It all started with Vue De Monde.
One week after Chika’s birthday lunch we were still indulged in this concept of ‘dining as theatrical experience’.
I started reading a lot more about food. Italian documentary about wine? Sure. Manga about Japanese cuisine? Bookmarked on the iPad. Yotham Ottolenghi’s vegetarian cookbook? In the Amazon shopping cart. The Melbourne Magazine shoot with Shannon Bennett simply added fuel to the fire as I realised all cookbooks and DVDs suddenly became tax-deductible.
It was only a matter of time until I stumbled across articles about the upcoming restaurants on the Michelin guide. And since we’ve been ‘planning’ on planning a trip to Japan I simply googled “Michelin-restaurant-Japan”.
Tokyo had a list as long as a public toilet paper roll, so I simply moved on to the Kansai region. Osaka had five on the list. Much better. I studied their websites: Kashiwaya, Koryu and Taian offered traditional Japanese cuisine which didn’t quite interest me (I prefer my Japanese food nasty, like ramen and katsu-curry in little alleys), Hajime specialises in French, and Fujiya 1935 had ‘fusion’ written under their category. To my surprise, Fujiya 1935 costs about $100 per person for a full course. It was less than half the price of Vue De Monde. Heck, walk into any B-grade restaurant in Melbourne, order some wine, you’re bound to hit $80 per person. (As I was writing this the standard price of a take away Pad Thai noodles in Melbourne cost $16.)
I wanted to book a ticket to Osaka straight away. But Chika shook her head and gave me a look that I usually give her whenever she talks about owning her own cupcake shop in the future: you crazy. And she was right. we weren’t booking a flight to Japan just to dine in a cheaper-but-still-quite-expensive restaurant. (Cupcakes, however, is definitely a failing business model. Girls need to snap out of that shit. )
And then life happened. My interest faded. The more I read about gourmet food and fine dining the more I felt like I was gravitating towards the ‘foodie‘ circle. The ‘too much time and money but not gutsy enough to do something truly creative’ circle. I started detecting a lot of marketing bullshit between the lines of gastronomy and I just wanted to eat simple food. I reclined into making soft boiled eggs, mayonaise, miso soup and Chinese XO sauce to go with instant noodles. I was masking everything I didn’t know by proclaiming that I was simply ‘respecting the basics’, unknowingly becoming the most pretentious type of foodie of all.
I knew I hit rock bottom when I wrote a blog post about a local cafe’s (mis)use of ginger and the owner somehow tracked it down, got offended, and left a nasty comment. It was the equivalent of me vandalizing a wall at the dead end of the blogosphere and someone threw a milkshake back in my face yelling ‘you suck!’
Then on a cold autumn evening, Chika jumped in front of her computer: Jetstar was selling return tickets to Osaka for $500. Jump to us clearing schedules and booking hotels.
Jump to me going through my browser history, half hoping that it wasn’t too late to make a restaurant booking. Chika reminded me that I still had to make a decision between the French, or the fusion. I researched further and found out that Fujiya 1935 had a reputation as the Japanese El Bulli. I was intrigued. I wondered if Fujiya would use similar European techniques with local Japanese ingredient. Chika pulled the trigger and reserved two spots via Skype.
Jump to 2 months later, we were drenched in cold sweat in Umeda Station at Osaka.
I’ve forgotten to include which train line we needed to catch on my roughly scribbled map. We were 10 minutes late and I reassured her that everything would be ok (a lie) and the restaurant was used to obnoxious clients being late all the time (another lie). My fake confidence collided with a huge amount of luck and we managed to find the place only 10 minutes later.
Fujiya 1935 was, to our surprise, a renovated town house in a negligible town.
It had 3 levels: reception and kitchen on ground floor, dining tables on the second, and washroom on the third. It was cosy, yet modern, and considered. I took a liking to the place immediately. While we were waiting for our table, sipping our lemongrass infused chamomile tea, I asked about the name. The old lady said 1935 was the year the Fujiwara family started their restaurant. They used to do traditional Japanese Kaiseki cuisine, the ‘fusion’ change happened only 2 years ago, instigated by their current successor, Tetsuya.
A Japanese defying family tradition, changing the very core of deep rooted cultural cuisine before updating the business with new cooking philosophy and technique, then receiving 3 stars recognition from Michelin in 2 years? That’s some Japanese sorcery, right there.
Caviar. There it was, plated on top of a pool of butternut squash puree. Asking me to describe the taste of caviar is like asking a baby to describe its first walking experience: I don’t remember much. Looking at the pictures, however, triggered a sweet sensation on my tongue. That I assume spoke more about the pumpkin than the caviar.
We were seated next to a father and his daughter. Or so I thought. Through their little chit chats we started suspecting that it was enjo kosai - the once common phenomena of young girls accompanying older men for money, taking place. It was pretty judgmental of us, of course. They could easily be uncle and niece but hey, we have our own rights as tourist to conjure our very own unforgettable dining experience.
Our following starters were pistachio marshmallow, green leaf drop of dew, and… cheese balls, according to my English menu. I’m sure a huge amount of effort went into crafting these delicate dishes, but my soul mourned for the oversimplifying translation of the dishes. The dews, especially, seemed like one of those magnificent El Bulli ‘floating ravioli’ dishes, which involved some hardcore technique.
What I COULD definitely see, was the theme of the course. Green leaves, bird’s nest, dews, nut-looking cheese balls. It was the forest. It was autumn. And maybe a large implication of hipsterism.
The next dish cracked me up. It was a ‘mini sweet potato’. It reminded me of my mum’s story about how my grandparents used to eat sweet potato during the war because that was all they could afford while rice was a novelty. Nowadays we cook rice at home and travel overseas to see chefs created tiny versions of sweet potatoes with normal sized ones.
At this stage, we had a gaijin waiter coming by and introduced himself as Carlos. Carlos spoke perfect English and volunteered to explain the dishes to me, if I needed more clarification.
We then had ‘Bread of marron, with a lot of bubbles’. The marron wasn’t the crayfish from Western Australia, but Marron Glace, the culinary name for chestnut in French. It indeed seemed like it had a lot of bubbles.
And then grilled conger eel (never heard of it) paired up with scooped tiny eggplant balls followed suit.
The description of the next dish broke my heart too: several beans, white shrimp. It sounded like the porno version of Jack and the Beanstalk. What they should’ve written was what Carlos told me: seasonal beans and shrimp fillings sandwiched by delicate fried noodles, decorated with flowers and micro herbs.
They also served bread. But what tickled our fancy wasn’t the wooden box with the hot plate to keep them warm; it was the cheesy butter and pork lard with bacon bits to go with the bread.
The main dishes happened in a flash for me. Possibly because I was trying to keep up with the pairing wines that accompanied the course. (Wine pairing was an extra 2000 yen. That’s $25 for 4 glasses of wine. 5 if you include the complementary dessert wine. Again, what the fuck Melbourne?)
We had sweet fish with eggs. And by eggs they meant the tiny roes inside the fish’s belly grilled to teeth-popping perfection.
The mains were crab with black beans pasta fedelini (my favourite of the night: oh the sweet taste of ocean infused into the pasta), and perfectly cooked duck with ground nut and edible plants.
Desserts were Japanese pear merengue, fig with yoghurt cream, more marron (chestnut) pudding with rum flavored coffee jelly, and their very own bon bon chocolate.
What is a bon bon you say? Well ‘bon’ is the equivalent of ‘good’ in French (think Bon Voyage). So Bon Bon Chocolate meant ‘double goodie chocolate’: basically a pair of chocolate balls. (Also explains Ricky Martin’s hit song: Shake Your Bon Bon.)
We ended the course with their very own flavour-infused (I had nashi pear, Chika thinks she had yuzu) dessert wine.
By then we had a large group of six middle-aged groupies sitting on the other side, taking photos with their iPad exclaiming ‘excellent, excellent’ like Mr. Burns from the Simpsons.
If you think I am rushing this post by concluding the meal hastily, this was exactly how I felt during the meal. Don’t get me wrong, it was great, it was intoxicatingly gourmet. I just didn’t have the attention span to sustain the excitement for 3 hours (4 wines, remember?).
I actually spoke a lot to Carlos, and the old lady from reception. They were super helpful and attentive to our questions about the dishes and their history. Carlos even gave us a detailed and straight-forward instructions to get back to Umeda station.
So was the experience worth it? Did it make me more or less of a pretentious foodie? Let me put it this way: 2 blocks after leaving Fujiya 1935 we walked pass an Okonomiyaki shop. It looked tiny and was filled with salarymen. The chef, with his towel wrapped around his head was cooking his okonomiyaki’s with the proper giant rounded lid and Chika gave me a look which I understood straightaway: we had to come back to this place.
We didn’t change a bit.
The thought of ‘standard improvement’, that life will become better after eating at a three-star Michelin restaurant is as absurd as thinking that listening to opera would turn you into an intellect.
We had a long conversation on our way home. She thinks Carlos’ English explanation was better than the Japanese’s explanation. She really liked the wine. I thought there were too many bird decorations, I love the sink in the toilet, and crayfish and chestnut shouldn’t share the same name.
Fact is, if you think your life would change after a meal, you have life issues to work out.
It’s an experience, nothing more or less. And only a good experience if your company appreciates it as much as you do.
If anything, I’d recommend finding the activity that would spring-board and energize your trip. Whether that includes a three-star Michelin restaurant or not, is totally up to you.