With a new restaurant in Tokyo, Longrain is raising everything – the stakes, the bar, the spice levels and the altitude included.
Where the two Australian iterations of Longrain are both located in heritage listed warehouse buildings in the inner city precincts of both Sydney and Melbourne, the newest instalment in this stalwart chain of modern Thai cuisine is situated on the 39th floor of the Yebisu Garden Place Tower – or as close to the idea of Tokyo’s amorphous geographical centre as you could hope to imagine.
“Ebisu is one of the great dining prefectures of Tokyo and the Yebisu Garden Place sits at the very top of the suburb with a spectacular view of the entire city,” says Sam Christie, the Sydney restaurateur behind Longrain and its new 160-seat outpost. “This is Japan and big spaces are rare.”
Scarcity of space has done little to dampen Christie’s international expansion plans. Longrain Tokyo is his second overseas venture in the last 18 months. The Apollo, Ginza was opened in April 2016 in partnership with Christie’s business partner in The Apollo and Cho Cho San, Jonathan Barthlemess. Each of the manoeuvres was made in collaboration with Mitsukoshi Isetan Transit, or the Transit Group, which was established in Tokyo in 2001 by Sadahiro Nakamura. The latter has been instrumental in bringing a vision of Australian food culture to Japan, often with spectacular results. “Transit is progressive,” says Christie, “they see themselves as a cultural engineering company with a sustained strategy to change the scene in Tokyo and throughout Japan.” Before he entered into a partnership with the group, Christie says he consulted with both Steven Marks, co-founder and managing director of Guzman y Gomez, and Bill Granger (of his eponymous café empire) on making the leap into the Japanese market – a feat they have both navigated with spectacular success. Both had nothing but compliments.
“Transit first took Bills to Japan many years ago, and they have a real love and connection to Australia and the Sydney dining scene,” says Christie, who sees the connection between the dining scenes in Tokyo and Sydney as sharing more than just strong business connections. “The Japanese have really cottoned on to Australia’s sense of casual style and attention to detail in the past few years. The healthy, fresh food thing that we take for granted here is a change to the traditional Japanese dining options.”
“The world is truly becoming a smaller place due to the internet and social media,” he continues, accounting for the thinking behind a relatively quick international expansion within the space of two years. “It is infiltrating and boosting the Japanese people’s already huge obsession and lust for food and wine.”
Feeding that obsession is Longrain Executive Chef Griff Pamment, who began his professional cooking career at Bill’s under Kylie Kwong. Time spent working at Longrain under founding chef and mentor Martin Boetz preceded a formative stint as head chef at Sean’s Panorama, before a role of the culinary and creative director at Bill’s Restaurants in Sydney, London and Japan brought him back into the fold, and with it, the charge of helming operations and mentorship for Bill’s Japanese ventures. In the past six years, he has opened a further five Bills restaurants. However it’s in his new role at Longrain’s maiden overseas venture that his love of Asian cuisine and a passion for sustainable and ethical produce first fostered at Sean’s has come to fruition.
“The produce in Japan is incredible,” Christie remarks of the chance to combine those disparate worlds on a plate. “Especially the seafood, beef and the variety of vegetables that can be incorporated into Thai cuisine easily. The familiarity of these along with the rice, and noodle culture of both Thailand and Japan will be easy for the Japanese market to appreciate.”
That means diners in Tokyo can expect a similar offering to Longrain’s 18 and 12-year-old sister restaurants, with their commingling of hot, sour, salty and sweet inspired by the local seasonal produce of Japan and a delicate blend of Thai and South East Asian influences. Signature dishes synonymous with Longrain’s contemporary take on pan-Asian communal dining, like their mouth watering betel leaves, famous eggnet, sticky caramelised pork hock and aromatic curries, will make the leap.
“We won’t be toning down the spice levels for the Japanese palette,” Christie adds, “but there will be more noodle and rice dishes being served in Japan as we hope to have a strong lunch market. The wine list and cocktail list are very similar, with a sightly expanded cocktail list in Tokyo. There is an amazing selection of European wines in Japan and there is a good representation of both classic and edgy new school Aussie wines. And the Japanese wine industry is intriguing. Compiling the list was a joy.”
The award-winning Sydney-based practice architecture and interior design firm Luchetti-Krelle, established by Stuart Krelle and Rachel Luchetti, has been charged with executing the striking fit-out, which is linked to the Australian warehouse restaurants through innovative use of materiality.
“Using familiar materials to these sites provides the parallel from a design perspective,” Stuart Krelle tells GRAZIA. “Our brief was to capture the essence of Longrain, not reinvent it. The casual Australian approach to dining would always be provided by Sam and his team, but we were to capture the sites that Longrain inhabits in Sydney and Melbourne. Both sit within beautiful voluminous warehouse spaces, whereas Tokyo is perched up high and subject to the restrictions that commercial towers need to enforce.” The requirement to install a flat ceiling throughout the venue meant a break up in the volume of the space was called for. A delicate cluster of lanterns amass to create a feature light sculpture above the bar and a series of substantial columns were two solutions for the problem presented to Krelle. On the latter, the architect has installed “a simple rope pattern that criss-crosses each face to soften the bulk.” Each rope is affixed with custom-made bronze fittings in an ‘X’ shape. The motif features subtly through the remainder of the restaurant as a reference to the cross-bracing of joists in the vaulted ceilings of the Sydney venue, “as well as the cross cultural facet of the project.”
Other than the locally made joinery, Krelle says that most of the interior is composed from imported elements. “There does seem to be an exactness to the joinery that seems characteristic of the Japanese design DNA. From Australia we have the artwork supplied by Christopher Hodges, and the iconic tiles from the Melbourne restaurant make another appearance. These come from South Australia. The dining chairs are from the US, bar stools from Denmark, and lighting from Italy.”
Now that all of the disparate global elements are well-and-truly aligned, Christie, who has temporarily relocated to Japan for the opening, is looking forward to both returning to his Sydney restaurants (“my true love”) and seeing the restaurant full.
“I’m really looking forward to smelling those distinctive Longrain aromatics in the air: Jasmine rice, chilli, lemongrass.” There is, after all, no smell like home.
Tile image: Satoshi Matsuo
Cover image: Nikki To