I like most things Japanese because they are either cute, tasty, or a combination of both. When we holidayed in Japan, we saw first-hand how creative the Japanese people were with food. Their presentation of food is both impressive and unrivalled. There is a fresh vibrancy of colours splashed across the plate and a certain symmetry in the way that each morsel is placed. They produce desserts that are jaw-dropping beautiful, each one striking a balance between sweetness and fluffiness. I don’t think a day went by where we didn’t indulge in cakes, crepes, or ice-creams. Funnily enough, we didn’t gain an ounce because we hot-footed to just about every place we visited. We loved visiting their depachikas and markets. I remember how unbelievably polished the apples looked. Nestled between crinkly brown paper, they were the darkest shade of red and looked almost as though they had been plucked from a fairytale forest. You could smell their fragrance without even touching them. How was that even possible? But that’s the way things are in Japan, they constantly surprise you in the most pleasant of ways.
Anyhow, returning to the Japanese food scene in Melbourne was somewhat of a plummet. For awhile, my friend and I steered clear of them. Then, one day, we noticed how a new eatery was in the works along Bourke Street. Not yet open for business, the shop hung out a sign that read: Gyoza Douraku. Given the number of Japanese restaurants near the vicinity (Shoya Nouvelle Wafu Cuisine, Heirloom, Izakaya Hachibeh, just to name a few), I thought this shop was rather brave to set up there. However, Gyoza Douraku has a competitive edge. They focus on being a Japanese Gyoza Bar – something that sets them apart from the standard sushi, sashimi, bento and ramen fare. My friend and I were thrilled to bits, our interest in Japanese food reignited. We held high hopes that this shop would be our new go-to place for lip-smacking gyozas. Each time we caught the tram, our gazes would inevitably fall longingly on that one spot. I have forgotten how long the shop gestation was, but we waited weeks with growing excitement as we saw lights being fitted and then windows polished. Finally, Gyoza Douraku was opened this week!
We visited Gyoza Douraku on Wednesday as a midweek celebration. Barely did we finish flipping through the menu outside before we were warmly greeted and ushered into the restaurant. On sight, we love the contemporary feel to the place. Their tables are a Jenga mix of blue and turquoise which funnily enough reminded me of playing tetris. There was a square tray at the centre of the table that held a variety of condiments in impossibly cute containers (one of them a racoon) that you can jazz up your food with. A small mountain of minced garlic, soy sauce, vinegar and chilli oil was present. Mix the chilli oil, garlic and soy sauce together to dip the gyozas into – it’s great, trust me! The stools are wooden but comfortable. We found ourselves sitting straighter – not that we are slothful normally….We knew we were off to a good start when one of the waitresses kindly brought over another stool for us to place our bags on.
Choosing dishes was rather difficult because they have quite a large variety that sounded really good. The restaurant serves the standard pork and vegetable gyozas, pork and minced garlic gyozas, and prawn gyozas. They also offered premium options such as chicken and lemongrass, and wagyu beef gyozas. For the adventurous, you can even order cheese gyozas which I was really tempted to try.In the end, we ordered two different lunch sets and opted to try the prawn gyozas as well as the pork and vegetable ones. Both sets are accompanied by wafu salad, pickles, fried rice, and miso soup. We even had tori karaage in one of the sets. Our waitress suggested that we tried their coffee beans – freshly roasted on site – so we settled for a latte and a mocha.
Our drinks were the first to arrive and they both came with some lemon shortbread on the side. The thoughtful inclusion of the buttery pastry – which I am given to understand is baked in-house – went well with the drinks. My friend commented that her latte was light yet robust and I concur as the mocha was the same case. It wasn’t creamy but it didn’t lack flavour, and more importantly, it had a nice aroma to it. In this instance, Gyoza Douraku allows you to add any amount of sugar to suit your preference. The next dish to arrive was the Wafu salad and pickles. The salad was served crisp with a generous dollop of Japanese mayo. Both of us adore Jap mayo and my normally carnivorous friend even polished off her vegies. A rare event to witness! Ever since I visited Nishiki market in Kyoto, I have been hooked on those crunchy pickles. I found myself enjoying the different pickles – which were very colourful – adding to the pleasure of eating them. The miso soup was served piping hot – so plus points for that as we dislike luke-warm soup – with tiny tofu cubes and wakame. I didn’t feel that the soup was too different from any other Japanese place I had eaten at, but it was nice all the same.
It was the tori karaage which produced an O-M-G moment for us. I cannot begin to explain how much I adore this dish. Having had the authentic karaage back in Japan, I couldn’t find one restaurant in Melbourne that even came close to replicating the magic. But now I have!!! The tender morsels of chicken were coated with the thinnest golden batter – super crunchy and perfectly seasoned. Finely shredded vegetables of green and purple lay casually on the side – no pressure to eat more veggies – but you can if you want to be healthy. Again, a dollop of creamy yellow mayo was present. Biting into the chicken, you can taste the garlic and ginger, but they are not overpowering. It is a small slice of heaven on a plate that I will very happily eat ANY day of the week. I didn’t want to share after the first bite – but I did – because I wanted someone else to share in the simple genius of this dish. I don’t think we can ever go back to KFC or any other Korean popcorn chicken. You must give this dish a go when you visit!
When we spotted the waitress carrying out the gyozas, we rubbed our hands with glee. Five dainty parcels of goodness were plated up. Their skins were delicate and bottoms slightly charred – just the way we like it. Unanimous in our decisions, we declared the pork and vegetable gyozas the winner over the prawn gyozas. Both types of gyozas were juicy but we felt that the pork ones were more flavoursome. There was a balanced ratio of pork and veggies or prawn and veggies, and we told ourselves that we were definitely going to try the chicken and lemongrass or cheese gyozas next time. Having had the above courses, our bellies were pretty much full by this stage. To think that we had wanted to try their desserts! The last course served was the teppanyaki fried rice. My pet peeve with Japanese restaurants is that some of them serve Jasmine rice instead of using Japonica or sushi rice. Thankfully, Gyoza Douraku cooks with Japonica – and we loved the taste of slightly sticky rice that carried a strong flame-like taste. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t burnt, just that you could feel the element of fire coursing throughout the entire dish. One of the best teppanyaki fried rice we have had to date and dare I say it, better than the ones served at Shoya. We salute those who can fit in desserts after such a pleasurable meal. A brief glance at their dessert menu tells us that they have at least six options to choose from. If you like your green tea ice cream and tiramisu – they serve it here!
In summary, I really don’t think anyone can walk out of Gyoza Douraku without feeling happy. The prices are very reasonable for a Japanese restaurant, and the variety of options will suit even the fussiest of eaters. Packed with warmth and authentic hospitality of the Japanese, Gyoza Douraku deftly delivers flavoursome and quality food. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and this place is set to become our new stomping ground for tasty Japanese food in the city. And if you ever find yourself unsure of what to order – get the tori karaage!!!