In Japan, it is often the case that the best restaurants do not dabble. They are the ones that focus on a specific cuisine, specific ingredients, or specific cooking methods. A seafood-only restaurant? That’s just a sushi-ya. A focus on deep-frying? Standard tempura restaurant.
This hyper-specificity is a trend catching on in Sydney, with our eternal appetite for that one unique proposition that few, if any other restaurant offers. Enter the don, except the only godfather here is a bowl of rice. Enter Juan Bowl & Tea.
Date Last Visited: 1/Apr/2020 (20+ visits)
Address: 94A Pitt Street, Redfern, Sydney
Highlight Dishes: any of the don, matcha tiramisu
Price Guide (approx): $18-25pp plus drinks
Having only opened in early October, Juan is still a baby in restaurant timescales, and indeed, remains a work in progress. This was evidently noticeable in Juan’s decor and accoutrements Even 2.5 years on, the 28-seater exhibits a fresh Japanese-Scandi vibe, the paint on the walls and lacquer on the walls almost as good as day one. Juan notably avoids being completely Japanese in its fit-out, with the most obvious elements being the giant bamboo fresco on the left, while the tables and seats are decidedly, materialistically Nordic. The tablewares are a combination of Japan’s attention to intricate detail and artisanal craftsmanship, as see in the kyo-style tea wares and serving bowls, to the minimalist Nordic aesthetic found in the cutlery.
You don’t need me to tell you as the pictures show it: Juan’s got a B-E-A-UTIFUL space. Not since restaurant Sasaki have I been so entranced! There’s almost nothing else like it in Sydney.
And just as well, because the food offering is also nothing quite like what I’ve come across before. The only type of savoury on offer is don, Japanese for bowl. Specifically, it’s short for donburi, an umbrella term for rice bowls with various toppings. Donburi isn’t a big deal in Japan, as it’s often a quick & cheap feed that’s universally accessible; at Juan, head chef Anna Ishiguro is making it into a big deal.
So she should: because despite Juan being her first restaurant venture, the quality coming out of the kitchen over the past two years has shown that she’s hit it out of the park.
While ordering food should be an easy task from the limited menu, don’t forget to try out at least one of the tea pairings: each don is matched with its own particular type. Although I lack a sufficiently qualified palate to judge, even I could appreciate the restorative and palate-cleansing effects of a tannic oolong after downing something rich.
Juan’s portion sizes aren’t huge, nor are they small, so you could probably share three between two. Then again, when it comes to my partner-in-crime’s expression, you too would have something to smile about with such a feast laid before you.
The wagyu bowl is the don of Juan’s donburi. Thinly-sliced, perfectly slow-cooked, fatty wagyu heroes the dish. It was served at room temperature but was warmed by the bed of al dente rice*, which was itself perfectly-seasoned by the sweet onion sauce: just the right amount of sweetness, saltiness, and umami.
*You can choose between koshihikari white rice as well as mixed grain rice for any bowl. First-timers should go with the former.
The wagyu can be dipped into a garlic butter sauce that’s served on the side, but after tasting just a little bit: I simply poured the whole lot in (this is totally okay guys). I wasn’t going to waste a drop of that stuff. Vampires, beware. A gooey, perfectly-cooked onsen egg topped off the lot, with egg white as runny as the yolk. Crunchy renkon chips were the final touch.
You might have noticed the recurrent usage of ‘perfectly’. I apologise, but I couldn’t really describe it any other way: I don’t think I could improve this if I tried; it’s perfectly suited to my palate. Oops, there I go again.
The tea pairing for the wagyu is a jin ju mei, a black lapsang souchong variant from Fujian in China. It’s a smoked tea, which is harvested early and fully oxidised, with a prolonged sweet but tannic aftertaste that isn’t unlike an oolong.
The unagi hitsumabushi is a very, very fun bowl to get for its plethora of textures. It started off with a free range egg omelette, with all of its soft, layered sheets. Beneath lies the hitsumabushi, a very traditional Japanese dish of eel on rice – in other words, an unagi don. The eel was cooked to the point where it practically melted in the mouth, and was given extra life from subtle touches of sansho pepper & heady shiso: very Japanese indeed.
This was just act I. It’s not hitsumabushi without the dashi, which was poured in as the second and final way to eat the dish. Anna has made a houjicha dashi for Juan’s version, which imparts a noticeable, but thankfully not overpowering roasted green tea flavour to this balanced broth. Extra nori, crunchy soy-flavoured arare and wasabi completed the bowl. I probably implied it earlier but I’ll spell it out in case you’re wondering: at no point was the dish off-balance. Always key to any dish’s success, this dish nailed the balance equation just like its beefy companion.
Currently my favourite bowl on the menu (as of April 2020)
A dainty Long Ching dragonwell is the matching tea. A sensible choice, with the delicate Chinese-style pan-roasted leaves serving as foil to the hitsumabushi’s houjicha, as well as adding sweetness in the aftertaste that was originally imparted by the naturally-sugary unagi and dashi.
At this stage, I’m not even going to bat an eyelid that there’s a seemingly fusion-esque Hainan chicken bowl on Juan’s menu. If the wagyu and hitsumabushi were anything to go by, Anna’s not going to have any issues in putting in a bowl something that convinces me that this will work.
Hah, who am I kidding, trying to be rhetorical: of course this was yet another winner. Three for three; a veritable hat trick.
The star of the bowl? The Hainan chicken. My goodness, oh how incredible it was! ‘Twas plump, poached to a spot-on tenderness, with ginger and rice wine (but perhaps mirin in this case) flavour delivered in every bite. The chicken was cut and served as medallions, which is a huge presentational plus, and in a non-traditional twist, was given the kiss of a blowtorch’s flame for some charring. The rest of the bowl supported the chicken in its quest to be the best hainan chicken rice bowl I’ve had, with plenty of fragrant shallots, zestily sweet tomatoes, and a side of chilli sauce for inclusion at my leisure. Not very Japanese, this last bit; however, very much Chinese – and appreciated!
It’s a close one between this and the wagyu. Real close.
The last of the four meat-based donburi, the tonkatsu cuts a striking figure, with gloriously golden, but delicately thin batter, encasing a chunk of juicy, moreish pork belly within. The golden hues extend into the gooey, luscious scrambled eggs, which is then spruiked with some green, red & purple that reminds you that there are still some actual vegetables in the dish.
But really, it’s all about that 24K magic baby: Bruno’s got nothing on this. The dish is served with a sweet and nutty miso sesame sauce, as well as a house made mayonnaise – which are really all the appropriate condiments I could ask for. I’m not the biggest fan of the pork belly used in the tonkatsu, as it would already be rich enough from the deep frying process. That said, the donburi is paired with a organic lemon myrtle tea, with its strong citrus notes and slight sweet edge doing a decent job of attenuating some of the pork’s oleaginous nature.
It might seem like Juan’s all about the don, and really, that’s the case. While you’re here though, don’t skip the desserts. There are three printed on the menu, but only the matcha sakura tiramisu was available on my visit.
No matter, the tiramisu was the perfect ender in and of itself. Served on a masu box traditionally used to measure rice in Japan’s feudal period, Anna instead served us a measured dessert consisting of layered chiffon-like sponge, matcha cream, and a ton of matcha powder dusted on top. The sponge has had contact with sakura in some form – the dessert maestro @stephwoon‘s palate being sensitive enough to detect it – dayum.
But the two questions you want answered: no, it isn’t overly sweet; and yes, the matcha is strong enough to pass in my books. Woot!
It’s only a soft launch, but Juan has the potential to be a local favourite – and I’m not even a Redfern local. The flavours and textures of the don were so well-balanced, so in sync, that I really did think I could eat them for days without getting sick. Given the amount of rice I did eat during this visit, that did feel like the case.
The booking process
(email only – no phone calls, social media DMs or online booking engine) is extremely inefficient is now better than it used to be, with a standard The Fork widget allowing for online reservations (phoning is is still doable). Anna is moving the process over to Dimmi, but until then, lengthy waits to replies will be likely.
There is also the potential for Sydneysiders and even Anna herself to tire of serving the same peculiar cuisine day in and day out.
What will become of Juan in one, two or even five years is yet to be seen.
[April 2020] Hey, still digging it!
But Anna clearly has skill – and most importantly, she cares. Where she goes, I’ll follow.
This post is based on multiple independently-paid visits to Juan. As a very regular customer, Anna will often strike off the cost of dessert for me. Make of that what you will (and see The Invitations Disclaimer if you’re unsure).
See more from Juan (including photos from later visits not on this blog) on Instagram.
- A beautiful space…
- …that is only surpassed by the beautiful food
Teething issues: other people got orders delivered before us, despite ordering first Teething issues: the food takes close to half an hour to arrive Prospective diners have only a single, highly inefficient reservation option
- Bigger eaters might leave hungry
- Occasional busy periods will result in slower service
- Will Sydneysiders and their short attention spans welcome Juan as an institution or a fling?
Would I return: so, so many times.
I have a new scoring system! Read all about it here.
Most important takeaway – three separate scores for food, service and ambience to give the final score. The new system is not compatible with any score given prior to 11/11/2014.
F8 | S3
S2 | A3 7 7.5/10 Caesars