Sam Christie remembers the first time he was struck by the density of the Tokyo food scene. The restaurateur and co-founder of Longrain was at the Tsukiji Fish Market when the scope of Japan's culinary culture really hit him.
"I couldn't get over the amount of seafood, the hundreds of species of fish - there's nothing like eating raw prawns for breakfast," he says. "Just walking down the street is mind-boggling."
Tokyo, where Michelin-starred ramen is ordered via vending machine and nondescript buildings house floor upon floor of ultra-niche eateries, is perhaps the world's greatest food city. But given its hundreds of thousands of restaurants, the language barrier and its famously impenetrable web of customs, it can be daunting for foreign restaurateurs.
Not that it's stopping Christie. Next month he opens an outpost of Longrain on the 39th floor of the Yebisu Garden Place Tower in Ebisu (an upscale neighbourhood known for its tachinomiya standing bars) in partnership with Transit, the Japanese hospitality group that brought Bill Granger's Bills to Omotesando in 2008.
Enrico Paradiso, Marco Ambrosino and Giovanni Paradiso
It's the latest Australian outpost to open in the Japanese capital. Christie and chef Jonathan Barthelmess opened a branch of The Apollo, their modern Greek Sydney restaurant, in Ginza last year, while Enrico and Gio Paradiso recently opened a branch of their fellow Potts Point institution, Fratelli Paradiso, in Omotesando Hills, a complex designed by the famed Tadao Ando.
When the food scene is so vast, then, what are the opportunities for Australian operators? For Gio Paradiso it was about addressing a gap in the market.
"In Tokyo, there are a few Tuscan villa-type restaurants, places with pictures of Sophia Loren," he says. "No one does pared-back, produce-driven Italian food."
He and his partners buck this trend, serving Sydney favourites such as scampi with fresh spaghetti, and the pretzel with whipped bottarga from sister restaurant 10 William St in a space lined with leather banquettes and a 50-seat marble counter - all the better to serve the city's many solo diners.
Fratelli Paradiso Tokyo
It hasn't been as simple as opening another restaurant in Australia. "We wouldn't have the knowledge or infrastructure to open here without our Japanese partner," Paradiso says. "Corporates are traditional and like things a certain way. Japanese diners love their food super-cold or super-hot, so often a dish isn't hot enough for them. But the younger crowd have embraced us."
Japan loves Australia's all-day, multi-ethnic style of dining, and the café scene that we've already given them with Bills, says Christie. "We'll retain everything we do food-wise and won't dumb down the spice. Because Japanese customers love dessert, we've extended the dessert menu. We'll also have a larger selection of rice and noodle dishes for the lunch crowd." He's also vetoed Surry Hills' communal tables. "The space is less warehousey but still quite glamorous."
Fratelli Paradiso's fresh scampi and spaghetti
The Apollo was the first modern Greek eatery in Tokyo. A year later after opening, Barthelmess has scaled down portion sizes and offers set lunch options. Sourcing produce is an ongoing challenge (lamb isn't popular in Japan - tough for a Greek eatery), but he's turned it into an opportunity, playing around with local ingredients.
"I knew if you could open here, you could open anywhere," he says. "This generation of Japanese diners are curious and a lot of them have visited Greece. At Apollo Sydney, we use preserved roe for the taramasalata but here we can use fresh roe. It's made me question everything I do in Australia."
Sourcing is a problem for Paradiso, too, but, like Barthelmess, he's learning to adapt.
"It's hard to source pork, and vegetables are sweet, so we've had to counterbalance a lot of our dishes" he says. "But the calamari is incredible. And the tiramisù is better than in Australia, because we've been able to access the best mascarpone we've ever tasted. In Sydney, people line up at cafés from 7am; here people line up for restaurants at midnight. When we finish work we go out for a bite. In Tokyo, the sun is always coming up."