While I was studying at uni, I was fortunate enough to be able to go on exchange for 6 months to the Copenhagen Business School (CBS), and I still look back on it as once of the best times of my life. I loved that there were 700 other exchange students that semester and that I was living in a dorm with 100 of them, meaning there was always someone up for a drink, game of poker, or a kick of the soccer ball. I loved the Danes and their little idiosyncrasies, like NEVER EVER jaywalking, not even if you were on a suburban street and couldn't even hear the faintest sound of traffic; and always being immaculately dressed, no matter how hot it was (I always got a few stares walking around the city centre in shorts and thongs, even though it was the middle of summer!). I loved how each class at uni was only 3 hours a week and it was in a block, rather than annoyingly spread out into four 1-hour classes, and that you could even bring you own laptop into exams.
I also loved their uni cafeteria. Unlike the ones here where it's like a food court made up of individual outlets, the cafeteria at CBS was laid out like a giant buffet, where you could mix and match from different stations before paying for it all at the end. There was a salad bar, fresh sandwiches, a selection of cold and hot dishes (which changed each day), and even desserts; and so you just walked around and loaded up whatever you wanted on your tray. Interestingly, the total price was based on the weight of your food rather than what you'd picked, so you probably weren't getting your money's worth by loading up on potato salad... Nevertheless, it was a far cry from my usual routine here of splitting a jug of beer and a plate of chips between friends for lunch, and waiting until about 3pm when all the pre-made sandwiches were marked down to $1!
A recent visit to the Oiden 'bowl bar', which is a Japanese self-serve restaurant where you fill up your tray with whatever takes your fancy, brought back fond memories of that great uni cafeteria in Copenhagen. Oiden (meaning "please come" in Japanese) is located along George Street in the Skyview Shopping Plaza, and is a sister restaurant to Menya Mappen and Dera-Uma, both of which are located next to Oiden.
Oiden specialises in fast and affordable donburi (rice bowls), which are a staple meal for many Japanese people. There are 7 types of donburi to choose from here: 'healthy' donburi (salmon or vegetable), premium BBQ beef, stewed beef, teriyaki chicken, chicken kara-age, hashed beef and Japanese curry. And within each of these, you can add extras like cheese, ontama (onsen tamago, or 'onsen egg') and kimchi.
All the meals are offered in small or large size, with most of them coming in under $10, even for the bigger option, and there's also a $9.90 meal where you can try 3 different mini bowls. Not surprisingly, this makes Oiden a hotspot for uni students and CBD workers looking for a quick meal after work; and indeed, at 5:30 on a Thursday evening, the place is quickly filling up with both of these groups (and the odd food blogger!).
The ordering system at Oiden isn't immediately clear when you walk in, but it's quite simple. The trick is knowing what donburi you're going to order before you go in (there are a couple of big menus on the outside windows), because once it all starts, it moves along quite quickly. So once you've figured out which donburi you'd like, you walk inside and grab a tray, fill up a cup of honey lemon drink or matcha milk tea if you'd like a drink, and then move to the first counter to tell your order to the staff member. It'll take them about 20 seconds to put it together (unless it's one of the BBQ beef items, which you can 'pre-order' by popping your head in the kitchen's side door before you reach the pile of trays), and once they've handed you your bowl, you can move along and add some extras to your meal like agemono (deep fried items), little boxes of salads, and small desserts. Then, you reach the second counter and pay for everything on your tray (note: Oiden is cash-only).
Today we decide to go for the Ontama BBQ beef bowl ($9.90, small size), a teriyaki chicken salad ($6.50, large size), and a new menu item for Washoku Lovers members, the curry and hashed beef bowl ($9.90, large size including a bowl of miso soup). I also grab a beef croquette, chicken kara-age, and stick of takoyaki, as well as a couple of sweets.
The curry and hashed beef are served either side of a bed of rice, with an ontama egg and a pinch of pickled ginger on top. I've only discovered Japanese curry in the last year or so, particularly after going to Sapporo where a regional specialty is soup curry, served with 'plastic' cheese melted over rice! It's fast becoming one of my comfort foods (as well as congee), and this version is thick and hearty, which a rich flavour but not too heavy on the spice. The ontama egg is beautifully cooked - wobbly and just set on the outside.
I'm about to demolish the rest of the curry and use it to mop up all the rice, until I realise I've still got the hashed beef on the other side! Japanese hashed beef is new to me, and it's similar in many ways to the curry, albeit with more sweetness and tartness to the sauce (which is a demi-glace finished with tomato sauce and wine). Sitting in the sauce are some tender, wafer-thin slices of beef, and overall there's a nice underlying meaty flavour to the dish.
The ontama BBQ beef bowl comes with a healthy serving of sliced beef, a crunchy coleslaw, a bowl of thin BBQ sauce, another ontama egg, and some pickled ginger. Once again, the beef is tender, and well accompanied by the sweet and salty BBQ sauce (which is more like a sweet soy in flavour and consistency).
The teriyaki chicken salad is great value for $6.50 as it comes with a generous amount of chicken (it would almost be enough for one if you weren't all that hungry), and it's served with a creamy dressing that brings it all together well. Of the other side items, the beef croquette is a stand-out - a crispy coating and plenty of beef and onion flavours in the filling.
I love that Oiden has a few little two-biter desserts on offer, as you still feel like you're having a complete meal rather than rushing your way through some takeaway (especially for those of us who are conditioned to having something sweet after a meal!). The dorayaki and sakura daifuku (similar to mochi) are both filled with a sweet red bean paste, and send us on our way with a little sugar hit and full bellies.
So next time you're in the area and looking for a quick and delicious bite to eat, look no further than Oiden. Or Mappen, if you need a bowl of noodles. Or Dera-Uma, if you're keen on katsu. And if you can't decide, get something from all three!
Shop 11, 537-551 George St, Sydney
(02) 9283 5525
Open 11:30-22:00, 7 days
I visited as a guest of Oiden and Washoku Lovers; however, all opinions are my own.