In terms of fun and enjoyment, the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri was certainly hot, hot, hot . . . but not even the festival atmosphere could keep the weather from being so very cold, cold, cold. I’ve never bundled myself up so thickly in my entire life, with enough layers on my person to stock a clothing store – and whilst all that protection helped keep my outsides warm, after a long day of outdoor sightseeing my insides felt like they needed a bit of heating up from within.
What’s more, I was hungry. And eating my winter coat seemed out of the question. Woven fabrics tend not to taste very good – believe me, I’ve tried them.
Fortunately, a timely recommendation from a fellow travel blogger put me on the scent of a restaurant near Sapporo Station that, if rumours were to be believed, was reputed to serve something far tastier than polyester.
Name? lavi, Esta Branch (lavi エスタ店). The signboard sports a small “l”, but I’ll capitalise it in the rest of the post to make the name stand out a bit more.
Speciality? Soup curry.
Operating hours? 11:00-22:00.
How much? Mains range from JPY 950 to JPY 1,400. Numerous optional extras are available at an additional cost.
English menu? None.
With an empty stomach ready for action, I made my way to the 10th floor of the ESTA building, which was conveniently located right next to JR Sapporo Station (effectively making it part of the broader station complex). I didn’t have a hard time locating Lavi . . .
. . . but the line outside the door was sending mixed signals. One, that this place was very popular and therefore worth trying out; two, that I was in for a long wait and should think about eating somewhere else. After checking a few other places on the restaurant floor (which was pretty much crowded all around with the Yuki Matsuri in full swing) and deciding that Lavi was still my best bet, I put my name down on the reservation sheet next to the door and settled down on a stool to await my summons.
A copy of their menu was propped up on a table just outside the entrance. Let’s have a look at what’s on offer (click to enlarge).
At last, one of the waitstaff glanced at the list and called out my name. Curry time.
The smallish dining area had a mix of seating available. Larger tables on the right, counter-style seating against the wall on the left, and a few in the middle that I like to call “couple booths”: small counter-like tables with 2 seats each, arranged side by side, and partly surrounded by a cage-like partition of wooden bars. I indicated that I was dining solo, so the server led me to one of the “couple booths” (probably because the counter seats, which might have been more appropriate for solo diners, were mostly occupied).
My place would have looked very similar to the table on the right side of the following picture.
Right then, time to order. I opened the menu – no English version available – and began picking my way through the options. For a moment I considered ordering the エゾジカto野菜カレー (click the link in the name to reveal the unusual main ingredient), but a small sticker next to the entry announced that it was currently unavailable.
Pity. Perhaps next time.
I eventually settled on the 牛肉の赤ワイン煮to野菜カレー (JPY 1,280), a soup curry of beef simmered in red wine with vegetables.
There are many ways to customise your dish, most of which will only cost a little extra: anything from more vegetables to different kinds of cheese to bacon to ravioli and many others. Diners are also allowed to choose the level of spice that goes into their curry, from 0 to 50 for free (and beyond, for an additional charge). Since this was going to be my first taste of soup curry, not just at Lavi but anywhere, I decided to keep things simple by ordering no extra ingredients and selecting a moderate level of spiciness (can’t recall exactly but it was lower than 10).
Each order also comes with rice, free of charge up to 350 g and served with a small wedge of lemon on the side. I was feeling quite famished and simply asked for the largest free portion.
All right, here it is. Time to tuck in!
Let’s have a closer look at that bowl.
At the end of the meal, I was left with a mixed impression of the dish, though my overall assessment is decidedly positive.
First, the meat and veg. Beef was prominently listed as the first item on the roster, but there wasn’t very much of it in the end product. In fact, looking at the pictures above one might easily be persuaded that only vegetables were included (and not too many of those, either). Having said that, the contents of the bowl were very nicely cooked – the vegetables in particular tasted excellent – and if there had been just a little more of everything I would rate the dish very highly indeed.
The primary element of this soup curry dish is, of course, the soup itself. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m a huge fan of Japanese curry, but up to this point I’ve only regularly consumed it in its more common incarnation: namely, as a rich and very thick sauce, possessing a taste and texture strong enough to allow it to be served on its own with nothing more than rice on the side.
That simple approach probably wouldn’t work with soup curry. The lack of viscosity is an obvious factor – try serving it on the same plate as rice and you’ll likely end up with a kind of porridge – but the taste profile is also a key consideration. The flavours are more subtle, with the blend of curry spices much reduced in proportion to the liquid base, such that the end result isn’t really capable of standing on its own as a full-fledged dish.
And yet, this apparent weakness can also work in its favour. Sure, after the first few sips, I felt a little disappointed and wished that there was more of the familiar curry flavour that I’d come to know and love. But the less powerful taste also allowed the soup to marry well with the other ingredients of the dish, complementing their own flavours rather than overpowering them. Further on into the meal, I not only appreciated the gentler hit of the curry but also managed to catch the subtle taste of its companions, including the notes of red wine in the background (which would have been easily drowned out had they been presented in traditional curry sauce). This also raises the potential of creating many unique flavour combinations using the optional toppings on the menu – the cheese, in particular, is something I’m very keen on trying the next time I stop here.
And then there’s the fact that it’s in soup form. Thick Japanese curry is all well and good, without a doubt one of my favourite things in the world . . . but on reflection, I doubt if it could have done as good a job of thoroughly warming up my frozen insides as its more liquid, more easily digestible cousin. It went down quickly, sat lightly in my belly, and spread its gentle warmth generously as I swallowed each spoonful.
So, all things considered, could it have been better? Oh yes, definitely. (I certainly think the portion size, particularly in terms of the solid ingredients, could be improved.) But the fact that I’m thinking pleasant thoughts of that piping hot bowl of soup even as I type this, and imagining all the different things I could do with it next time, is as good a sign as any that I was pleased with the experience. You can rest assured that I will seriously consider paying Lavi a return visit the next time I find myself in Sapporo, though perhaps at its main branch just to see if they do a better job at company HQ. I’ve read in more than one post that soup curries can vary significantly in quality between branches of the same chain, or even in the same single store, so it may be worth trying another spot.
By then, perhaps the temporary culinary reprieve on Hokkaidō’s cervine population will have expired, and I can enjoy having the pleasure of their company for dinner. (The pleasure, of course, will be entirely on my side.)