Some people do their research in a library or a lab – and others load up on confectionery at a 7-Eleven store in Tokyo as a data-gathering exercise.
“We tried nearly every single one of the sweets,” says Markus Andrew, the pastry chef at Sydney’s new Dopa by Devon at Darling Square. “We tried Mont Blanc, puddings, mochi, ice-cream and curry pan, just to name a few!”
His fellow 7-Eleven taste-tester was Zacharay Tan, the executive chef at Dopa by Devon and its Devon cafe predecessors at Surry Hills, Barangaroo and North Sydney. They were in Tokyo to conduct research for the new Darling Square eatery, which is their version of a Japanese milk bar. A neon-lit convenience store might not be the obvious site for culinary inspiration, but they were “blown away” by the high standard of commercial sweets at 7-Eleven, says Tan. “To give you an idea, their choux puffs are filled with custard loaded with vanilla beans! You can really tell the difference when comparing to cheap powdered custard mixed with essence.”
Although Tan had already been to Japan seven times (“it’s a country I will never get tired of visiting”), he booked in for Trip #8 with Andrew before opening their latest eatery. “Japan was a treasure-trove of inspiration for Dopa,” says Tan. They touched down in Tokyo with a well-vetted list of places they wanted to experience – but left room to stumble upon random gems, too.
“One day, we ended up walking into this coffee house that only did aged coffee. The owner was the barista, roaster and the pastry chef. He made a mean strawberry shortcake!”
With only six days to cover Tokyo, though, they had to be pretty strategic with how they spent their time. Hence the tightly scheduled itinerary, mostly guided by Google Map pins and an aim to hit a different section of the mega-city every 24 hours.
“A typical day would start with black coffee and sweets from the convenience stores,” says Tan. Then they’d sit down for donburi (rice bowls) filled with sashimi or beef, at institutions that served fishermen or Tsukiji fish market regulars for years. Afterwards, they might queue for a sardine katsu sandwich at an affordable Michelin-starred establishment, then go hunting for street crepes, soufflés or kakigori (shaved ice desserts). Yakitori or ramen would follow, or perhaps a Japanese burger for dinner, and a late-night cocktail at a bar. “Or more food later if we could fit it in,” says Tan. “We’d almost always end up at 7-Eleven to finish the night.
“Believe it or not, the freshness and flavours of 7-Eleven desserts – like the puddings and mochi creations –provided a lot of inspiration for Dopa,” he adds. “We’ve amped up the 7-Eleven pudding with unique flavours of black sesame, royal milk tea, and matcha. Our egg sando is also inspired by the 7-Eleven egg sandwiches which were delivered a few times per day to ensure freshness and quality.”
If you want to retrace their footsteps (beyond Japanese convenience stores), head to Nakajima, a Michelin-starred eatery known for Yanagawa-style sardine katsu simmered in sweet onion tare, Path for its small-batch croissants, and “Kuriya Kashi Kurogi at Tokyo University on Hongo Campus is a beautifully designed café by Kengo Kuma, with the menu based on traditional Japanese sweets and kakigori,” says Tan.
It’s apt, then, that Dopa is also housed near a remarkable building by the same acclaimed Japanese architect. And when you dine there, you can see how the chefs’ mega-eating marathon has shaped Dopa by Devon’s menu: there are mountainous kakigori desserts flavoured with strawberries or matcha from Yame in Japan’s Fukuoka region; green tea profiteroles that are like ice-cream sandwiches; and airy slices of Japanese cheesecake. There’s even a new version of the matcha brick toast that was a Matcha Month special at the other Devon cafes, while the sundae-like strawberry parfait helps typify the Japanese milk bar concept they’re going for. Like the shakes on the menu (which range from a vegan coconut pandan flavour that’s layered with sticky rice and a boba drink that’s richly boosted with Okinawan brown sugar, aerated cream cheese and truffle), they spark nostalgic memories of getting after-school treats at the local corner store.
Then there are the rice bowls.
“We currently have 20 varieties of don bowls for customers to choose from,” says Tan. Most of them are topped with typically Japanese flavours (miso-marinated salmon sashimi, chicken karaage, teriyaki eggplant), but the cheeseburger don has a local origin story.
Amir Jamil, Dopa by Devon’s head chef, remembers turning up to work one day with a double cheeseburger from a certain fast food outlet. And Tan, his boss, wasn’t impressed. “Why would you buy something like that?” Jamil recalls him asking. The conversation inspired a lasting idea, though – why not mix Devon’s omurice (omelette with rice and tomato sauce) with cheeseburger flavours? And that’s what led to Dopa by Devon’s cheeseburger don.
“Our cheeseburger is grilled medium rare and we put some pickles on it,” says Jamil. Add some blow-torched cheese on top, and an egg and rice foundation, and you have a rice bowl that would escape an boss’s judgmental verdict. And something special that you won’t find in a 7-Eleven anywhere.
Shop 5-6, Darling Square, 2 Little Hay Street, Sydney, NSW (02) 8060 4861
Mon 9 am - 10 pm
Tues - Sun 11 am - 10 pm
Images by Jasper Avenue.
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