Dinner with Alice in Wonderland

Fancy eating inside a fake train car, ordering off crucifix shaped menus, sitting in a prison cell, served by video game characters, ninjas or maids, or being surrounded by cats – all in the name of dining at a restaurant? Tokyo is perhaps the leading city in the world when it comes to the number of concept restaurants. Locals and visitors fancy themed ambiances, that are more of an amusement park, that also serves food and drinks. In fact, the quality of food at these kind of restaurants is average, but what you go for is the look and feel.

alice restaurants japan

I decided to give it a try and visited “Alice in a labyrinth” or simple “Alice” restaurant in Ginza district of Tokyo. Based on the storybook, Alice in Wonderland, this place is accurately themed when it comes to the decor, outfits, and food. Customers are granted access through a large door, which opens like a page of a book, and led down a rabbit hole corridor adorned with passages from the story. Young waitresses are dressed in blue and white frocks – all known as Alice, while the manager sometimes appears as a Cheshire cat.

alice teacup

Playing cards surround the ceiling and floors, lamps are made out of vintage hats, and we sit in a tea cup shaped booth. Alice comes to our table and greets us. She brings a menu the opens up like a pop-out puzzle book. Items point to themselves saying “Drink me, Eat me!” Yes, there is a potion – non alcoholic soda – you can drink to make yourself bigger or smaller (it’s a gimmick of course).

drink me potion

There is no Alice in Wonderland soundtrack, cartoon or movie running in the background; just an American pop channel. The restaurant suggests “Welcome to the tea party of Alice” but there aren’t any high-tea snacks on the menu. Food options include an assortment of international dishes like salads, pizza, pasta and ice cream.

Focus is mainly on presentation. Characters like Cheshire Cat, the Caterpillar, and the White Rabbit make their way on the plates. Everything is made to look cute, but doesn’t taste like restaurant quality food.

alice restaurant tokyo

alice

Even though the concept may seem attractive to kids, it is more popular among young girls. People in their 20’s may come for a date night or a girls night out.

alice2

Alice’s Fantasy Restaurants has branches in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, each with a different name, but similar theme. 8May_Alice_in_Wonderland_Cafe_Restaurant_1

Cooking Teriyaki in Tokyo

Before I even recovered from my 12-hour time change, I headed to a Japanese Cooking Class on my first day in Tokyo (because that’s what I do when I first arrive in a new country). After an intense walk through the crowded Tsukiji Fish Market, where “tuna fish” is more of a prized commodity than food, I arrived at a small place than didn’t look like much of a cooking school from outside.

At Tsukiji Cooking School, everyone had to take their shoes off outside the door and put on slippers, as the local tradition dictates. There was a tiny kitchen where the chef and her two assistants were prepping our recipes. In the middle of the room was a dining table and chairs. We were given an apron, hand fan and printed recipes. Our instructor did not speak much English, but she had a translator.Tsukiji cooking class

During the 2-hour class, we learned to make miso soup, chicken teriyaki, spinach salad and Okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes) – all from scratch! Although I consider myself to be a savvy chef, there were things I had not known about, especially because I never cooked Japanese before.

This Miso soup had very strong flavors. We first made a broth using whole seaweed and dried fish skeletons.

We made a delicious dressing of freshly ground roasted red sesame seeds with soy sauce, dashi, and lots of sugar, to flavor local greens that tasted sort of like spinach but crispier.

spinach salad with sesame

Okonomiyaki was fairly easy to prepare as most of the work involved only chopping. It is a savory dough full of vegetables, topped with sauce, mayo and seaweed. Apparently, there are parties around this dish where everyone sits around and grills their own pancakes.

Okonomiyaki

Here are a few things I learned about Japanese cooking –

  1. Japanese chefs cook with chopsticks. It was actually not that difficult and more practical, since the “spatula chopsticks” are much longer than the eating sort.
  2. There are different kinds of seaweed, each with its own purpose. Depending on the texture and flavor, some are better suited for dashi (broth), others for toppings.
  3. None of the recipes call for salt or pepper. In fact, there are no seasonings, spices or herbs added to the dishes we prepared.
  4. Soy and sugar always find their place in most dishes. Contrasting flavors add enough seasoning to satisfy Japanese palates.
  5. Teriyaki is a sauce added at the end, not a marinade. Common myth we have in the West since we tend to grill our meats.
  6. You taste food with your eyes first. I was fascinated by how much time and effort the chefs put into making each component on the plate look perfect. Presentation is definitely very important.
The smell of seaweed remained on my hands the rest of the day, but I surely learned a lot at the Tsukiji Cooking Class. Once I returned to Atlanta, I tried all of the recipes and a few more.

Chicken Teriyaki Recipe (authentic Japanese style)

Ingredients:
2 large pieces Boneless Skinless Chicken Thighs
1 tablespoon Vegetable or Canola Oil
1 1/2 tablespoon Dark Soy Sauce
1 1/2 tablespoon Mirin (rice cooking wine)
3 tablespoon Sake
1 tablespoon Sugar
2 tablespoon Green Onions, sliced
Directions:
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Place the chicken in the skillet and remove excess grease using a paper towel. Cook for 8-10 minutes until golden brown on both sides.
chicken teriyaki recipe
Combine the soy sauce, Mirin, sake and sugar in a small mixing bowl. Pour the sauce over the chicken, cooking on low heat with a lid on. Flip the chicken few times so that it absorbs the sauce thoroughly.  When the sauce is thick and well coated, remove from heat and travel to a plate. Slice the chicken into bite size pieces. Garnish with green onions and more sauce, if needed.
chicken teriyaki