Ryoji Ramen and Izakaya revisited

signrevisitedBack in March of this year, I posted my review of Toronto’s Ryoji Ramen and Izakaya.

It has been around five months since I was last at Ryoji and this past Thursday night, two friends and I decided it was time to pay them another visit. I’m afraid we were disappointed. In general, an experience at a restaurant gets broken down into three areas for me: service, food quality, and price. Unfortunately, Ryoji has deteriorated significantly in all three areas and this is how.

Service
I knew in advance of going to Ryoji this last time that our beloved Ai was no longer at Ryoji. However, previously, even though Ai was our favourite, there were many other good people who worked at Ryoji. The staff were friendly, helpful, and upbeat – and therefore, so was the vibe of the restaurant. Now, the crew that remains is noticeably different from the charm, energy, enthusiasm, and care that the people like Ai represented from before. As an izakaya, enthusiasm is king. Customers are traditionally greeted upon their arrival with a united chorus of irashaimase that ripples throughout the restaurant – it is no longer like this at Ryoji. Instead, there was silence after our server meekly called out the greeting. (Cue sliding trombone.) The service thereafter was similarly lack lustre and at times, even off-putting.

Food quality
A far cry from the quality of food Ryoji served before. We ordered the gyoza, takoyaki, and tondo tonkotsu special ramen. The gyoza were thick, deep fried, and bubbly – more similar to a crispy wonton than the traditional pan fried dumplings we were expecting. That said, they tasted fine. (But then, so do my frozen $3 bags of dumplings from my local Chinese grocer.) Our staple takoyaki order was nearly exclusively flour and potato and contained almost no octopus. They tasted okay, but the quality was noticeably different than the last time we were in. And finally, the most disappointing of all was the ramen. How to I say this? It was not good. Don’t get me wrong, it was not bad either. It’s just that it was no longer good. The pork was dry, the broth over-salted, the egg was missing (although when we asked, we were able to get the eggs back) and the noodles did not taste like ramen noodles. Instead, they tasted a lot like wonton noodles. Again with the wonton theme! Of course, there is nothing wrong with wonton noodles – we love wonton noodles – but wonton noodles are not the same as ramen noodles. And when you are out for ramen paying for ramen, you expect ramen – especially not the kind that leaves a funny aftertaste in your mouth. Not good.

Price
The prices are more or less the same as before – around $10-12 for a bowl of ramen. There are also options now for mini bowls for around $6-9. That said, price is heavily swayed by value. And value is dependent on the quality of an experience as a whole. So now, in light of how far the service has deteriorated along with the food quality and considering all the other fantastic options for ramen in the city for around the same price (or less), I cannot recommend Ryoji Ramen and Izakaya anymore.

I’m sorry Toronto ramen friends. We’ll have to go elsewhere… and it seems many others feel the same way as the restaurant sat nearly empty on a Thursday night, compared to the packed tables it enjoyed regularly earlier this year any day of the week. I sincerely hope they improve again – I guess only more time will tell.

Hong Kong’s 001: A Speakeasy worth the search

001-doorbell

I love Hong Kong. I love the energy, the accessibility, the sights, and… most of all, I love the food. From hole-in-the-wall noodle shops and open air street dining to luxurious world’s finest (and highest) rooftop restaurants, the city has it all. Locals and visitors alike can enjoy a never ending array of anything you can imagine wanting to eat – even things you can’t. All within steps of an MTR stop and available in just about any price range you want. If you seek it out, you’ll likely find it.

One of the latest gems that had landed on our foodie hit list on our recent trip there was 001. My hubby and I had heard a lot about this little underground speakeasy cocktail bar that had been getting a lot of international attention. As a speakeasy, it was hidden: tucked away deep in one of the oldest areas of Central behind one of Hong Kong’s last remaining wet markets. The only challenge – it was a speakeasy, so it wouldn’t be easy to find.

Armed with the map on my phone and obscure instructions I’d picked up somewhere, we started our quest. Luckily, we happened to be in the area earlier that afternoon, so decided to locate it in advance while it was still light before we would head back later in the evening for cocktails. I’m glad we did. As later, in our usual form, we were running late, and it was far easier to navigate the old winding streets of old Hong Kong when we knew where we were going.

The good news is that if you have a general idea of where to look and what to look for, 001 isn’t nearly as difficult to find as you may be led to believe. The trick is knowing the intersection: Wellington Street and Graham Street. The cocktail bar is on Graham Street on the left, just before Wellington Street (if you are facing Wellington). Keep an eye out for the black door with the bronze doorbell. You may need to sleuth around behind some of the vegetable vendors.

For my husband and I, our visit was well worth the extra effort and ended up being one of our favourite experiences on our trip. Sporting a hushed 1920s art deco decor and ambiance, the feeling you get walking in is like you’re being ripped back in time a 100 years or so. From the custom bronze coasters and small lanterns on the table, muted lighting throughout the bar, marble tiled floors, and backlit bar, 001 aimed to impress and it did.

001

As expected, their cocktail menu was enviable. I tried the Earl Grey Martini first and was blown away by its flavour: aromatic, soft, and downright delicious. We also tried a few other cocktails, like the Blood and Sand, lychee martini, and Elderflower Caipirinha. All fantastic, but the Earl Grey was by far my favourite. As for food, we had heard that 001 is known for its cocktails, rather than the food – and by all accounts, we agreed with our sources. While the food was good, it also wasn’t particularly memorable or special. Although if you do get food, the grilled cheese is supposed to top the list. (We had the fried chicken.)

So if you’re ever in Hong Kong and happen to have a free night – definitely try 001. They only seat up to 40 people; however, so it’s best to reserve in advance at +852 2810 6969. You won’t regret it.

Gom Bui!

Sushi rice in under 5 minutes?

package

To follow-up on my post yesterday about home-made sushi rice, this one is about an interesting product I was recently introduced to by the kind folks at Bento & Co. Although many of our posts are generally focused on dishes that are made from scratch with ingredients that are as fresh as possible, I felt compelled to share this: Wooke’s instant microwave sushi rice. (Note, this is not a product endorsement on behalf of Bento & Co or Wooke, I just really liked this product.)

The ingredients themselves are the same things that you would normally cook sushi rice with, only it’s pre-cooked, pre-mixed, then dehydrated:

  • Koshihikari rice, dehydrated
  • Vinegar, dehydrated
  • Dextrin (in the vinegar) – which is a simple carbohydrate and a gluten
  • Sugar
  • Salt

Preparation of the rice is a simple two step process:

1. Take the rice packet from the package, peel open the marked corner to the line (they have it marked), and place it in the microwave for about two minutes.

2. Once your rice is ready, open the sweetened dehydrated vinegar package and sprinkle the powder evenly over the rice. Mix the powder in similar to how you would mix in the vinegar for your homemade sushi rice with a rice paddle or spatula.

And that’s it. All done.

What’s more is the rice is surprisingly good. All in under five minutes. Maybe this is not something to eat everyday, as ultimately, I do believe that whole, homemade foods are always better for us, but this instant rice is a good option once in a while if you’re on the run.

Special Delivery from Bento & Co!

bentoandco

Bento (bnt): A Japanese meal that is packed in a partitioned lacquered box, a single-portion takeout or home-packed meal common in Japanese cuisine.

Bento & Co.: A dream to the bento and all things Japanese food lover.

Living on the opposite side of the world from Japan, finding some of the specialty Japanese products can be difficult. Finding those products at a reasonable cost can pose an even greater challenge. After all, Japan is over an ocean or two away, and travel distance and import fees really can put a weighty price tag on products.

Enter Bento & Co. My recent shop obsession. They have been around since 2008 and open to the English market since 2010. Yet somehow, I only recently stumbled across it, but thank goodness I did!

For those living on this side of the world (ie: not in Asia), who love Japanese bentos and other adorable things from Japan and have a hard time finding these products… we are all in luck.

Featuring a vast array of unique and even some exclusive products, Bento & Co has since easily taken its place as one of my favourite online shops to date. Their curation of high quality Japanese bentos, bento-related items, specialty kitchenwares, and stationery is expert. Their prices, reasonable – even when factoring in duty (should you need to pay it). Their level of service is extraordinary. Every engagement with their customers, is personal, gracious, responsive, at times whimsical, but most of all consistently outstanding. And the best of all is that they will ship anywhere in the world. Yes, anywhere. Even if your country isn’t listed or does not come up in the shipping calculator tool, Bento & Co can and will ship your package to where you are.

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Ryoji: Ramen is so hot right now

ryoji

UPDATE (November 23, 2013): I returned to Ryoji with some friends recently, and have posted an update on this original restaurant review.


In the last six months, Toronto has seen a surge of new ramen establishments open their doors. For me, it’s been a welcome occurrence since I adore noodle soups of all kinds with ramen being no exception. My hubby and I haven’t completed the full circuit and visited them all yet, but so far, Ryoji Ramen & Izakaya has taken its place as one of our favourite restaurants in the city… and has become a staple place we go to on a regular basis. The establishment itself is a part of the larger Japanese-based Okinawa business founded by Ryoji Kinjo in 1988. Toronto is the first to have a location outside of Japan.

So why do we love it so much. Three main reasons:

  1. The atmosphere is fantastic. Fun, eclectic, well-designed, and spacious. There is a dining nook to suit every preference – communal harvest table dining, smaller two or four tops, bar-side under a swath of colourful ryuku glass lights, or comfy lounge-style by a wall of lamps. What’s also great is that compared to many of its ramen counterparts, it’s relatively large and doesn’t require the same kind of lining-up and waiting that many of the other ones do. Not to say I wouldn’t wait in line, I would and do, but sometimes, I like being able to walk in and get seated relatively quickly.
  2. One word: Ai. Our favourite server… and so far, the only server we’ve ever had (by our request). We love her. She’s an absolute darling – attentive, helpful, knowledgeable, and sweet. She’s my favourite. I’ve told her so.
  3. The food. It’s Okinawa-style ramen and food and it’s delicious.

This last time we went, we ordered a couple of starters: takoyaki (a snack that wraps minced or diced octopus in deep fried wheat flour), the daily sashimi, and sea bass miso yaki (grilled sea bass).

The takoyaki is a no brainer for us. Topped with takoyaki sauce, Japanese mayo, seaweed, pickled daikon strips, and bonito shavings – the ball-shaped snacks are delicious. Careful when taking your first bite. They’re hot.

takoyaki

The daily sashimi this time was salmon, tuna, and mackerel. It always comes with three dipping options: a soy mousse, cracked pepper and salt, and a sweet miso sauce. Combined with the fresh daikon and watercress, the bite-sized morsels of fish have incredible flavour. Continue reading

Best home-cooked Caribbean in Southwestern Ontario

This weekend, my man and I had the surprising opportunity to have one of the best, if not the best, Caribbean meal we’ve ever had. We were on our way out of the city for the weekend and decided to stop over in Guelph, Ontario for lunch. We had mad cravings for Caribbean doubles, and so, I decided to run a quick online search for a good Caribbean restaurant in the area.

Caribbean Cuisine

The first option that came up was “Guelph’s Caribbean Cuisine”, a small local restaurant in the heart of Guelph that had great ratings on TripAdvisor. The fabulous voice on the other end of my follow-up call confirmed that although they normally weren’t open on weekends, the jazz festival going on in the city meant that they would be open that afternoon. What luck!

We and our rumbling bellies arrived less than an hour later to a hearty welcome by the owners. After scouring the menu board, we both decided on a roti each, and for me (after a frantic search for my double until my fiancé kindly pointed it out: “double ——– $1.95”), I ordered one of those too.

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Japadog: A different kind of streetmeat

We were in Vancouver last week, and one of the places we had heard a lot about that we were excited to try was JAPADOG. Japadog was originally started by Japanese businessman, Noriki Tamura (田村 徳樹), in 2005 as a way to get around Vancouver’s strict street meat regulations that only allow hot dogs to be sold as street food. Tamura had wanted to introduce a unique variety of Japanese street food to Vancouver, and so created Japadog: Japanese-inspired street meat using a variety of ingredients including seaweed, bonito flakes, edamame, fried cabbage and more.

Each location features a different menu. Below is a portion of the menu from the original cart at Burrard and Smithe Street: Continue reading