take booking sooner than 2 months from the date, so we called on the first day possible and were lucky to secure our table. Both Shane and I were pretty excited to be flying to Japan ostensibly just for dinner at such a well regarded establishment.

When we booked we knew that we were going to have a big day wondering around Harajuku, Ginza and Tokyo, so we made sure that our booking was for 7:30. Enough time to see the sights and then head back to the hotel, relax, change and then back off to Ebisu. Anyway, lets fast forward shall we and focus on the big day!

There seemed to be something wrong with Shanes camera - all the photo's came out blurry :(

There seemed to be something wrong with Shanes camera – all the photo’s came out blurry :(

Oh, a side note: Unfortunately our photos suck, and we didn’t take any in the restaurant as it just isn’t the done thing in Japan. However we did get one at the end of the night – we asked if they could take one of us, which they were more than happy to do – that’s the photo up the top. You really don’t get a good grasp of the opulence of the restaurant from any of our photos. That’s probably the best way to describe Joel Robuchon – opulent.

Alright, well lets get stuck into the review:

We arrived early so that we could take a stroll around Ebisu and check out the restaurant – it’s an actual replica Château in the heart of modern Tokyo – really makes a statement. When you arrive you are treated impeccably from the start, these guys are as you would expect, at the top of their game in terms of hospitality.

The dinning room is an amazingly luxurious assault on the senses – We had a great location to see around the room and observe the other diners. I’ve included a shot from their website which gives you an impression of the room:

The Dinning room at Joel Robuchon Ebisu

The Dinning room at Joel Robuchon Ebisu

you can see more here: http://www.joel-robuchon.com/en/restaurants-tokyo-joelrobuchon.php

I noted interestingly that the waiter did not place the serviette on my lap – perhaps an interesting Japanese/Australian cultural difference? Regardless of a few little differences here or there which you could chalk up to being in a Japanese, French restaurant in Tokyo, for the most part we felt extremely well looked after as you would expect. We were served by about 4 main, different people, all of whom spoke some level of English. Our primary waiter and our sommelier both spoke very good English. So when we sat down and ordered there were not communication issues.

We were offered water shortly after we sat down – we chose sparkling of course (As with Melbourne, it was rather pricey – but then that’s the genous of the diners club – we don’t care about the price!), and then a trolley with a pile of hand cut ice and what looked to me like 4 Jeroboams (3lts bottles) of Champagne, and one of rose. The waiter enquired if we would like a glass – however this is where is gets interesting, the Champagne was Veuve Clicquot NV. Now I don’t want to sound like a wine snob here, but I’m in a 3 star restaurant about to order a 14 course degustation, I almost said no. I’m not a fan of the flat, apple juice like NV. It’s so soft and uninteresting. I wonder if that is a Japan thing. Shane and I were both unimpressed with this beginning, but then the restaurants whole approach to wine was interesting to say the least. I asked the sommelier for the wine list and unfortunately it didn’t offer us much in the way of solutions – neither of us wanted to order just one or even two bottles for the evening, and there just wasn’t any choices by the glass except for the 6 “suggestions” for the degustation – 6 wines for 14 course when you include the cheese course… I understand that wine is not particularly popular and perhaps this was the cultural issue once more. We did end up getting a glass of the Veuve, and once again I was really not impressed by the wine – it’s an uninteresting wine by my tastes, but c’est la vie as they say. Lets move on and hope for better.  We consulted our sommelier about matching the 6 wines, and he was very helpful considering that English was not his first language, he made a suggestion for the first wine and we then communicated to him that we wanted him to chose the wines for us throughout the evening. Crisis averted, I was worried for a moment that our combine language and cultural barriers might get in the way, but one again the professionalism of the staff here shone through.

Whilst waiting for our first course we had the pleasure of being introduced to the moving “boulangerie”, a cart piled high with freshly baked breads and pasteries that we would select thoughout the night to match our dishes, or even whenever we pleased! The first bread – which was a perfect little baguette, was served with an amazing fruity, virgin olive oil. Delicious. I’m often surprised at just how amazingly good the bread and butter is at top class restaurants, sometimes it’s almost my highlight! Of course they weren’t finished showing off – just as I was about to partake of this freshly baked baguette, another waiter arrives wheeling in a trolley with a 3ft high glass cloche, underneath which was a tower of French butter, which they then proceeded to hand carve for us. Is there better butter anywhere??

Ok, so lets just get on with the food and wine. Actually before I really get into it, the one hard thing about this write up is that due to the language barrier, the waiters were unable to fully guide us through each course. They could give us the over view but it was difficult to really get more detailed information about the dish. We had the same issue with the wine, the sommelier would tell us the wine and then leave the bottle for us to study – we had to work hard if we wanted to find our the grape variety beacuase, one – French labelling doesn’t list the grape – you need to know the region (Well, they might list the grape but I can’t read French, and/or couldn’t see it listed) and the waiters were finding it difficult to give us more than the basic details in English. We got there most times, but it was challenging – obviously no points deducted for any of this – I’m amazing at how well it all went considering we were in a non English speaking country, hats off to the whole team at Joel Robuchon, they did an outstanding job in this regard.

Anyway, so where was I? ah yes – the degustation:

I’ll bold the course title as it was listed on the menu:

Amuse-Bouche Le Caviar Imperial

Caviar with a delicate crustacean jelly served in a surprise tin

First dish was a show stopper – Straight away I thought – now this is why this place is a three star restaurant – pure decadence right there in the first course. The plate itself was a beautiful artistic creation, rising up with a mounded middle on which the surprise tin sat. There were little crystals on the side of the plate and the spoon was completely made of mother of pearl. Removing the lid and you were exposed to the mound of fresh caviar sitting in the light jelly, above a generous amount of picked lobster. This dish was spectacular. So well executed, fresh, rich, a slight taste of the sea, decadent – brilliant. However, we both felt the lack of a nice complex champagne to cut through the richness, and all we had was the disappointing Veuve Clicquot NV.Thankfully our sommelier started to match wines for us after this.

L’Orsin

Sea Urchin three ways:

  • With a coffee scented mash potato
  • In a maki with couscous and cucumber
  • With a fennel cream on a sea urchin blanc-manger

Ok, so we’ve just finished the first course which was amazing, and then out comes the second course, sea urchin done three different ways. The first, the coffee scented mash potato was interesting, a very light coffee note over a buttery rich mashed potato, then a light sea urchin hint – that was more texture than flavour, it’s like a hint of the sea really. Perhaps too delicate for this dish, the sea urchin was somewhat lost in the flavour of the buttery potato and the coffee scent. The maki was forgettable, not sure exactly what this was there for, perhaps to cleanse the palate? It seemed a bit too much on the cucumber front, flat. The fennel cream showed promise, a light pop of salt hit the mouth first then the perfume of the fennel, but again, very light. Very well executed though – my thoughts at the end were interesting but not show stopping.

 Le Potiron

Chilled Pumpkin Veloute enhanced with smoke

The is was the dish of the night – no doubt about it. A really sophisticated, yet refined, subtle, yet punchy dish. This is one of those dishes that sit up there in my top 5 all time meals. This was amazing – I knew I was at a three star establishment from the moment it hit my lips. The veloute had a light milk foam on top small hits of smoked oil and the diced pumpkin which was cooked until tender. The subtle hit of the smoke on the back of the creamy pumpkin liquid just worked so well.

It was after this dish that the Chef, Alain Verzeroli came to our table for a chat. The first thing he asked us how long we had been in the industry! I guess they must have thought we had come out to steal some ideas – or we were critics! He spoke about his style and philosophy -simple food done well, let the food speak for itself in a sense. He also knew a bit about the Melbourne food scene and had some experience with Vue de monde, Shannon Bennet’s amazing restaurant in Melbourne. We were pretty chuffed at having the opportunity to chat to a three starred chef – that doesn’t happen every day! It was also lovely of the waiter to bring him out to meet us, he had clearly overheard our non stop foodie table talk – I didn’t see it happen at any other table. Speaking of which, the clientele at the restaurants was quite interesting, it seemed like a special occasion restaurant as most of the groups were celebrating something. It’s quite interesting to observe the different way that the Japanese celebrate a special occasion such as a birthday or anniversary. The waiter would bring out a small cake with a candle, then the table would all gather around and the waiter would take a photo, and then very quiet polite applause, so as not to disturb anyone else in the restaurant. Fascinating.

Les Crustaces

Crustacean three ways:

  • In a spicy broth with fresh herbs
  • deep fried crab with green curry emulsion
  • Dublin bay prawn served with a lemongrass emulsion and oil, stewed leeks

This course was somewhat disappointing – the three options were all well executed, however they just didn’t seem linked enough – I feel a choice of one would have been better. The first dish I tried, the deep fried crab was nice, deep fried in a crispy thing wrapper, cooked tender with a nice green curry to dip it into…- But then I don’t want nice when I’m at a three star restaurant. I want every dish to be amazing. To sing in the mouth. If it doesn’t then it shouldn’t be on my plate. I can get nice at a lot of places, places I haven’t flown for 10 hrs to get to. I have to say this one was disappointing. The Dublin bay prawn (Langoustine), was a bit flat as well, again, nice, but just not making me sit up and take notice. Finally the spicy broth with fresh herbs was lovely, both Shane and I thought they would have been much better off just serving this on it’s own… At this stage the sommelier had brought out a really interesting viogner, the 2011 Paul Jaboulet Aine Condrieu Les Cassines.

La Noix de Saint-Jacques

Panfried scallop with seaweed butter, ginger and apple condiment , sorrel and baby turnip

Oh dear, another dish that I just kind of sighed after taking the first bite. Look, it was a perfectly cooked scallop, but it was just not the interesting – I felt it wasn’t adventurous enough, a little boring really. I wanted to be challenged, I wanted to really see a vision from the chef. Yes I know he is all about simplicity, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take me on an interesting journey at the same time. Good, but not great. The baby turnip was quite nice, it was stuffed with the sorrel and was actually really enjoyable.

La Figue

Fresh Fig covered with a red wine tuile and saved with panfried foie gras

Oh wow – back in three star town. Thank you chef. I feel like this has been a bit of an iron chef kind of meal where some of the dishes just didn’t hit the mark and then all of a sudden they come back with a standout dish. This was foie gras cooked to perfection. Such richness, such tenderness. And the fig, sweet and candy like, cutting through the immense richness of the duck liver. This is the kind of dish you want.

Le Fromage Persille

Blue cheese fondant served on plum and orange compote, maple syrup thin tartlet

And then we got this dish… I didn’t understand the point of this course at this stage. The dish was executed exceedingly well, but for all intents and purposes this was a cheese course – the gorgonzola fondant was lovely but quite strong. I thought this was the end of the meal. Quite strange actually, especially to have it followed up with a fish course.

La Sole

Panfired Dover Sole with almonds served on a brioche mousseline and caper coulis

Once again, a nice dish, but not amazing. The fish was interesting, cooked quite well – the Sole is a solid fish, not as delicate as I was expecting from a white fish. The caper coulis and the brioche mousseline were wonderful and really lifted the fish beyond being a plain, yet perfectly cooked firm white fish. Nothing really all that memorable.

Le Boeuf

Grilled Beef accompanied by spicy eggplant variation and tapenade jus

Oh, gosh, another hit. Thank the lord, I was getting worried. This dish was excellent and paired nicely with a lovely 2011 Chateauneuf-du-pape, ‘Cuvee Colombis’ from Domaine I. Ferrand. Everything you have heard about Japanese Wagyu is true -it’s amazing. so buttery and tender, delicious. If only this was a 4 course meal, and we could have just selected the hits, and left out the misses… The eggplant was amazing, there was a slice underneath the beef that tasted exactly like some of the best steak I’ve every had. Once again, amazing.

Les Legumes

Seasonal vegetables stewed and served with buckwheat’s seed

My first reaction WTF??? NO NO NO. This dish was just so underwhelming and disappointing. It was essentially a bowl of mixed vegetable!! Are you kidding me – I paid how much for this?? No seriously. Ok, so it wasn’t what I was expecting, lets all calm down for a moment and talk this through. Small bowl presented with a spoon filled with Buckwheat seed that I was supposed to pour over the dish to give it a different texture. Bowl had a lotus root, a Portobello mushroom – which to be fair was pretty damn good, and then some pathetic sautéed vegetables – some green beans, carrot… I was not impressed.

Cheese

At this stage the cheese cart comes out and both Shane and I are a little bit flat – this is not turning out to be the amazing gourmet experience we had hoped. When I thought of a three start restaurant I thought of the best I’ve had back home – Ben Shewry’s Attica in Ripponlea, or Matt Moran’s Aria in Sydney, or even Neil Perry’s Rockpool – and then I thought – it must be even better than any of these places. Nothing here really topped any of those places… Ok, sure the ambiance and the service was second to none – and let’s be honest the service here was like food theatre – such professionals. But the food was really a bit, dare I say it, disappointing. And don’t get me started on the wine – 6 wines for 14 courses, and not really matched!!!! Anyway, so by this stage yes we were both enjoying ourselves, but we were a bit flat. The cheese cart rolls by and we were asked if we would like to select some cheese. Why, of course we do… We selected an amazing Comté and a lovely Brie – we thought to share, and then they turned to me and asked what I would like – this after they had just carved off to big slabs of cheese – I just got the same I was so dumbfounded! We also asked to look at the digestif drinks menu as we generally finish our big nights with an Armagnac or two. Once again very disappointed by the list – I am used to encyclopaedic tomes in Melbourne and Sydney through which to select our beverage of choice – here there were about 5 or so Armagnac’s/cognac’s and some of them were just your basics you would find in any restaurant. Once again I would hazard a guess that this is a Japanese difference, as they had quite a selection of scotch’s, which are quite popular in Japan. I ordered the 1981 Macallan and Shane got the 1979 to come with the petit four.

Le Raisin Muscat

Fresh Mustcat grape with a lemon and honey jelly and an apple granite

Next cab off the rank was the very refreshing palate cleansing granite. This was a really simple yet lovely dish – this is the kind of dish I was expecting when we had chatted with the chef – you can get a feel for the ingredients in this dish, but you’re also impressed by the skill and mastery of the chef. This was a definite hit.

Le Carioca

Carioca papaya coulis and Guava mousse served with black currant sherbet

Ah the final dish before the petit four. These arrived with a flourish and both Shane and I were both impressed with the way the whole dish was presented. I recall my dessert was lovely, I really enjoyed the experience. I can’t say the same for Shane:

THE INCIDENT

This moment will live in infamy – is that a poor choice of words considering in the location? Ok, let me rephrase, there was a bloody HAIR in Shanes meal. A BIG THICK BLACK HAIR. I’m sorry, but that’s never happened to me even at McDonald’s. Perhaps I should have pulled a John McEnroe at this point – Are you serious??? So, I’m enjoying my delicious dessert when I look over to see Shanes face. He looks confused and a little sad. He points to his bowl, “have a look at this”… I look down. I say nothing to Shane, but I turn to the area where the waiters are and say “SUMIMASEN” rather forcefully. The waiter comes over with a questioning look and I point to Shanes bowl – “There is a hair in my friends dish!”. The waiters face drops – he looks as though someone has died. Shane fends off the offer of another dessert with some lame excuse, and the offending dish is removed forthwith. Both of us are confused and a little embarrassed. We don’t know where to look. Silence for a good 5 minutes. The waiters stay away from a while. We discuss the meaning of this incident for the meal. There’s no way that you can let that sort of thing slide. We both felt like mugs – I mean we just flew from Melbourne just to eat here. We spent 155,000 Yen on the meal – (They gave us 2,000 yen off for the offending dessert).

Nice of them to take 2000 yen off for the offending dessert...

Nice of them to take 2000 yen off for the offending dessert…

Neither of us knew what to do or say in this situation – the waiter eventually came back over and apologised and almost hit the floor when he bowed towards Shane. You could tell that they were all very upset as well. This sort of thing just shouldn’t happen.

Le Café express ou le The

Express coffee or tea served with petit four

I don’t really remember this point – I think I had a macaroon – I didn’t care, it all tasted like ash at this stage, I was too caught up in the Hair incident to really notice… The Maccallan did calm me down a bit, it was lovely after all…

We asked the waiter to call us a cab, and we waited and discussed the whole incident, in fact we talked about the incident again at a bar in Shinjuku where we decided to get a night cap and then again the next day at the Qantas lounge. The outcome of our discussions was this. Even if you set aside the hair incident, the meal was not what we were expecting for a 3 star restaurant. There were too many misses – and they were misses because they were just underwhelming, uninspired or just not special. To me, any dish at a three star restaurant has to make you say, wow. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be there. The degustation lacked vision or direction, at times I didn’t know what it was trying to do. At other times I thought it was a stripped back, very light  affair and then you get Duck liver or Blue cheese fondant??? This restaurant would probably not make my top five. That tells me that the Melbourne and Sydney food scenes are world class. I wonder if all three stars are like this? Something tells me not… Michelin, lift your game!

 

 

Food tour – Tokyo by night – Japanese food tour:

So we were running late for our food tour, thankfully the public transport system here is a breeze and runs like clockwork. One of the things I really liked about the trains was the computerized screens above each door which showed you where you were on the loop, and how long to each of the stations. It would flick between Japanese and English so it really was quite easy getting around.

The trains were packed, each station seemed like a Flinders street sized station at peak hour – but unlike back home, the trains were designed to carry large numbers of people and it really wasn’t hard, everyone got on and off quickly, people seemed to just know what to do, where to stand – everything just seemed to work like clockwork. Knowing this, I also sensed that we would need to be on time for the tour…

Underneath Yurkocho station

Underneath Yurkocho station – we made it on time!

Getting off the train and trough the station in a rush was a bit tricky, but we managed to find the entrance where we were to meet our guide. Clearly we don’t blend in because our tour guide managed to spot us out the front of the station. Our tour guide came over and introduced herself, Silvia who was actually from Brazil. Interesting story, she had come back to look after her grandmother who was sick, after both her parents had migrated to Brazil from Japan. This gave her an interesting perspective on Tokyo, having only lived in Japan for 8 years, yet being Japanese by birth. She seemed really friendly and easy to talk to, she gave us the run-down of the night – her English was excellent so there were no communication issues.

This is a little alley under the train tracks. Here you find all the Yakitori bars

This is a little alley under the train tracks. Here you find all the Yakitori bars

 

We started off by heading down under the train tracks into what seemed like a scene out of Blade runner – this little tiny alleyway, food stalls and tiny bars to either side, apparently a place that the office workers will go after work for a drink and a snack before catching the train back home. It was in this area that there were a lot of Yakitori restaurants, which basically means to grill over coals. We were taken to a tiny little place, there’s no way you would know to come here without a guide – and Silvia proceeded to make the arrangements. We sat up at the bar, overlooking the grill, wood charcoal heating a grill on which various skewered foods would be placed and basted. We were presented with hot hand towels which Silvia explained were used before the meal to clear your hands – Japanese don’t tend to use napkins – they think they’re weird. You don’t use these towels to wipe your face by the way, just your hands. Fascinating little details you just wouldn’t know otherwise. Another detail that I learnt was that the lanterns out the front of a bar indicate that the place serves drinks and food – if they are lit, the place is open.

 

The chef at work at the Yakitori grill

The chef at work at the Yakitori grill

The Yakitori was really interesting, watching the chef at work was a treat – they use a sugar sweetened sake and soy basting liquid, which is sweet and salty, I think they also added some salt to the cooking meats and vegetables as they went. You see the grill flame up occasionally and get the smell off the grill – its mouth watering stuff. Apparently there are a couple of key differentials between each Yakitori place, first is the choice of wood used for the coals, you get a huge difference in flavor depending on the choice. And secondly is the choice of sake used in the basting sauce – generally it would be a cooking wine, however, at this place they use a dinking sake which is not the norm.  It seems like the meat is usually chicken, however there is also a range of vegetables and tofu. They get served on little plates and you generally eat it off the skewer. Although since we were sharing a few of them, I had to get the chopsticks out. I actually did pretty well, although Shane was much more adept than I was. For the tour you also get the choice of a beer or sake for the night, since we had planned to buy more drinks as we went we weren’t too fussed so we asked Silvia what would traditionally go well with Yakitori, the answer for Yakitori was beer so that’s what we got.  I quite like Japanese beer, it’s generally very fresh and lightly hopped. It’s not heavy like a lot of the beers we’re getting back home these days, and it’s always perfectly poured. They take that very seriously. I really enjoyed the Yakitori, the Gogi berries were interesting, they had that salty Edamamae bar snack vibe, but with a slightly different texture, the tofu skewer was actually pretty good, although my favourite would have to have been the chicken mince.

This selection includes the Gogi berries

This selection includes the Gogi berries

A selection of the yakitori that we had

A selection of the yakitori that we had

It was great to have Silvia to ourselves, it really gave us the opportunity to ask questions and it felt like a really personalized tour as a result – although she was just really easy going and fun so I am sure that even if it had been a bigger group it would still have been great fun. Silvia mentioned that quite often her groups are anything from 7 to 12 people so we got pretty lucky for it to just be the two of us on a Saturday night.

Next stop was back to the Yurakucho train station, where we picked up some fish shaped sort of doughnut things called Taiyaki, which were filled with things like red bean past, fruit paste, cheese, chocolate. We got them early as the place would have closed by the time we got back from dinner. We ate these later when we got back to the hotel – I would suggest that they taste better warm, like doughnuts, but either way they were quite tasty. Back onto the train – this time it was good to have Silvia as she was able to explain a few things about the trains in Japan. One thing I learned was that the screens over the doors don’t just show you the loop and times to each station – as you come into a station they also show you which carriage you are on and where the stairs/exists are so you know which way to walk. Little things like this just make life so much easier.

Just in case someone falls onto the tracks - we know what to do now!

Just in case someone falls onto the tracks – we know what to do now!

Anyway, we were off to a different part of town for the second meal, an up market residential area called Tsukishima that’s down by the river. Again, not a place you would come to unless you knew what you were looking for. This is the area known for the Monjayaki style of cooking. Monjayaki is probably a style of cooking/food that you’ve never hear of – but some of you may have hear of Okonomiyaki, which we can get back home – it’s similar to this but has a much runnier batter. Anyway, Siliva took us to the area that is most well known for this style restaurants, the street here is almost exclusively Monjayaki! Anyway, so what is Monjayaki ? Basically it’s where you have a hot plate on the table and cook the food yourself – It’s really quite fun. You order the a big bowl of ingredients – it comes with a cabbage base, then seafood, pork, even cheese if you want it, there’s also a very light batter in the bottom of the bowl. You cook the veg and meat first and then make a space and pour in the batter and mix the ingredients all together.

Working hard on the grill - Monjayaki style

Working hard on the grill – Monjayaki style

Monjayaki

Monjayaki

You can make it into a pancake sort of thing similar to Okonomiyaki, or you can spread it really thin and let it get crispy on the bottom. It has a consistency of melted cheese, and like cheese, will go crispy if you cook it enough. You then just use the little spatulas to eat of the grill as you go.

Silvia making the Okonomiyaki

Silvia making the Okonomiyaki

It was a lot of fun, but hot work. Thankfully we had some cool refreshing sake to go with it all. The thing with sake, is that you are not supposed to pour it yourself, you should always pour it for your friend first, and you should never leave the glass empty. Apparently if you are dining on your own the staff will pour for you. Anyway, so the Monjayaki was a lot of fun, taste wise not the greatest food I’ve eaten, but I guess you would learn how to make it better as you go and what combos work, but for a unique experience I’d highly recommend. Once we’d polished off the Monjayaki, Silvia ordered the Okonomiyaki. Whereas Monjayaki is a local cuisine, Okonomiyaki is from further south in Hiroshima. This is the more common pancake that we are familiar with back home. Silvia cooked this one and you can see it looks much better, she added the sauces and the Benito flakes, although I had to get a taste in before Shane took the photo so I ruined it a bit!

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Finally (wow, getting full), we had to have dessert – in this case it’s called Chokomaki! It’s basically a crepe batter that they cook for you, and then add chocolate pieces to.

Chokomaki being made

Chokomaki being made

Chocolate added then rolled up

Chocolate added then rolled up

Tasty! After all this eating it was time to head back. Silvia took us for a walk around the area and down to the river; it was actually quite dark and not very well lit as you can see from the photo.

Tsukishima by the water

Tsukishima by the water

We walked back past a playground on the way back to the train station and of course Shane couldn’t hold back the inner child and just had to play on the swings… Finally we got back to the train station, Silvia gave us directions to get the subway back to Shinjuku instead of the Yamanote line, which would save us about 20mins, and then we were back in Shinjuku. It was still raining a bit, and it was getting quite late, but that didn’t stop people from being out and about. The bright lights of Shinjuku were pretty full on for our tired eyes – you have to remember that we had only landed that morning and had really been on the go all day – I mean what a massive day – to think only 24hrs ago I had been getting on a plane in Melbourne!

Pretty tired at this stage

Back in Shinjuku – Pretty tired at this stage

We decided to get a nightcap from one of the bars in Shinjuku before heading back to the hotel, we went to this tiny little whiskey bar on the 8th floor of a building in the shopping district of Shinjuku – I think there were three other people in there and it was crowded. After that I was pretty much asleep on my feet so we decided to head back to our rooms – where I pretty much fell asleep as my head hit the pillow.

 

The craziness of the journey that Shane and I were to embark on only began to sink in as I was leaving work on Friday afternoon. Up until then I had been too busy to really think about the trip. We had caught up during the week to book a tour and discuss the trip, but really there hadn’t been a lot of planning involved since we had booked the restaurant in early September. When Shane arrived with the suitcase, it all got a little bit exciting – I packed hurriedly, and we enjoyed a beer while we waited for our driver to arrive – of course we weren’t getting a lift to the airport or catching a regular taxi, we were going in style. The trip to the airport was uneventful, on the journey there we organized for our driver to pick us up on the Monday night, until then we hadn’t given much thought to Monday. Friday to Monday, 20hrs of flights, two nights and two full days in Tokyo. This was going to be fun. Checking in and getting through customs was straight forward, and pretty soon we were on our way to find a drink and collect ourselves before the adventure began. Thankfully Shane still had his gold Qantas frequent flyer status (Which expired on the 31st October!) so we had access to the Qantas international business lounge.

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Free food and drink is always appreciated! Thanks Qantas International Business Lounge!

It makes a difference to the start of the journey, being able to sit, relax and just get a drink or a bite to eat whenever you feel like it. We had about an hour and a half in the lounge before boarding – and then we were on our way. We were on the A330-200 which is configured in a 2-4-2 seating arrangement, I’d selected two seats in the window so it was nice not to have to share with a stranger or have to worry about climbing over 2 people. The Jetstar international seats have a bit more leg room than the domestic ones, and so even though Shane and I are both over 6ft, we still had enough room to be reasonably comfortable. Ok, so it’s no Qantas business class lay flat bed, but whatever – it did the job. The flight’s pretty easy, 10hrs give or take, overnight landing in the morning, I got about 4hrs of good sleep and dozed for another 2, Shane probably got a little less.

Landing in Narita was easy, getting through customs was efficient, very little Japanese between the two of us was no problem at all – all the signs were in English and Japanese. I even managed to purchase a coke at a little kiosk. I knew a couple of words – I tried those out, the man responded in Japanese, I smiled and nodded, showed him the coke I wanted, smiled and nodded some more and eventually gave him some money and he gave me the coke. Japanese is easy…

Because Shane Sucks at photo's, I thought I'd include a pic of what the train actually looks like - and some info about it. It's no shinkansen, but it was still cool

Because Shane  and I suck at photo’s, I thought I’d include a pic of what the train actually looks like – and some info about it. It’s no Shinkansen, but it was still cool

We had booked the Skyline express to Nippori, a fast train, the goes about 160kph and gets you into Nippori station which is on the Yamanote JR line. I was expecting some challenges catching public transport, but it was so easy. We had to change in Nippori, and purchase tickets to get us to Shinjuku. Once again, simple task – we asked at the help desk, they spoke English, we got our tickets and we were directed to the platform to catch the train. Easy. Why can’t we get a public transport system in Melbourne that works like this? It was about 9am by the time we got to Shinjuku – there didn’t seem to be a huge amount of people around, and a lot of shops hadn’t opened yet. The Shinjuku station by the way is huge – and mostly underground. However the signage makes sense and is easy to follow. We eventually climbed out of the station to be greeted by Shinjuku. Wow. This place is like times square – but crazier. Billboards everywhere, quite a few people out and about, even though a lot of shops are still closed – This was my Dorothy moment – I was not in Kansas anymore.

Our first mission was to get to the hotel, Shane’s GPS made that task pretty easy and after about 20mins of wondering around Shinjuku we arrived at the Grandbell hotel. Since check-in didn’t open until 3pm we got them to hold our bags, I changed in the toilets and we got ready to explore around Shinjuku.

Walking around Shinjuku, we realized that we had booked ourselves into a hotel situated near the red-light district – there seemed to be a lot of “love hotels” and gay bars. Lots of night clubs and bars – you could tell it would be an interesting area at night, wondering through all the small back alleys – early on the Saturday morning after Halloween there was evidence of the partying from the evening before, and people still in costume, or still drunk… Yep, this side of Shinjuku was certainly interesting. We decided to head back closer to the station which seemed more like an upmarket shopping area, which had the more reputable bars and restaurants. I needed to find something to eat and perhaps do some shopping. The weather wasn’t too bad at this stage, a light shower or two occasionally, but generally mild, about 22c. Indoors however, it was always quite hot, they don’t like to use the air-conditioning apparently – Had to keep taking my jacket off.

Not all that different to back home...

Not all that different to back home…

Check out my post on the Burger section for a clip and more information about the Burger experience!

Check out my post on the Burger section for a clip and more information about the Burger experience!

The first place we stopped off was Burger King – now I know you might think that’s a bit stupid – fly all the way to Japan just to get a burger you can get at home. Well, actually, the burgers here are different – you can’t get these at home. They have this black burger called the Kuro Diamond. It’s in a Black bun, with Black cheese and a black sauce, normally patty, mayo, tomato and lettuce. How could I pass up that sort of opportunity? So I ordered the burger with some onion rings and a coke zero – once again, my pointing, smiling and nodding skill were showcased to great effect. Monies were exchanged – and food was provided. Easy. Shane got a whopper with avocado and fries – a little different, but essentially the same. The meals were provided quickly, and they were presented perfectly on the try – it looked like what you see on a commercial – these Japanese take pride in everything they do. I unwrapped my burger and took the first bite – and that was about all I wanted to take. Honestly, disgusting. I felt sick. The black shiny cheese and the black sauce had this weird flavor combination going on – sort of vegemite mixed with mushroom soy and oyster sauce thing going on – it was just wrong. At least I can say I’ve had a black burger… The onion rings were quite nice and Shane was kind enough to give me some of his fries.

We decided to make our way back towards the shopping district in Shinjuku to kill some time before we could check in. The area around the station is quite built up and home to a range of up-market shopping options – from Zara and Topshop, tiffanies and coach. Plus there’s a whole bunch of electronics stores alongside a multitude of bars and restaurants. By this stage it was clear that the place had woken up, people were everywhere – there was just no end to the hoards of people.  By this stage the weather had also taken a turn for the worse and was raining fairly heavily. We decided to see if we could find some umbrellas, walking into the first likely store, to be greeted by photos of naked women – it seemed like a normal gift shop kind of place from the outside, they sold gifts and books and dvd’s, I guess kind of like a news agent – but there was no censoring of the photos, obviously not worried about kids walking in? I guess f you could read the signage you’d know… Anyway, we got out two tiny clear umbrellas for about 300 yen each and then continued to wander Shinjuku. Shopping for clothes here is pointless if you are bigger than a medium. I wanted to see if I could pick up a sports jacket – their idea of XL is probably closer to our medium. Their XL pants were 92cm – Didn’t worry about trying to find any clothes after that.

I also needed to get a USB cable so I could charge my phone – I’d brought the charger/adapter, just not a USB cord. Managed to pick one up from an electronic store by holding up my phone, pointing to the mini-USB port and saying charger – cost me about 2000 Yen, but I got what I needed eventually. After all that shopping, we decided that we really needed to find a spot to sit down and grab a refreshing beverage. Getting a table in Tokyo is easy, walk in to the bar or restaurant of choice, wait until the person greeting you has stopped talking, smile, nod, then hold up the same number of fingers as people in your dining party. Follow the waiter/waitress as y moving along saying “Hai, hai” Sit down. Smile and nod. I’m pretty much a local by this stage. The menus normally have photos, so Shane and I pointed to the photos of the beer, held up two fingers, smiled and nodded. Two beers arrived a short time later. This time however, I wanted to get creative. I whipped out the phrase book and after getting the waitresses attention – sisimasen – potatoru firu, arigato. Smile, nod. Some 5 minutes later, a bowl of chips and tomato sauce arrived at our table. Yep, I knew Japanese was easy.

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Pretty tired by this stage…

It was getting towards checking in time so we started to walk back to our hotel, stopping for refreshments as we went. This time we walked through the less respectable area of Shinjuku, there are “Girl bars” everywhere, dodgy looking bars, nightclubs and lots of hairdressing salons. Apparently there’s quite the cross dressing thing going on here. The hair dressing salons are to help you get that “feminine” look. We did a bit of research and read a few horror stories about drink spiking and getting mugged so we decided not to risk going out in this area of town.

A walk way on the way back to the hotel.

A walk way on the way back to the hotel.

Finally checked in at about 3pm, got to our rooms and discovered that a small room in Japan is pretty bloody small. There is no extra space, you get a king single – although they call is a double – no chance of two normal sized westerners in there.

Tiny Bed

Tiny Bed

A tiny bath/shower, and a toilet. – that’s about it. The toilets by the way are pretty cool. They have inbuilt seat warmers, a bidet and a blow dryer. All controlled by a remote on the side. Shane in particular was pretty excited by the toilet. I think he took a dozen photo’s, I hope no action shots. Anyway, here’s just to give you an idea of the controls!

Confusing - but the best part was the seat warmer!

Confusing – but the best part was the seat warmer!

By this stage we had been going for quite some time with very little sleep so showers, a change of clothes and a really quick accidental nap were the order of the day. I lay down after my shower and woke up 30 mins later. By this stage we had to get going because we had our tour booked – Tokyo by night. We had to get from Shinjuku to Yurakucho, once again relying on public transport. We purchased Suica cards from the ticket machines at Shinjuku station  – which all display in English if you press the button and loaded up some funds – 500Y to buy the card and the 1500 loaded (I had 300 left over by the end of our trip). Once again we were traveling on the Yamanote line which is like a big loop around Tokyo. It’s so easy to catch and there’s pretty much a train every few minutes. I don’t think we waited for more than 2 or 3 minutes ever. It takes about 30mins from Shinjuku to Yurakucho and we were supposed to meet our guide out the front at 5pm, since we caught the 4:27pm train we were cutting it fine.

I’ll update the food tour soon…

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Ok, so I’m in Japan for two days only – what’s the first thing I eat? Obviously a burger – But not any burger. The Kuro Diamond “Black Burger”. Wondering around the streets of Shinjuku early Saturday morning I noticed something strange. A Burger King – OK, not that strange, sure we call them Hungry Jacks back home, but I’m aware the rest of the world calls them by their real name “Burger King”. That’s not the strange part – the strange part was the Black Burger being advertised on the sign out the front – a big black version of the Whopper??

I turned to Shane at this point and made it clear to him that regardless of whatever pretensions we may have had about eating and experiencing the best that Japan has to offer, this would have to be the starting point!

Anyway, so I made my way to the counter and smiled towards to serving girl – hoping that I could make myself understood. Thankfully the menu is full of photos, so I was able to simply point, smile and nod – and throw in an Arigato, place some money on the counter and the order was made! I got onion rings and a coke – Shane was less willing to experiment and so he just got a whopper with avocado, fries and a drink. Once done with the ordering we sat down in the (very clean) restaurant and awaited our breakfast burgers.

The food arrived looking like it had been arranged for a photo shoot – everything perfectly wrapped and positioned just so (Gee these Japanese fast food workers take their jobs seriously – well done), I was impressed. This could only mean that the food would hopefully meet the same exacting standards. Unwrapping my burger, I was pleased to note that it looked pretty good – sure the black bun was a little off putting – apparently it’s coloured using squid ink and bamboo charcoal – but I was willing to give it a shot. The Kuro Diamond is the more expensive version of the Kuro burgers, this one comes with tomato, lettuce, onion, cheese, mayo and what appeared to be black BBQ sauce of some sort. Picking up the bun and bringing it in for closer inspection, you get the feel of the burger – a good sized patty that looks as though it’s got a bit of pepper though it, then you spot the cheese… The cheese is a bit much, it’s a shiny black, the colour of coal, covered with the dark BBQ sauce and the whole thing just seems wrong to my Australian eyes – but I’m also excited to taste this crazy thing. The white of the mayo and the green and red of the salad contrasts so strongly, its a really weird burger to get your head around. Oh well, nothing left but to dive in and take a big bite. First bite and my first reaction is, um, that’s interesting… Um, actually that’s a bit wrong. The black cheese and the black sauce, combine with the bun and peppered patty to give a very savory/Umami flavour, it kind of  reminded me of Vegemite, combined with mushroom soy, garlic and oyster sauce (Not that I’ve ever had that combination…). At least that’s what came to mind. Shane gave it a shot and left it a one bite as well, apparently he quite enjoyed his whopper and fries. At least my onion rings were good.

If I had to give this burger a score it would be a 2 for taste, but I think that’s a bit unfair.  I mean, it’s actually prepared and cooked very well for a fast food burger. The meat appears to be a higher quality that the usual fare we get back home and it was put together with care. Obviously I just didn’t like the flavours, but I hear it’s pretty popular in Japan… Below is my video of that first and only bite.