Tokyo Day 1: Roppongi Robataya

Today marks the start of a 12 day adventure in Japan. We left Sydney early this morning and landed at Tokyo Narita at 5pm. After an hour on the train, a quick stop at our hotel and another couple of layers (it is COLD), we stepped out into the city.

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Dinner was in Roppongi, a neighbourhood that’s undergone a transformation in recent years, casting off its reputation as a hedonistic watering hole in favor of a more sophisticated, classier image. Today, Roppongi is known for some of the city’s best food, bars, shopping and culture.

As we stepped in from the cold to Roppongi Robataya, we were greeted with a chorus of irrashaimase’s and a beautiful spread of fresh fruit, vegetables and live seafood. The space is wood-paneled and cozy, in the way that you might imagine a Japanese ski chalet to look, and the staff is warm and engaging.

“Robatayaki” or, more commonly “Robata” translates to “fireside cooking”, and is a style of Japanese cuisine in which morsels of seafood and vegetables are skewered and slow-grilled over hot charcoal.

The origins of Robata can be traced back hundreds of years to the fishing communities of Hokkaido where, at the end of the day, fisherman would encase hot coals in a stone box on their boats and gather round the makeshift hearth to partake in the day’s spoils.Here in Roppongi, our chefs for the night sat at the center of the room behind a sunken grill, with less than 15 customers seated at the semi-circular bar around them.

After a hot towel, some tea and a pouring of saké, our server gestured to the spread and asked what we’d like to eat. For someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy looking at menus, it doesn’t get much better than this: I felt like a kid in a candy shop and immediately pointed at various delicious looking vegetables.We chose asparagus, some enoki mushrooms, an eggplant and a hearty plate of fava beans. We also picked out a cut of fish and a giant prawn from the gorgeous tabletop tank. Lastly, we ordered some sashimi and on the recommendation of our server, some Hokkaido oysters.
Needless to say, everything was delicious. The produce and seafood is all so fresh that robata seasoning rarely involves more than a basting of oil and sometimes miso. Most dishes are served with salt and a lemon wedge. Indeed, the British couple seated beside us were politely turned down when they inquired after “soy or some kind of dipping sauce”.
Other than the delicious food, it was the experience of Robataya that made it memorable. Each chef wields a long, smooth, wooden paddle. Once they’ve grilled and plated the food, they masterfully balance the plates and even bottles of beer and sake on these paddles, which they then extend to hungry guests. After plucking your dish from the wooden paddle, you load it up with empty plates, which the chef then deftly draws in and sets aside for cleaning.

The staff and servers at Robataya are equally engaging and will sneak up next to you and join the conversation. There was a lot of fanfare around a “changing of the chefs” where our two chefs stepped off the grills and were replaced by two members of the waitstaff.

Overall, it was pricey but an incredible meal in a very fun yet intimate environment — I only wish there were one of these in Sydney!

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