Although softly spoken, Bangkok has a large Japanese population. The odd Sukhumvit sois between Phrom Phong and Thong Lor teem with unobtrusive venues, largely catering to Japanese clientele only. But surely there is big potential overlap between the two cultures - Thai and Japanese. There must be common ground, right?
Indeed there is, and new venue Akanoya Robatayaki collides them together in cosy surrounds of an eatery that is packing in punters to sample the cultural fusion.
The two cultural pillars of shopping and eating exist side by side in millions of shopping centres across Asia, indeed the world, but rarely under the same roof and concept. In earlier attempts, Japanese food service practices such as kaiten sushi (sushi train) and teppanyaki challenge the Western eating practises of a la carte and buffet-style gorging, but Thailand already has its own eating idiosyncracies. An early prototype of the marketplace outlet here is the Seafood Market Restaurant on Sukhumvit Soi 24 that has brazenly been claiming since 1969, "If it swims we have it" on a sign over the soi (alarming in more ways than one), but then delivers only a refrigerated convention-centre-style room void of atmosphere, like the staff cafeteria at an aquarium where dead peformers are recycled for final use. But it seemed to need some Japanese finesse to further the fusion concept, and indeed Akanoya Robatayaki seems to have packaged it succinctly.
Inside is a cosy den of Japanese-ness, confirmed by the chorus of welcome sung out in Japanese by the vocal team of staff inside of around 12 or more, who join in unison to confirm seemingly every order placed. (No sly beers on the side here.) The room is divided into two stations, true to the robata tradition, with two chefs at the helm of each area, surrounded by a bed of fresh J-ingredients on ice, then a bench for 19 punters to sit at (38 pax total). Upstairs is a private sake room for around 12 drinkers. The robatayaki concept is said to have originated in northern Japan, where fishermen would return with their day's catch, grill it and serve it up to eaters on an oar of their vessel. Here, the market concept replaces any fishing, but the oar service remains, testing the arm strength of the chefs.
The chilled menu rolls out before you, to be selected before being fetched, grilled and served back all via oar. Ingredients are shipped from Japan twice a week, with a few bit and pieces from elsewhere such as New Zealand lamb.
Mizuna salada (B280, prices subject to tax and service charge) is a crisp and slightly bitter palate cleanser with crunchy tomato wedges and a characteristically delicious dressing (the rows of dressings and sauces in Japanese supermarkets being testament to that). From the veggie section, the creamy Nasu (eggplant, B300) is made heartier with a generous top layer of rich miso paste, while Aka manganji (red chilli, B250) is crisp, mild and delicious with a lingering tingle. Tsukune (chicken mince, B350) is gently grilled and served with a lightly poached egg, allowing the taste of the grill to come through the richness of the yolk. What cuisine in the world knows how to cook its produce better - from the minimalism of sushi to the all-in deep frying of chicken?
Gyu seiromushi (B500 small, B880 large) is a smokey and earthy rice with beef mince on top - a balanced meal in itself. Shikodai (priced by market), fish of the day on our visit, is perfectly steamed but overly sweet with the soy, balanced somewhat by the shallots. Taro (B200) was in season, hearty and even creamy if a little bland. Everything we tried was up to the mark.
Wash it down with a Japanese brew or a sake selection that run the range (B400-B10,000).
When combining Thailand's seemingly favourite two pillars of culture - shopping and eating - what could go wrong? A slight problem with the interactive eating style is that you are treated like the produce itself in being deeply refrigerated. While my freshness is better maintained in warmer settings, the food aspect rather than the shopping will take me back to Akanoya Robatayaki. It has something for most, judging by the steady stream of local hi-so, foodies and Nihon salarymen alike that are already filling the benches.G
About the author
- Writer: Richard Mcleish