Self-serve tempura? Tell me more...
You wouldn't know that deep-fried heaven exists in a tiny shopfront behind the 85C Cake Shop on George Streeet. The former Optus store inside Skyview Plaza has been converted to Menya Mappen, a cafeteria-style Japanese noodle bar that allows diners to select their own tempura fixings.
Instructions on "How to enjoy Mappen"
A poster on the front door provides clear instructions on how the Mappen system works, but really it's just as easy to follow the lead of the person in front of you.
Suze and I join the queue that snakes around the side of the restaurant, consulting laminated A3 pictorial menus as we slowly shuffle forward. On offer: the holy trinity of Japanese noodles--udon, soba and ramen--served with miso, shoyu (soya), tsukedashi or kakedashi soup.
Meatier options include noodles with sukiyaki wagyu beef or traditional Japanese homemade curry. Rice lovers are not forgotten with curry don (curry and rice) and beef don (beef and onion on rice) also available.
Cooking noodles to order
Each step forward brings you closer to the glassed-in noodle station, a massive pot of bubbling water that holds seven hanging noodle baskets.
Cooking soba in the noodle baskets
The reason for the queue is obvious when you realise each person's noodles is cooked to order. Cakes of ramen, udon and soba are plunged into the bubbling vat of boiling water. When the noodles are cooked, the baskets are lifted and propelled through the air with forceful arcs to remove all the excess water, a violent but impressive process that is commonly employed in noodle houses all over Japan.
Plating the cooked noodles
The cooked noodles are transferred to an empty bowl. Zaru soba, or cold noodles, are plunged into a tub of iced water for rapid chilling, then shaken again of water before serving.
DIY chopped shallots and tempura flakes
Help yourself to a tray, accept your bowl of noodles and then shift slightly to the right to garnish your own bowl with chopped shallots and tempura flakes to your heart's content.
Adding your own shallot and tempura flake garnishes
Vegetable kakiage tempura $2.80
Shrimp and vegetable kakiage tempura $3.30
And then the fun part begins. Self-serve tempura! It's all a bit dizzying surveying the oncoming landscape of deep-fried deliciousness. Craggy mountains of vegetable kakiage, elegant lengths of prawn, discs of sweet potato, each covered in a bubbled blanket of tempura batter, deep-fried to a golden hue.
Sweet potato tempura 50c
Also onion 50c, prawn $2.50, white fish $1.80 and chicken $1.50
Cold salads and condiments including shrimp and fresh salad $3.60;
natto fermented soy bean $1.20; sansai mountain vegetables 80c and bamboo shoots 80c
Onigiri rice balls $1.90
with chicken mince; mentaiko or tuna mayonnaise
Miso soup $1.50 and tempura sauce dispensers
Cashier beneath a sleeping cat on the tin roof
Your purchases are tallied up by the cashier, just like a cafeteria only tastier.
Ontama bukkake udon noodle $4.90 small with extra egg $1.50
with white fish tempura $2.50 and sweet potato tempura 50c
Suze has the ontama bukkake with udon noodles. "Can I get an extra egg?" she'd asked at the counter, and the smiling woman simply nodded and cracked another egg into the bowl.
You would think these eggs were poached, these glistening shimmering orbs holding yolks of runny liquid perfection.
The perfect fish shape
Zaru cold noodle soba and dipping soup $4.50 small
I've gone for the zaru soba, a cold dish of buckwheat noodles served with a chilled tsukedashi soup. The soba is firm and slightly nutty, refreshed with a brief dip into the tsukedashi which is salty and sweet.
Vegetable kakiage tempura $2.80 and sweet potato tempura 50c
Suze laughs as I wax lyrical over the vegetable kakiage, but seriously, it's amazing. The compact tower of grated vegetables is all crunch, each piece covered in a thin layer of batter that leaves nothing soggy, not even the centre. I pull apart the kakiage with my fingers and savour each strand. It takes me about fifteen minutes to slowly demolish it, the tangle of vegetables is a deep-fried gift that keeps on giving.
Sweet potato tempura is sweet and almost fluffy in consistency and I even score a piece of Suze's deep-fried white fish as well. All of our tempura is well-drained and non-oily, and considering the amount of deep-frying going on, there isn't any lingering smell of grease in the air, nor the sound of an exhaust.
Ontama bukkake udon noodle $4.90 small
We're both so enamoured by the place that two days later, Suze and I return. I only have eyes for the ontama bukkake this time, having sampled some of Suze's during our last visit.
The udon noodles are cooked from frozen, but when they emerge from the vat of hot water they are slippery and satisfyingly chewy. They remind me of Chinese new year cake noodles, starchy carb-laden strands that are almost mochi-like in consistency.
The joy of the runny egg yolk
I always tense up a little just before I burst an egg yolk, knowing that my fatal pierce will release a bright orange flood. The noodles soak up the egg yolk with greed, and the tsukedashi, zingy with lemon, provides a welcome acidic counterpoint.
Tempura onion 50c
Even a simple tempura onion is worthy of praise. The gnarly tendrils of tempura are all crunchy, and inside is a multi-ringed slice of onion that is translucent and sweet.
Japanese movie posters
What I love most about Mappen (okay, second most, after the tempura) is the decor. The vintage Japanese movie posters pasted to the walls add all kinds of cool.
Mappen dining room
The large brown tables are spacious enough to accommodate communal seating but the prized area is the counter along the wall that is plastered with posters, slurping noodlers seated below a corrugated tin roof.
Japanese-style crepes at the Chinatown Night Markets
And because a good night must end with dessert, Suze and I hit the Chinatown Night Markets after dinner. We're both a little bit delirious with excitement when we spot the cream-filled crepes that are so reminiscent of Japan.
Cooking the crepe batter
Mango crepe $8
The queue is somewhat chaotic but we receive our mango crepes reasonably quickly, wrapped not in a cuter-than-cute pink paper collar, but a paper bag that has been folded down on one side.
The mango crepe is disappointing - tinned bland mango with sickly sweet vanilla ice cream - but for the briefest of moments I was back in Japan.
I do know where I will be back - Mappen. If only every day could be Fry Day.
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Shop 11, 537-551 George Street, Sydney
(inside Skyview Plaza behind 85C Cake Shop)
Tel: +61 (02) 9283 5525
Sunday to Wednesday 11.30am-10.00pm
Thursday to Saturday 11.30am-10.30pm
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9/21/2010 02:06:00 am