Dirt Cheap Dining in Japan (Part 2)

Part 2 of my tight-arse Japan food adventure took place in Osaka and Kyoto… but mainly Osaka. I fell in love with Osaka. And our love story was made sweeter by the fact that it was completely unexpected. Osaka is the third largest city in Japan, but unlike Tokyo which is full of its own charms and attractions, it is mainly used as a hub to nearby cities like Kyoto, Nara and Kobe.

Kyoto is usually the people’s favourite, but Osaka won my heart through my stomach. I didn’t realise this until I arrived (because I planned my itinerary around sightseeing, not eating) but Osaka is the food capital of Japan. You don’t need a guide book to tell you this – it’s obvious as soon as you enter the Dotonbori district and are greeted by the giant crab.

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And the giant gyoza.

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And all the other giant food-themed billboards that line the main strip of downtown Dotonbori.

I visited Osaka and Kyoto during cherry blossom season, hiking Mount Yoshino and its 30,000 blossom trees, strolling the fairy-tale like Philosopher’s Path, and walking through thousands of bright-red gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine. But to me, the highlight of the whole trip was Dotonbori, which is probably one of the most vibrant food districts in the world. It is literally buzzing with the sizzle of teppans, the blasting music of pachinko parlors and skill-tester arcades, the hungry footsteps of curious tourists and the enthusiasm of spruikers trying to get you into their restaurant.

I could have spent days there… but I had sadly only planned one night in Osaka so I needed a strategy as to how I was going to make the most of it.

I asked my travel companion, my little brother, what he wanted to eat for dinner. He wanted sushi but I was like… “No! We’re in Osaka! We need to eat Okonomiyaki and Takoyaki and other local specialites” To which he replied “Yeah, we can eat those too. Let’s just eat a little bit of everything.”

Genius idea. Filled me with sisterly pride.

So we found a random sushi train first and limited ourselves to three dishes.

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Tuna roll (350 Yen)

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Seared salmon (200 Yen)

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Classic salmon with salmon roe (350 Yen)

Not the most adventurous of choices, but we were starving and just wanted to eat something delicious and reliable. Which it was – you can tell how high quality the fish was just by looking at the photos. So it’s true that the sushi at any random sushi train in Japan is better than even the most high-end restaurants anywhere else in the world. Sushi is indeed an art, and the Japanese are the original masters.

It was really really hard to stop at three, but I needed to stay focused. This was only the appetiser.

Next, Osaka’s signature dishes…

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Osaka is famous for these little squid balls and they are EVERYWHERE. I did do some research to try to find the best takoyaki in Osaka, but as I mentioned in my previous post, the little restaurants were impossible to find. So we just picked a popular-looking cart with a long line.

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Takoyaki can be a bit doughy at times, but in Osaka they make it with huge chunks of cooked octopus leg resulting in a much tastier meat to batter ratio.

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Our much anticipated street snack – hot off the grill! Covered in sauce and huge moving fish flakes (hence the blurry photo). I think this was around 500 Yen. Very tasty, but not that different from the takoyaki I’ve had in Korea, or even in street markets in Sydney. Maybe we chose the wrong cart… I was tempted to buy another six balls from a different vendor but we didn’t have the stomach space to spare.

And now it was time for Takoyaki’s older cousin, Okonomiyaki. We walked into a restaurant called Creo Ru, which is more famous for its takoyaki, but I figured it’s Okonomiyaki couldn’t be too bad.

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Each table had it’s own teppan… I hear that at some restaurants, they actually make the okonomiyaki at your table but here the dishes were all prepared in the kitchen. I guess the teppan helps keeps things warm?

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Thought some Suntory beer would help wash down my Japanese pancake.

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Okonomiyaki literally translates to “what you like, grilled”, so I think the approach is “put all your favourite ingredients in a batter, mix it, and fry it”. I don’t even know what was included in our pancake – there were a few different options on the menu and I think we chose the one that was equivalent to ordering a pizza with “the works”.

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My guess is chicken, pork, seafood and a variety of vegetables? Definitely not the simple and sophisticated Japanese style of food we’re used to, but this sort-of pancake, sort-of omelette, sort-of deep-dish pizza has its own, humble appeal. This was around 1,000 Yen, but I’m sure you can get it cheaper from street vendors or smaller restaurants.

The other notable thing I ate in Osaka was from a little restaurant down the road from our Air BnB apartment.

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Handmade tamago bukkake udon (around 400 Yen). I had this for breakfast both mornings I was in Osaka – fresh noodles, chopped scallion, raw egg, tempura flakes and a tablespoon of rich soy sauce (with a korokke on the side). So simple and perfect and delicious – totally worth the salmonella risk. I’m used to my udon being served in soup or stir-fried but I now know that udon is at its best when simply covered in a gooey, salty, egg-soy sauce. I know this won’t be the same with store-bought noodles, but I’m going to try to replicate it at home.

Now moving on to Kyoto… which has much to see and do if you’re looking for nature, culture and history but very little to offer in terms of food. Everything is so touristy, which means it’s expensive and of low to average quality. If I had hundreds to spend on a Kyoto ryori course meal, I’m sure it would have been amazing, but our budget didn’t allow for that.

What you will find amongst the temples and palaces are tea-houses, some even offering a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Though these seemed like tourist traps, I couldn’t leave Kyoto without trying some Japanese matcha, so on our last day, we found a lovely modern-style cafe called Ten, on the road leading down from Kiyomizu temple.

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Ten is also a gift shop that sells hand-made and hand-painted paper goods, well worth a visit if you can find it amongst the frantic crowds and souvenir shops of the area.

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We ordered a roasted tea set – which included a pot of Hojicha and three traditional sweets. The green tea jelly was my favourite. The Hojicha was lovely too – made from roasting tea leaves and stems over high heat, resulting in a tea that is low in caffeine and has a really gentle flavour with none of the bitterness of a typical green tea.

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I chose a less traditional green tea latte, which came with a cute little fabric cup holder and a matcha whisk. Larger versions of these whisks are used in the traditional method of brewing matcha as it creates a layer of froth. I’m not sure exactly why matcha needs to be frothy, but I guess all beverages are more fun with a little bit of froth on top.

We really wanted to eat sushi one more time before we left Japan, so we managed to find a place downtown with pretty decent reviews on TripAdvisor called Musashi.

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I didn’t take any pictures of the sushi because it wasn’t worth photographing… this was one of those every plate for 130 Yen sushi trains and the quality of the sushi reflected the price. Also,  it was a bit like a sushi roulette because the chefs were really rough and inconsistent with the amount of wasabi they included in each nigiri. Kind of contradicts my above theory about sushi trains in Japan… but this didn’t stop us from eating around 20 plates between us. Only 130 Yen per plate! We went to town.

For our final meal in Japan, we wanted to try some ramen. Lucky for us, on the tenth floor of Kyoto Station we found Kyoto Ramen Koji – a food court of eight ramen restaurants that each specialises in a particular regional style. Because we had a train to catch, this time we had to chooose the place with the shortest line.

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It’s a pretty cool concept if you’re a ramen lover but don’t have the time or the money to travel around Japan to try all the different types. The food court is styled like a traditional Japanese street, with wooden store fronts decorated with red lanterns and noren curtains.

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The restaurant we chose turned out to be Hakata Ikkousha, a franchise that seems to be very popular in Singapore and Indonesia. Prices are decent too with most ramen under 1,000 Yen.

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We both had the “Special” which was a very thin noodle with mild broth, in a bowl completely lined with thinly sliced pork. It looks almost sickeningly heavy, but the thin noodles were so light and easy to eat.

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And finally, some karage chicken. One the closest things I’ve experienced to PERFECT fried chicken. Batter was crispy and full of flavor, and the meat was so tender and juicy.  This, of all things. was what my brother liked most out of all the food we ate in Japan.

If were to do Kansai again, I would stay in Osaka as a base and do day trips to the surrounding areas just so I could eat something new in Dotonbori every single night. Actually – that’s what you should do. I’ve already seen the sights – I’ll just stay in Osaka and eat all day and night. Only a short plane ride away – I hope to be back soon!

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Dirt Cheap Dining in Japan (Part 1)

In the last 6 months I’ve been lucky enough to visit Japan twice. First I went to Fukuoka and Tokyo on trip with my Church and I loved it so much I went back to visit Osaka and Kyoto last month (a trip to Japan from Seoul is like a trip to Melbourne from Sydney – 1.5 hour flight and cheap budget fares).

Both trips were on shoestring budgets so there was no Sushi Jiro or Michelin-starred fine dining, or anything even close, this was super-low budget travel food that only sits one notch above eating onigiri for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everyone harps on about how expensive Japan is, but I honestly think that, as far as first world countries go, the cheap food in Japan may be the best cheap food in the world. $5 can get you a bowl of hand-made udon noodles, or even a lunch set at one of the beef-bowl chains which are way better tasting and no where near as nasty as Western fast food chains. Oh, and what people say about how small portion sizes are in Japan is also a massive lie! Portion sizes are exactly the same as what you could get at a Japanese restaurant in Sydney.

Basically, food in Japan is awesome – regardless of whether you spend $10 or $100 per meal.

This is a bit of a departure from my usual posts, but I’m putting this up more for my sake as a scrapbook of food memories capturing everything I ate in Japan.

If, like me, you’re not a Japanese speaker, it’s best to let fate dictate your food adventures in Japan. I researched, planned, created custom Google maps for all the places I wanted to eat at, but most were impossible to find. Street signs and storefronts are mostly Japanese-only, so rather than spending ages hunting down the little hole-in-the-wall ramen place using your GPS which may not even be accurate – I recommend you just wander around and take a chance on a place that looks busy. Japan is one of those countries where it’s harder to find bad food than it is to find good food.

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My first bowl of ramen in Japan – the spiciest broth I have ever tasted. It was like the restaurant version of Korean Shin ramyn. I understand now why Japanese people don’t drink the broth with their ramen – the soup is incredibly rich and the flavour is so strong its hard to stomach even for a salt-lover like me. A bowel of ramen like this will generally be around 700-1,000 Yen ($7-$10).

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Nagasaki Champon – a Japanese/Chinese fusion dish that is of particular interest to Koreans because we have our own version of this (Jjam-bbong) which is exactly the same except a lot spicier. It’s kind of like a ramen, but a bit messier than the classic Japanese style. A milky pork and chicken broth with thick wheat noodles and a finished with a topping of cabbage, bean sprouts and seafood mix. The yellowish colour is a bit off-putting but it tastes much better than it looks!

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Before Tokyo, I had never tried authentic Japanese shabu shabu – I’d only had Chinese hot-pot and Korean-style “shabu shabu”, which is essentially the same but just a lot less… classy. This place had all-you-can-eat beef, served on an elegant wooden tray, a buffet of fresh vegetables, and three sauces. Yes, that RAW EGG IS A SAUCE!!!! My mind was blown by this. I don’t know anyone who loves egg more than me – how has the genius of using raw egg as sauce not come to my attention until now?? Freshly cooked shabu shabu meat, dipped into egg that is gently cooked by the heat of the beef. Amazing.

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The hot pot was split into classic shabu shabu broth and sukiyaki. I think sukiyaki was a dish that was quite popular in the early 90’s but went out of fashion once sushi and other more exotic Japanese cuisine started taking over. I’m not usually a fan of sweetly-flavoured meat dishes but the raw-egg dipping sauce is a game changer. It turns a daggy 90’s hotpot into the best thing ever.

And now, the rice bowls. I know that blogging about rice bowls (Gyudon) is the Japanese equivalent of blogging about Subway or Burger King, but seriously, rice bowls are a tight-arse traveller’s best friend. The three mains chains are Yoshinoya, Matsuya and Sukiya. Mostly frequented by tired businessmen and povo students, each chain has a wide selection of flavours (beef, pork, chicken rice bowls, sometimes curry and other miscellaneous dishes), up to five bowl-sizes so you have the option of spending less if you’re less hungry, and an easy and efficient ordering system where you buy a ticket from a vending machine that you just give to a staff member.

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It is hands down the best cheap-eat option for travellers because it’s actually Japanese (unlike McDonalds) and super tasty (unlike the re-packaged refrigerated meals you can get at convenience stores). Ranges from around 300 to 700 Yen ($3-7)

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We personally liked the options at Matsuya the best – like the kimchi, pork and onsen egg rice bowl above.

It’s funny how soft-boiled onsen tamago is such a novelty to us, but is so common in Japan that it shows up in a $4 rice bowl. It’s like this is only way the Japanese like to eat eggs. As common as the sunny-side up is for us.

Another thing that’s very common in Japan is hamburg-steak – which is just a fancy name for a hamburger patty. Hamburg steak is really popular in Japan and Korea because real steak is ludicrously expensive due to high beef prices. With the hamburg steak, you can enjoy the experience of eating a big chunk of meat at an affordable price.  But is it possible to somehow elevate a ground beef patty (or rissole, as us Aussies like to call them) into something more exciting than a…. ground beef patty?

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Hai! You can use top quality 100% Japanese beef, serve it rare on a hot plate that includes a special super-hot stone that you use to cook bite-size pieces of the pink hamburg on your table. So tasty! Can’t eat hamburg steak any other way now. And it was only 100 yen ($10)!

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This is black ramen, another random find near our hostel in Asakusa. The tiny ramen bar sat about 10 people and was run single-handedly by a hip looking young guy who cooked, cleaned and served everything himself. I’m not sure what causes the broth to be so black but my best guess is that it’s just pure soy sauce. Google suggests that the colour may also come from a charred garlic oil. But regardless of what it’s made from, any black-coloured broth is going to be strong as hell. I liked it though, it’s definitely not drinkable, but the way it flavoured the noodles was very nice if you like salty flavours. It also came with a massive chunk of peppered pork on top, about 1.5cm thick.

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One place that I did manage to track down on my Google map was patisserie Gontran Cherrier – one of the many world class patisseries and bakeries in Tokyo.

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Green tea citron croissants

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Mont blanc – which seemed to the the most popular items in the store.

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Baguette with gorgonzola and figs. Everything else in the store I could tell was delicious just by looking at it, but I bought this one because I needed to know whether it tasted as good as it sounded. The answer is yes – gorgonzola and figs! Winning combination.

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Another find just around the corner from our hostel. Udon noodles that are rolled out , cut, cooked and served fresh out of the kitchen with a ladle of broth and onsen tamago. I’ve always loved udon noodles – in soup or stir fried – I love their fatness and how they carry flavour. Hand-made udon takes it to another level – the noodles have a bit of texture that catches the flavour of the broth, and when you bite them they have a slight chewiness that you wouldn’t get in the factory made noodles. On the side I got tempura squid, which slipped right out of the fried batter after the first bite. Luckily, I’m not above eating tempura batter on its own.

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My final meal in Tokyo, one of my favourite things in the world, katsu-don. Bought for about $6 at a donburi chain restaurant, tasted just as good as the katsu-dons you’d pay double the price for in Sydney.

Here ends Part 1 of my dirt cheap food adventures in Japan! I didn’t publish the names and addresses of these restaurants since they’re all cheap and obscure, but if you really want to know, leave a comment and I’ll get the details for you.

SIDE NOTE: As you can see, I’ve given the site a little bit of a face-lift. Let me know what you think! In a classic “Heather can’t use the internet properly” move, I purchased a $30 customisation upgrade on my WordPress account, thinking this would let me play around with my theme as much as I wanted. Turns out $30 buys you basic font and colour changes… *facepalm*. Also, the grey gradient at the top of the page has spazzed out for some inexplicable reason. You can make custom CSS changes but I know absolutely nothing about CSS, so I’ve posted a question on the WordPress forums about changing the width of my content, which was the main change I wanted to make from the beginning. We’ll see if I can figure it out – watch this space!

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French with friends @ Ananas Bar & Brasserie

I was having lunch a friend on afternoon and as we were saying goodbye, her eyes became a bit shifty.

“Hey, so, what are the restaurants at the top of your list that you haven’t had a chance to try yet?”

“Umm… I’ve wanted to check out this place called Ananas for a while…Why do you ask?”

“Oh, just because, you know, looking for somewhere nice to take my boyfriend and I want to eat there first before you do *nervous laugh* Okay, SEEYA!”

Didn’t fool me for a second. That was the most un-smooth attempt at “Let me sneakily find out where you want to eat so I can take you there as a surprise” anyone’s ever tried on me.

But who’s complaining? The important thing was that someone was going to treat me to a meal at a restaurant at the top of my to-eat list. Whether you reveal the venue or blindfold me and make me guess where I am by the smell – either way, I’m happy.

So, as I guessed, our friends booked a dinner for four at Ananas as a lovely farewell gift for me and Matt, before we flew off to Korea.

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“Ananas” is French for “Pineapple”. Pineapples don’t seem very French… but this French bistro is certainly very… pineapple.

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Props to the interior designer who must have had to scour the earth for these elegant pineapple-themed ornamentations. While the concept sounds more suited to a Tiki Lounge, the restaurant is actually a beautiful combination of heritage Sydney and art deco Paris. It’s an expansive space of exposed brick with separate bar and dining rooms – the latter furnished with intimate booth seats and mural-sized nude paintings that might make the more prudish diner a little bit uncomfortable.

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My friends and I were seated, and the waiter came by to ask us about water.

“Still or sparkling?”

“Um, still please!” my friend answered cheerily, before I had a chance to interject.

“What? Sorry, have I misjudged you? Because I didn’t think I was friends with the type of people who would happily pay $9 for a bottle of water imported from Italy when we live in a country with some of the cleanest tap water in the world? Or was that just a rookie mistake? Okay, let me show you how it’s done. When a waiter asks the “still or sparkling” question you never reply with either “still” or “sparkling”, you take the silent option (c) and say “Tap water’s fine thanks!” and then flick you hair and act cool because tap water IS fine, thankyouverymuch”.

Of course I said all this after the waiter had left, because I may be shameless enough to answer “tap” when that option isn’t even presented to me, but I’m not shameless enough to change an order from “still” to “tap”.

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And then, as if he hadn’t even noticed the very important moment we just had about the water, our friend burst out “GUYS, can you believe how good looking our waiter is?!”

I guess as Koreans we’re more used to middle-aged aunties waiting our tables, not bronzed model-esque frenchmen whose shirts look like they’ve been spray-painted on.

I took a sneaky photo, but meh, I’ve seen better.

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We started the evening with two super-French entrees.

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Escargot with garlic sauce ($18). The bed of foam is pure salt – we learnt this the hard way.

Honestly, the only reason I ever order escargot is for the novelty value. I’m not even sure what they actually taste like because they’re always so drowned in garlic butter. You could probably cook a wad of chewed gum in garlic butter and it would taste the same.

But you know, Snails! In shells! On a plate! With special tongs!

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The chefs selection of house made charcuterie, brioche ($22) was not as substantial as we hoped… it took us about two whole seconds to clean that plate.

When choosing mains, we convinced our skeptical red-meat loving friends to go for the fish dishes. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt from our French dining experiences, its that fish beats all other land-dwelling creatures. You have to be delicate when cooking fish, and no one is more delicate than the French.

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Snapper with blue swimmer crab & squid risotto ($35) – this sounded amazing on paper, but our friend was a bit underwhelmed by the portion size and flavour.

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Whole flounder with lemon caper butter and pommes purée ($37) – one of Ananas’ signature dishes and definitely the most delicious thing on our table that evening.

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I chose the lobster ravioli with confit tomato and bisque $33. I’m not really a huge fan of shellfish but there’s something about lobster on a menu that draws me – maybe it’s just the cliche of lobster being the most expensive, luxurious thing you can order at a restaurant. This was pleasant, but the flavours were a bit too mild for my liking, so I just kept stealing forkfuls of my friend’s flounder.

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Matt chose (well… I chose for him) the navarin of braised lamb shoulder, roasted breast and gremolata crumbed brain ($34) – another signature dish. A classic country-style stew, complete with crumbed offal. This was the first time we’ve tried brain… and will probably be the last. I feel like the brain is one of those organs that God never intended to be eaten… along with eyeballs and the pancreas.

We had a lot of fun at Ananas – but I think that had more to do with the company, the cute waiter and unwanted bottle of still water than the food. The food was great, but I there are definitely French bistro-style restaurants in Sydney that are just as good but much less expensive. I suppose what you’re also paying for is the experience of dining in the Argyle with the trendy upper-crust of Sydney. And admission to the museum of pineapple art.

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Ananas Bar & Brasserie
18 Argyle St 
The Rocks NSW
Ananas Bar & Brasserie on Urbanspoon

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