Sydney's Tokyo Lamington has sold 38,000 of its signature cakes since it launched last September. It's an impressive feat — especially as the cafe was never meant to open in Australia.
Eddie Stewart tells SBS Food, "We opened N2 Brunch Club in Tokyo in 2018. We started selling lamingtons [in the cafe], which were quite popular. From that, we always thought of this idea of opening Tokyo Lamington."
They even did a pop-up version in Singapore in 2019, where they sold the iconic Australian cake in a rainbow assortment of flavours, such as black sesame, ube, lemon myrtle, durian, pandan, salted egg yolk and bandung (inspired by the Southeast Asian rose-sweetened drink).
"I remember sitting on a seat on a park bench in Tokyo and Min was drawing shapes and lamingtons," Stewart says. "We were about to open, then COVID happened and we came home. Sydney got lucky."
What sparked the Australian opening was a collaboration with Koko Black's chocolate stores. They made thousands of the classic chocolate-and-coconut-coated cake for World Chocolate Day last July — but they were remixed with Davidson plum, caramelised coconut cream and other special ingredients. The job became increasingly stressful as it became apparent that Melbourne was about to go into lockdown. They had 4,000 lamingtons they needed to send into the Victorian capital — somehow.
"We almost got to Plan C, where I was hiring a truck, driving to the border and I was going to throw the lamingtons over the border fence," says Stewart. "We were literally, no joke, that close to doing it." Luckily, they were able to get their pastries through — no cake-catapulting necessary — just before the border closed.
It was worth it. "We sold out in 30 minutes in the shops," Stewart claims.
Fast-forward to a few months later and Chai and Stewart launched the Sydney pop-up version of Tokyo Lamington in Haymarket's Market City mall. The menu featured the "OG" version of the dessert — inspired by "the one I used to make with my grandmother", says Stewart, but glammed up with award-winning Heilala vanilla from Tonga, freshly toasted coconut and Belgian chocolate.
"We sold out in 30 minutes."
Also on offer: lamingtons reinvented with Thai milk tea, genmaicha, pavlova, gingerbread, wattleseed and black sesame flavours. You can ask for the fizzy tang of the lemon, lime and bitters edition, the party-like wonder of the fairy bread set with popcorn butter cream, or the bestselling yuzu meringue lamington — an undertaking so labour-intensive it requires two people to set it, dip it, chill it and give it that cloud-like cover of blowtorched meringue.
The owners' CVs also inspired the menu: the hazelnut-chocolate cake coated in Coco Pops is a tribute to the Ferrero Reveal flavour that Chai would scoop at N2 Extreme Gelato, while the rose and strawberry lamington was a reminder of Stewart's time at Black Star Pastry (which is Instagram-famous for its watermelon and strawberry cake topped with rose petals).
But there were also special flavours that they wanted to save for Tokyo Lamington's permanent location — which opened this April in Newtown, a month after the Haymarket pop-up finished. For example: the Neapolitan edition, which evokes childhood memories of those multi-striped tubs of vanilla, strawberry and chocolate ice-cream. "You'd have the Neapolitan ice-cream and usually there'd be one flavour missing: usually the chocolate in my house," says Stewart.
"There's a school of thought on how to eat it. Do you eat it left to right or right to left? Or do you individually pick the flavours?" says Chai. "I was an OCD guy, I'd go for every flavour and go for equal amounts, so the whole tub finished at exactly the same time."
At Tokyo Lamington, that experience has been recreated as a chocolate-covered cube, filled with colourful bands of vanilla sponge and strawberry cream and dipped in flakes of feuilletine ("crispy pastry reminiscent of an ice-cream cone", says Stewart).
"There are things that we haven't tried that we'd like to do, like crème brûlée," says Chai. "We're still working on that, it's a harder one," says Stewart.
He predicts they've done nearly one hundred types of lamingtons since they started selling the cakes — from charcoal pumpkin to strawberry gum and cream. They've done a series of Indigenous-flavoured lamingtons in collaboration with Melbourne Bushfood, which included sponges filled with lilly pilly jam, dipped in lemon myrtle sauce or spiced with pepper leaf. For Lunar New Year, Tokyo Lamington teamed up with Hello Auntie to do special-edition pineapple tart and Vietnamese curry flavours.
But the Newtown store goes beyond lamingtons: the menu includes potato-flour shokupan, a gluten-free version of Japan’s famously thick and fluffy milk bread. Here, you can have it topped with smoky tomato relish, bacon pieces and a ramen egg. You can also have it slathered with vegan cream cheese and sprinkled with house-made furikake.
There's also a range of onigiri, too. "Onigiri is basically a way to enjoy pure good rice," says Atsushi Nakaizumi, who helps Tokyo Lamington source ingredients from Japan, and created the vegan furikake for the cream cheese toast.
He's tried 50 different kinds of rice and recommended they use the Nita koshihikari variety from Iwata Farm in Okuizumo, Shimane. "You can buy Japanese rice, but it’s all mixed from different farmers," he says. This rice comes from only one farmer; Nakaizumi personally met him five years ago. The grains have the right texture, sweetness and umami levels for onigiri.
Tokyo Lamington's onigiri menu features the rice balls in bacon and egg, kombu and mushroom and sake salmon varieties. Stewart credits Nakaizumi for his guidance with making this Japanese staple.
Nakaizumi downplays his expertise. "You don't need any skill at all!" he says. "One hundred per cent of Japanese people can make onigiri."
But there is an art to handling the rice: it can't be too hot or sticky, you have to mould it, weigh out the halves, add the filling and wrap it in nori (seaweed).
"The first time we had it, we were like, 'oh my God, we have to have it with this rice, it changes everything'. It sounds so silly, but the rice makes it," says Stewart. "The ingredients we're using, it's like Jiro Dreams of Sushi — it's like Jiro-realm rice and Jiro-realm nori."
"Everything that we do here is a memory of Japan."
Speaking of the renowned sushi chef, the fit-out to Tokyo Lamington is so personal (Stewart and Chai did everything, from building the tables to hand finishing the shou sugi ban lacquering of the timber) that the bill from Stewart's time at Sukiyabashi Jiro, chef Jiro Ono's world-famous sushi restaurant, might sail out from the cafe's collection of books, if you happen to browse the right volume (the dining experience cost $1,500 for a 40-minute meal, incidentally).
"Everything that we do here is a memory of Japan," says Stewart — whether it's the lamington flavoured with yuzu from a farm in Hagi that they visited personally (even though it took an eight-hour shinkansen and three-hour car trip to get there) to future plans for konbini-style sandwiches and black sesame canelés. "You go to a coffee shop in Tokyo, you get a canelé and a dark coffee." And now they're bringing that piece of Japan to Australia.
277 Australia Street, Newtown