Counter revolution

Bangkok's robatayaki restaurant puts diners face-to-face with ingredients and chefs

It's a worldwide trend _ a chef's table dining experience in Far East style that has become very popular in cosmopolitan cities over the past few years. While as interactive and communal as a Western chef's table, robatayaki is not a meal that highlights the extraordinary skill of the cooking masters but, instead, the authenticity of fresh ingredients available in the season.

Each of the two robatayaki counters at Akanoya can host up to 18 diners around a charcoal grill station and a colourful selection of fresh seasonal ingredients imported from Japan.

Opened three months ago in Sukhumvit Soi 49, Akanoya Robatayaki is for now the only restaurant of its kind in Thailand (we used to have a robatayaki room at the Pan Pacific hotel years ago).

Following its flourishing counterparts in Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York and Singapore, the Bangkok version of the eatery, run by a group of veteran restaurateurs, similarly offers the characteristic Japanese feast in which food is cooked at an open station surrounded by diners.

Char-grilled kinki fish with grated fresh daikon and soy sauce.

I was told that the restaurant was usually packed _ with regulars and new faces, ranging from movers and shakers to celebrities and young adults. On the rainy Monday evening that we visited, we were briskly greeted with "irasshaimase" (Japanese for "please come in") by a team of front staff though business was quite slow. But that was good news for us since it meant we could take time studying how robatayaki really works.

Our company of four was seated at one of the two counters. Each, with capacity to host 18 diners, is set around a charcoal grill station and features two robatayaki chefs from Japan. The all-wood room was decked out with homespun furnishings, paper lanterns and warm yellow lighting to remind us of a rustic Japanese fisherman's tavern.

With a photogenic selection of fresh and colourful ingredients displayed in front of us at the counter, I eventually realised there was no such thing as "the menu". Customers are supposed to order by pointing at the ingredients and the chef scoops them up with a huge wooden paddle (trademark equipment for this style of gastronomy), cook it and serve it back to us on the same paddle.

However, if you are a first-timer the service staff is always willing to help you through the experience. They will, for example, explain about the ingredients and how each of them will be cooked (this is the time you may want to ask about the prices). And instead of the direct, yet non-verbal, communication with the chef, you can tell the service staff your decisions.

A Hokkaido giant scallop in sake sauce.

Most of the food here is imported from Tokyo. The varieties, in categories of seafood, poultry, red meat and vegetables, are renewed and rotated twice a week. On our visit the restaurant featured four types of fish, various kinds of shellfish _ from hotate (giant scallop), horagai (conch) to hokkigai (surf clam) _ cattlefish, prawns and taraba (giant red spider crab).

The selection of meat is simply for char-grilling. Most choices come in a yakitori (marinated and skewered) preparation including chicken wings and fillets, pork belly and shoulder, and lamb racks. The beef, meanwhile, is unseasoned to highlight its top omi-grade quality.

The collection of Nippon harvests was also impressive. They included extra-large asparagus sticks, garlic and mushrooms, chubby leeks, radiant aubergines, voluptuous tomatoes as well as small pumpkins and petite taro.

A variety of sake, beer and snacks are also close to hand.

Food is cooked simply with charcoal heat (grilling, boiling or steaming). To complement the food three sauces _ sour ponzu, shoyu soy and a slightly sweet and nutty sesame _ are served to each diner.

Some of the most memorable dishes that evening included taraba crab leg (1,750 baht to 2,500 baht per leg). The super-sized, meaty legs of the Hokkaido ice-water crab _ one leg can cater for up to four diners! _ featured naturally sweet flesh that was truly delicious even without any condiments.

The super-sized taraba crab leg features naturally sweet meat that needs no condiments.

Equally outstanding was the kinki fish (2,000 baht to 2,300 baht per fish). Served whole with grated fresh daikon and soy sauce, the medium-sized rock fish was lightly seasoned and grilled to unlock its natural flavours and supple texture.

Also delightful and equally recommended were the grilled lamb racks (320 baht per rack). The Australian red meat came with Japanese soy sauce and was pleasant to chew. The yakitori chicken wings (100 baht per skewer) were succulent and addictive.

A decent collection of sides were prepared in the back kitchen, with deep-fried or simmered items, rice boxes and sashimi on offer. We sampled the prawn tempura (325 baht), mentaiko onigiri (a triangular-shaped rice ball stuffed with spicy pollock roe, 150 baht) and a rice box with beef topping (500 baht) and we were very pleased.

The meal wrapped up nicely with fresh musk melon (160 baht for a personal portion).

In this menu-less gastronomy, customers point at the ingredient they want, the chef will cook it and deliver the dish on a large wooden paddle.

About the author

Writer: Vanniya Sriangura
Position: News Reporter