Harajuku Gyoza – 7/10
I won’t post images for this review, because, on reflection, I realise that eating at Harajuku Gyoza largely isn’t about the food. Indeed, the gyoza (dumplings) are quite forgettable, and the beer is on the pricy side. But the experience is what you should go for – it’s the sights and sounds of your first visit that make it exciting. Harajuku Gyoza is more of a slickly-marketed food theme park than a restaurant.
From the cute little gyoza-pokemon to the engrish menu and excitable, over-the-top Japanese-sounding staff, Harajuku Gyoza is a smooth contrivance that meets a very neatly identified demand: giving white people what they think is a ‘Japan experience’.
Seriously, tune in next time you hear a group talking about Japan and inevitably some expert will chime in the view that the ‘Japanese are f%^&%^ crazy’. Large parts of Japanese society are very conservative and restrained, but the fun eccentric stuff that happens at the fringes tends to get good media attention here, and man does this place ham it up. Every cool, crazy thing that we identify with Japan is exaggerated hugely here. As one friend put it: “This is like being in Cowboy Bebop.” He assured me that on multiple trips to Japan he’d never seen anything like this place. But he was smiling; we all were.
Going to Harajuku Gyoza is fun. The hosts that welcome you do look a bit like the famous, crazily-dressed kids of Harajuku – you’ll be doing double-takes before you even get into the restaurant. And on that note, expect to spend some time waiting to get in, because the marketing gurus that run this place truly know their shit – I have seen queues outside Harajuku Gyoza on most nights, week and weekend, since the place opened. My hot tip to avoid the worst wait is to have a few pre-drinks and nibbles elsewhere, then turn up well after 8pm.
When you get through the door, something exciting will happen. I won’t spoil the surprise, but the way that these guys make you feel welcome will leave you grinning. The decor is the next excitement – a lot of trouble went into converting this place from a clothes clearance house into the ‘look how crazy japan is’ themepark that it is now. DO order some sake, even if you don’t love the stuff – not only is the Sake served here is pretty bearable (less ammonia than I’m used to), but the huge commotion and excitement that ordering sake creates is part of the fun. Also amusing is the bathroom – it’s a crazy, imported electronic bidet that has many mysterious buttons. I wasn’t game to try the functions but there are many kinds of spray hoses and hot air blowers within the toilet, most of which seem to exist solely to dampen nearby walls. Note the expressions of those emerging from the loo; some look surprised, some look a bit pallid and alarmed.
Amidst all this excitement, noise and visual stimulation, the most touted part of the experience (‘dumplings and beer’) is actually a bit of a tame footnote. The beers are pretty ordinary, at $9 a bottle for things that you can largely get here (Kirin, Sapporo, Asahi).To my great delight, duck gyoza can be bought here; sadly they’re pretty bland. The same goes for the other ones too – the pork and prawn, whether steamed or fried, just don’t create the ‘wow’ that you’re led to expect. They’re decent, but not amazing – and you have to eat a great many gyoza to feel full.
If you truly love dumplings, go to the Brunswick Social, one block away, and feast in their tasteful (albeit less flashy) underground establishment. Eating at Brunswick Social is much more of a food-oriented experience, whereas Harajuku gyoza is all sound and lights and novelty. This is why I suspect that the Social will eventually win the dumpling game. Still, I hope that Harajuku Gyoza does stick around after its first wave of novelty fades – while it’s probably only good once or twice, I think it’s doing a bit of important pioneering in Brisbane. I like the idea that dining can be primarily about entertainment rather than just food; I just wish they’d nailed down both ends of that package a bit better.