Bill Granger’s reciprocal love affair with Tokyo eating

by Rebecca Milner

Special To The Japan Times

Over the past few years, several American-style pancake joints — Eggs n’ Things and Cafe Kaila, for example — have washed up on Tokyo’s shores. Now, the tide is going the other direction.

Well, sort of: Australian chef Bill Granger first brought his laid-back brand of home cooking (and his famous ricotta hotcakes) to Japan in 2008, with the opening of bills Shichirigahama (2F Weekend House Alley, 1-1-1 Shichirigahama, Kamakura; 467-39-2244; www.bills-jp.net) on the Shonan coast. He hit it so big — Granger is credited with setting off the current pancake mania — that he now has four restaurants in and around the capital. And last month, he opened bills Sydney (280 Beach walk, Honolulu, Hawaii; +1-808-922-1500; www.billshawaii.com), his first Stateside outpost, in Hawaii.

Two years in the making, the Waikiki restaurant — what Granger, still boyish at 44, calls “a tropical beach house” — features an airy wood-paneled lounge with big windows upstairs and a casual diner on the ground floor. It’s his first foray into resort dining but, true to his brand, he’s aiming for a “barefoot off the beach” vibe. The location couldn’t seem more apt: Not only is Honolulu a favorite destination for Japanese tourists, it’s increasingly popular with Australians, thanks to the strong Aussie dollar.

“I do restaurants where I can get inspired,” Granger tells The Japan Times. “Hawaii is interesting because it’s the ultimate fusion place. It’s people from everywhere.”

Now the pied piper of pancakes is trying his hand at a few of those local fusion dishes. New menu items include kimchi fried rice and a tuna poke bowl with brown rice and plenty of fresh veggies. Lest Tokyoites get brunch envy, the latter, along with two new varieties of buttermilk pancakes (one with fresh fruit and yogurt and the other with smoked bacon), will be available at all four Japanese branches of bills through April 30.

Hawaii seems like a natural fit for the sunny, beach-loving chef, yet he’ll cop to an early affinity for things Japanese as well. Granger spent a gap year here at age 19 in 1989, four years before opening his first restaurant in Sydney. He came away inspired by what he describes as a “pared-back, simple and elegant” design esthetic (and this during the bubble!). Meanwhile, Shichirigahama, the beach town near Kamakura where he opened his first restaurant in Japan, reminds him of Australia: “It’s not as frenetic as a big city like Tokyo. It’s got a much more gentle feel. It just felt like home,” he says.

But when bills first arrived, Tokyo was a breakfast desert, and the only places that served western-style brunches were a couple of niche expat haunts. Yet years after opening, bills — particularly the newest Omotesando branch — can still draw two-hour lines. Even Granger himself thought the venture was a gamble.

“I still pinch myself,” he says about his success.

He’s not even sure how he pulled it off.

“I’m a home chef, I’m not a professionally trained chef,” he says. “Everything comes from me — it’s the same idea as having people around the house for dinner, which I know is a particularly more Western thing. So what I wanted to do was to make it quite domestic and cozy, and I think that’s a bit different for Japan, maybe?

“A good restaurant is always the taste of the owner, like a designer. And you can be lucky: Sometimes it works and the market aligns, and sometimes it doesn’t and you just have to be true to yourself.”

One thing he didn’t do was to cater to some imagined idea of what would please Japanese customers. The menus in all of his restaurants — save the new dishes in Hawaii — are virtually the same.

“I believe that, especially now, everyone wants an authentic experience. You know, if I go to a Japanese restaurant in London or in Sydney, I don’t want a dumbed down version or a Westernized version of it,” Granger says.

Still, different locales have their favorites dishes. In Tokyo it’s the pancakes: Combined, bills restaurants in Japan move an impressive 1,770 plates of pancakes a day. In his native Sydney, however, he’s known for his custard-like scrambled eggs. That’s Granger’s forte, taking what is essentially comfort food and consistently nailing it. Perhaps he’d give us some tips?

The trick to getting the eggs just right, he says, is a ratio of two eggs to 60 ml of cream, a newish non-stick pan and a simple if somewhat counterintuitive technique.

“Add a little bit of butter (to the pan), pour them in, don’t touch them for about 15 seconds and then slowly start, turning them over, folding them on top of each other. And that’s the difference: They’re not really scrambled; you sort of lift them gently. And get them out of the pan within a minute. That’s all,” he says.

And while you won’t see Japanese dishes on the menu, he insists that the influence is there.

“What I’ve learned from Japanese cuisine is understanding the simplicity and the purity. The more you spend time in Japan, the more you really appreciate the subtleties of texture, flavor and softness.”

Next up for the globe-trotting chef: a new restaurant set to open in June in another hot spot for Japanese tourists — Seoul.