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Restaurant reviews
All reviews by Chris Page

Once upon a time, in another universe, I was paid to go to interesting bars and restaurants and eat and drink interesting things while chatting to the interesting people that ran them. Terrible, horrifying work but someone has to do it, and I can take comfort from the fact that while I was doing this, I was sparing someone else the task.

Most of those reviews have disappeared from their original homes, or more acurately, the original homes have disappeared. I am re-posting the articles here rather than have them loll about collecting digital dust on my hard drive.

The establishments listed in the archive are no longer operating, but I keep the articles for the sake of the portfolio. The others are still going and all worth a visit.

Hatena: Thai in Osaka
Couscous: African in Nara (This restaurant no longer exists, and this review remains for your reading pleasure only.)

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Hatena
Shinsaibashi, Osaka


Hatena is something of a paradox. It is a successful business born out of Japan's economic downturn.

Karatthakorn Ramayananda (31) was a jewelry designer and when he saw that the economy was not conducive to his particular business he took a decision that any other person would consider a reckless gamble and started his own restaurant in Shinsaibashi. One year on, the restaurant Hatena thrives.

For its successful formula it draws upon Karatthakorn’s mixed Japanese and Thai heritage creating a menu that focuses on the Thai but takes in a broader Asian context and an atmosphere that is trendy Namba combined with Osaka earthiness.

Karathakorn’s brainchild uses the talents of his family too. His artist brother Silawat provided many of the striking paintings decorating the place, while Karatthakorn designed the interior and created the menu.

“I am not a professional”, he says with a mischievous self-depreciation that belies the quality of the food. “I learned from watching my grandmother. She had a restaurant in Bangkok.”

A distinguishing feature of Hatena is that unlike other Thai restaurants, it takes its inspiration from the food sold at Thailand’s many street stalls. “Easy to make and oishii” says Karatthakorn grinning at the simple effectiveness of the formula. He emphasises the restaurant’s philosophy as one of casualness over what he sees as the formality of his competitors. The prices are accessible to most pockets, and he points out that customers are as welcome for a beer and a snack as for a full meal. It is a place to hang and chat with your friends. “Easy to eat, easy to drink,” as he puts it.

He explains that Hatena means ‘no concept’; the place is what its customers want to make of it. The beer mugs are inscribed with question marks.

The atmosphere is suited to the mission of the restaurant: it is modern without being pretentious; lots of beige and natural woods and cottons. His brother's pictures on the walls are striking semi-surreal or minimal Chagallesque constructions. One predominantly yellow creation dominates the largest wall.

The music is modern and eclectic and not so imposing that it makes conversation difficult, and the clientele is young and chatty. Many are regular customers. There is live music a few times a month, anything we are told from R&B to acapella to Hawaiian.

The food lives up to the “easy and oishii” promise. While centred on Thai cuisine, we find also Korean chijimi, Vietnamese spring rolls, and moyashi itame a dish of fried bean sprouts.


The most popular dishes are gaigapao, stir fried chicken and vegetables, and tom yam ramen, ramen noodles in a thick, citrus tom yam soup. The gaigapao is served with a pile of rice and topped with a fried egg. Its juicy-crunchy texture is as interesting as its flavour. The tom yam ramen comes in degrees of spiciness, from mild to scorching. State your preference when you order.

In the winter only Hatena serves a Thai version of shabu shabu which makes for a great party meal as well as keeping out the cold.

Drinks include Thai spirits, Thai beer, Japanese, American, and European beers as well as the non-alcoholic.

The food prices are very competitive ranging from ¥350 for the cheapest bowl of pickles to around 750 yen for the main dishes — each of which is close to a meal in itself.
In the space at the centre of the experience of "no concept" Hatena is the man Karatthakorn himself, who greets you and chats to you engagingly but is never intrusive. He has a rare and real talent for making one feel genuinely at home and lives out the philosophy on which Hatena was founded: “Nothing is greater than friendship.”

Hatena is open seven days a week from 5:30 pm to 2:00 am. Telephone 06 4704 8107

This review originally appeared in Kansai Scene

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Couscous
Nara

Wondering where to eat tonight? Do the standards - Italian, Chinese, Mexican and the rest - suddenly seem banal? Are you getting that feeling that when it comes to eating out you`ve been there, seen it and done it? There may be an antidote: Go African!

For this you need only travel to Nara or Kyoto because a trio of restaurants called Couscous are your gateways to the dark continent. Nara is the location tonight.

Decorated like any run-of-the-mill cafe bar and doused in FM pop, Couscous seems an unlikely spot for a culinary adventure but the eclectic menu roams from Egypt to Tanzania, South Africa to Morocco and ranges from the familiar to the exotic to the mildly eccentric. Falafel, samozas and couscous are known to us. More intriging are the whitefish smothered in crushed grilled almond and the Ethiopian curry. More curious are the grilled Kangaroo (not an obvious thing to eat in Africa) and the crocodile (if you listen carefully you can hear it still tick-tocking).

Uniting this diversity is the food`s aura of healthy eating - good news for those of us bent on pigging our way to fitness. From opening time at 11:30 a.m. until seven, a large variety of set meals are offered which start at 700 yen and finish at 5,000 yen for small groups.

The true explorer may wish to forego these sometimes uninspired package tours to rove freely in the menu which will set you back 2,500 yen to 3,000 yen without drinks. African Tusker beer is offered along with some gaudily plumed cocktails and some - probably more authentic - spirits.

When you have finished eating you will feel as happy as Stanley finding Livingstone and the FM will sound like crickets in the savanna; you may wish to do as this expedition did: sit back, light a stogie and start licking the plates.

This review originally appeared in Kansai Time Out

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e-mail Psilocybe P. Pook:
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