There is something uniquely comforting about Japanese curry. Brought to Japan by the British, who developed a taste for curry during their exploits in India, it has been adapted to suit East Asian taste buds. While it is a popular home meal, you can also get a good curry in Taiwan at one of the thirteen outlets of the Japanese chain restaurant, Coco Ichibanya Curry House.
The first Coco Ichibanya Curry House opened in Nagoya in 1978. The robust curry base, delivered with the ‘briskly, sharply and with a smile’ creed, has ensured the brand’s prosperity. Coco Ichibanya Curry House has now listed on the Tokyo stock exchange, and boasts over 1,300 stores in Japan and overseas. The first branch in Taiwan opened in September 2005, and there are also outlets in Hawaii, South Korea and Hong Kong.
Sitting down at the restaurant and opening the menu for the first time is a uniquely confusing experience. The menu has strong Japanese characteristics, i.e. streamlined but with multiple choices. Once you understand the system you realise it is not that hard. But at first, not even the helpful 1, 2, 3 cartoon diagram on the first page makes much sense.
To explain the ordering system, step 1 involves choosing the type of dish you would like. This could include dishes such as fried pork cutlet (tonkatsu), beef, pork, asparagus and tomato, spinach and eggplant, or my choice, seafood and asparagus. The second step is to select the amount of rice you would like. A standard serve is 300g of rice, which is quite generous. But you can downsize to 200g or double the serving to 600g if you would like. Thirdly, you select the spiciness of the curry. I chose level three on my first visit and was surprised (in a good way) that it had more of a bite than I expected. I usually associate Japanese curry with mildness because we cook it at home for my toddler, but the version served here would satisfy die-hard chili fans.
The confusing part of the 1,2,3 step ordering process is that there are ordering decisions to be made that fall outside of the three step. For starters, you can add other food items such as an egg, kim chi or an egg for an additional charge. And you can also upgrade to a set menu (NT$60 for two items, NT$85 for three items or NT$110 for four). The upgrade items to chose from are salad, drink, soup and dessert. And finally, the menu choices include items that are treated slightly differently, such as braised (red cooked) meats, and some set meals such as omelettes. With these meals there is little flexibility to make changes e.g. to the spiciness level.
My dining companion (who swore he would never dine out with me again after the last experience when I took so many photos) noted that he had never seen anyone take so long to order. Let me explain. Originally I wanted to order a beef dish with additional asparagus; but I didn’t realise it was a braised meal so changed to a curry. Then I chose a mapo tofu topped curry omelette (featured on the menu cover); but they cannot adjust down the curry level (I am breastfeeding so do not want to eat spicy foods). Finally, I decided on a seafood and asparagus curry (spiciness one) but decided to upgrade to a set meal. It then took a while to understand what the set meal options were and make a choice. As you can see, the process is confusingly simple.
The accompanying set meal dishes are small, which partly explains why they are such so economically priced. The iceberg lettuce based salad is relatively ordinary except for the tangy sesame-flavoured dressing. If you like the dressing (as I do) you can buy a bottle to take home and recreate for yourself. My iced tea was Japanese style; unfortunately they do not serve Taiwanese style lemon iced tea or milk tea, so it was less exciting than I had expected. But it was served with real lemon and tasted of real tea.
My friend ordered fried pork cutlet (tonkatsu) curry, with the standard 300g of rice and level ‘three’ in spiciness. While there was not a vegetable in sight in this dish (can you tell it was a guy who ordered it?), it looked and smelt fantastic. I thought this dish epitomised the Coco Ichibanya logo: good smell, good curry. While I hated to think about how many calories were in this dish, I was envious I had not ordered this.
My order of curry with seafood and asparagus was marginally healthier. I am not sure that you can exactly call curry and rice a health food, but at least there were vegetables. Even though I had ordered the mildest curry available, the flavor was not so bland that it tasted blah. The sauce was glossy and rich, yet did not overpower the subtle flavour of the seafood. I initially did not think I would finish the generous serving, by mouthful by mouthful it disappeared. Where did that go! Although it was a large meal, I did not feel bloated afterwards. Like I have said before, Japanese curry is the ultimate comfort food.
We ate at the Xinyi Shin Kong Mitsukoshi store, at their B2 basement in A8 (110台北市松高路12號, COCO壱番屋, (02)2723-0883). This store is tucked away in a corner in the food court. Once you have been there (and worked out how to order), it is a good place to come on a semi-regular basis for a casual meal.