There’s something about don. Don being donburi, the Japanese word for rice bowl dishes. It conjures images of comfort food, of dinners in front of the TV with a stolen airplane blanket and someone you love. A bowl is an object capable of being cupped, hugged and loved. Plates in comparison are far too flat and sterile. Last Sunday, Sarah and I paid a visit to Juan Bowl & Tea, arguably the most talked about Japanese venue in Sydney at the moment.
Our lunch decisions are slightly left of field, especially if you’ve been part of the social media world that hasn’t stopped banging on about the very prettiful Wagyu. It’s not difference for difference sake, I’m not usually partial to beef and neither is Sarah. I’m feeling vegetarian on that day, leaning towards the Vegetarian Smokey Curry ($16). The fact that I can’t remember the last time I’ve had Japanese curry seals the deal for me. Sarah, who once lived like a local in Singapore, picks the Hainan Chicken ($16).
The food takes awhile to arrive but one sympathises as you peer into the open kitchen that lends full transparency as to how small their operations are. If anything, the modesty of it all makes me feel like I am the rude one who has barged into chef and owner, Anna Ishiguro’s abode. Her incredibly tasteful abode, I might add. Sarah and I chat, often fluidly, sometimes disjointed and candidly, a mirror image of the ebb and flow of our banter on WhatsApp. Every now and then we make small talk with Isaac and Anna (Chan) at the next table. Our seats are so close we might as well have been eating together. While they have taken up the Wagyu and Tonkatsu, they have also gone rogue by not adhering to the menu’s tea pairing. We’re all rebels today.
Finally our bowls are here and as the cafe trend in Sydney dictates, it’s too pretty to eat. The vegetable gang is all here with corn, tomato, zucchini and avocado to name a few. Every piece is charred which super charges their delicate flavouring, and this is all prior to playing with the pour of curry. I resist dousing it in thick spiced gravy, preferring to ration out my amount of curry. Despite doing so, I find that I’ve run out anyway before I even get to the avocado. I’m unsure if presentation has created this illusion but Japanese curry, one that you’d normally associate with late night binges and regrettable decisions, is as elegant as the components, right down to the fluffy koshihikari rice. While not an outstanding dish in its own right, there’s a certain element of thoughtfulness that permeates through every bite.
Between our combined South East Asian heritage, Sarah and I must have eaten over 100 portions of hainanese chicken rice. On my end, I’ve had some of the best and some fairly pedestrian from my local hawker behind my grandmother’s house. Her experience is similar, Sarah says. The dish arrives and it looks nothing like what our childhood knows. In fact, it looks like Sarah’s Hainan Chicken dropped its usual styrofoam box and went shopping for Louboutins and a Chanel bag. Corn-fed chicken has been rolled up like roulade with the ginger shallot sauce sitting on top like a collection of emeralds. There are honey tomatoes and pickled cucumber, the richer cousins of the token vegetables you get from purchasing fried rice or economy rice in Malaysia. And the same koshihikari rice is overlaid with a lemongrass ginger light soy sauce. It’s everything we know flipped and reversed, then viewed through Ishiguro’s kaleidoscope. The dish works to an extent. Not the most tender poached chicken I’ve had but mix it all in (and this time you should), it tastes like balik kampung in adult form.
Like a painting that resonates, the food at Juan Bowl & Tea makes you want to linger, whether that’s for better or for worse. The reason you’ve given up precious hours of your weekend to be there isn’t merely to eat or for the in-and-out experience. No, you’re at Juan to satiate at a leisurely pace or to breathe in the interior or to be a willing participant in Anna Ishiguro’s edible performance art. Or all of the above.