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Stepping off the restaurant-specific path that Foodosophy has taken its readership on since its launch, I thought I would change lanes and hopefully create a discussion at a more general level on a single genre of food, specifically Japanese donburi (rice bowl dishes). Probably one of the most simplest yet yaried styles of eating, donburi usually consists of some main ingredient (be it meat, seafood, etc.) and/or vegetables cooked (but not always) together and served on top of a layer of steamed rice in a open-faced bowl. More often then not, there is an accompanying sauce or flavor ingredient that is mixed in with the ingredients, usually dripping down in the depths of the bed of rice, adding more flavor below. Here in North America, the ones that are probably best known from their prevalence in Japanese cuisine restaurants are the Gyudon (beef/onion), Katsudon (pork cutlet/onions/egg) and the Chirashidon (assorted seafood). I am sure each of you have your own favorites.
In Japan, there is a sense that donburi are fast becoming the local equivalent of fast food. This can easily be seen by the high number of chainstores that are operating all over the country, usually found near train/subway stations, capturing those people who need a quick meal on the go. These joints are basically composed of a continuous counter of single seating, much like a bar, with staff working directly behind the counter, taking order tickets (usually paid for in advance from a dispensing machine at the entrance) and putting together the dishes in a matter of minutes. The main ones that come to mine are the Gyudon chains of Yoshinoya (which has even branched out to parts of North America) and Matsuya. Also, adding a bit of variation are Tenya (Tempuradon) and Maguro Ichiba (Seafood-don), and many others.
I guess in essence, you could create just about any kind of donburi, by picking and choosing whatever ingredients and cooking styles that would go well with simple steamed white rice. These single serving, and cheap (as low as 300 yen, and upwards of 1,000 yen per bowl) I think will never lose their appeal for many people in busy cities such as Tokyo, where time always seems to be at a premium. Probably more appealing to the single male demographic more than anything, I imagine there will be more and more creative donburi chains coming out in the future, as the saturation of the mainstays surely must be happening.
On my most recent visit to Japan last month, I found my way to Shinatatsu Goninshu – sort of like a foodpark that was specifically limited to donburi. Located just a few minutes from Shinagawa station, a major terminal in southern Tokyo, I had been to the ramen section on a previous visit, but wanted to try the other half this time. Shinatatsu prides itself on bringing together the best of the best, and/or famous establishments serving a particular style of food, in this case, donburi. There were five restaurants in total here (all famous in their own right), each serving a different donburi item as their mainstay: Sutadon (sliced pork), Hageten (tempuradon), Donya Hokkaido (seafood), Ajimeijin (tonkatsudon), and Shun (oyakodon). After debating for about ten minutes checking out the various menus, I opted to go into Shun, well known for its charcoal roasted chicken-based dishes. For 840 yen, I elected the Shamo-Oyakodon, which came out in a simple lacquered bowl, and on first glance I knew I was in for a great meal. The egg coating on top was still a bit liquidy, just the way I like it and the charcoal scent coming from the chunks of chicken inside could be smelt very easily. My friend chose the more seperate combination of the same chicken but cooked with garlic, with the egg more thoroughly cooked and served in pieces alongside some shreads of lettuce.
In this day and age of izakaya and North Americanized-Japanese restaurants that try to be everything to everyone, serving all sorts of dishes, I really do appreciate the more laid back, simple style of just specializing in one cuisine and doing only that, and doing it well. These old school restaurants who are trying to branch out and showcase their fantastic offerings in these more commercial foodpark settings I suppose is one way for them to try and get the word out that sometimes simple is best. If you’re ever in Shinagawa, I’d recommend a visit to one of these outfits, or even their main restaurant itself if you can find it, to find out just what I am talking about.