Coppe pan might be new to Melburnians, but the bread rolls have been a staple for Japanese people since World War II, when they functioned as food rations.
At Coppe Pan, archetypal Japanese street food dishes – from gyoza (dumplings) and takoyaki (octopus balls) to chicken karaage (fried chicken) and yaki soba (stir-fried wheat noodles in a sweet and savoury sauce) – are sandwiched in pillowy white bread rolls known as ‘pan’. Don’t expect the crusty sourdough that soaks up eggs Benny in cafes around Melbourne – Coppe Pan’s bread is soft and fluffy as a result of its high percentage of water and sweeter than your average Western loaf of bread.
In the basement of Melbourne Central, Coppe Pan Japanese Bakery is a winding curvature of food as far as the eye can see. An okonomiyaki cooking station and a free filter coffee outpost for those who order more than two items jostle for space with extensively labelled sweet and savoury pan. You can choose to sit in the small confines of the restaurant or the wider food court, or you can take your pan to go – the ease of transporting the pan makes it perfect for takeaway.
It’s no environmentalist’s dream with all its plastic packaging, but it does have a few vegetarian options for those on the climatarian diet, from the agedashi (fried tofu) pan to the tamago (sweet egg omelette) pan.
But it’s chicken, in particular, that hits the ball out of the park no matter which way it’s fried at Coppe Pan. Squares of crustless white bread that conjure up your childhood sandwich thick wedges of panko-crumbed, deep-fried chicken in the chicken katsu sando, with wholegrain mustard and a cabbage coleslaw adding a welcome freshness to the satisfying yet light snack. Meanwhile, glossy teriyaki-glazed chicken retains its crispness in the teriyaki karaage pan, with the well-balanced sauce a far cry from the saccharine imitations commonplace in Japanese-Australian restaurants.
‘Fried’ is the nature of the game here, with the deep-fried panko-coated bun in the currypan a perfect vessel for the aromatic and comforting ground wagyu curry sauce contained within. The fillet o’fish pan does itself a disservice by evoking the comparison to McDonald's. Creamy, soft scrambled eggs envelop impeccably fried, high-quality fish, with the sweetness of the egg nicely balancing the savouriness of the fish.
Some renditions are more successful than others. Coppe Pan’s overly doughy takoyaki isn’t as palatable at room temperature as when it’s served piping hot and the yakisoba pan is a double injection of sweetness when paired with the already sugary bread.
The very same bread used in the coppe pan is lightly fried and dusted with matcha powder in the agepan matcha – it oozes the simultaneous bitter sweetness of green tea powder and has the crunch of a doughnut.
But despite the name, don’t limit yourself by only sticking to pan. The strong ribbon of fat running through the pork belly in the spicy togarashi-dusted pork rice burger is offset perfectly by the generous slathers of kewpie mayo. Meanwhile, the matcha tiramisu will make you forget how little stomach space you have left. Although it’s a dessert, it contrasts with the strikingly sweet pan and is one of the more savoury things we try. Moist, spongy and light, the tiramisu’s pleasing bitterness from the matcha powder-soaked ladyfingers and matcha-dusted top layer is counterbalanced by its white chocolate base. Good news for coeliacs: it’s gluten-free.
Salaried office workers in the vicinity should count their lucky stars that Kyoto-born chef Yutaka Kurimoto, together with owners Charles Pai and Keiichi Watariguchi, have resurrected a popular emblem of Japanese food culture just outside one of Melbourne’s most frequented train stations.