Juan Bowl & Tea is a pleasing little restaurant. It’s pleasing to the eye, and, using a simple idea and refreshingly concise menu, it proves equally as pleasing to the palate.
The strong, visual impact of the 28-seater Redfern restaurant comes from the juxtaposition of a soft grey bamboo forest mural running down one side of the space, and a wall of wooden panels set at alternating depths with lit with recessed lighting, running down the other. The straight lines of the bamboo are echoed in the wooden screens both behind and below the cement bar, where you place, and pay for, your order.
With such a small number of seats, it’s advisable to book, which must be done electronically, as they offer no phone number.
You’ll partake of your donburi - Japanese rice bowl - sitting on a counter stool facing the open kitchen; on low, curved blonde wood stools set around an austere, polished cement communal table, or – if you’re lucky – from comfortable chairs at an individual wooden table.
While you would think Juan’s short menu might make choosing easy, I really struggled to make my bowl selection. Weird when you consider there are no entrees, no sides; just four donburi, each sounding as tasty as each other. In the end it’s a perfect pincushion of garlic butter rice neatly bound with thin, pink slices of slow-cooked Wagyu ($24) that wins out.
They’re crowned with a free-range onsen egg, snow pea sprouts, and a crisp lotus root chip. Using stylish wooden cutlery, you’ll puncture it and pour over an onion dashi that adds some rounded saltiness to the simple dish, against beetroot miso and wasabi.
We buck the strong tea convention and enjoy our donburi against assigned alcoholic matches. The Soryu Grand Bailey A ($12/120ml) is an intriguing light red from the Yamanashi-ken prefecture of Japan. Made from Muscat Bailey A grapes that were bred in the 1920s by Kawakami Zenbei, a man credited as the grandfather of Japanese wine, it's thin and wet with tart berries and green stem-like notes that cut through the richness of the butter and wagyu.
We’re on more familiar territory with the Dassai 50 Junmai Daiginjo ($28/300ml) that accompanies the even better Unagi Hitsumabushi ($28).
Under a glistening net of silky egg omelette you’ll find more koshihikari rice, this time topped with grilled eel. The snowy cap is shaved haloumi, and the flavorings are a more complex blend of okra, shiso, kaffir lime and sansho pepper.
While it’s delicious as it is, you get a second way to experience this dish when you pour in the hojicha dashi stock, and add your condiments – nori, wasabi and arare - each presented in their own ceramic bowl.
The resulting soupy, donburi offers up unfolding layers of flavour, with roasted green tea dancing with grilled eel, citrussy, cooling sansho pepper and crunchy, soy-flavoured rice crackers. It brings out subtle sweetness in the sake, making for a very pleasing combination.
While my dining companion left Juan a bit hungry – the portions here are both pricy and small – I left feeling fulfilled; perhaps sated as much by the set and setting as I was by head chef Anna Ishiguro’s perfect, little eel dish.
Juan Bowl & Tea
Shop 5, 94A Pitt Street, Redfern
Ph: none provided