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.

Mentsuyu: a multipurpose base

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If you’ve ever had Japanese tempura, udon noodle soup or zaru soba, you’ve had mentsuyu. It’s a multipurpose soup base that is used in two ways: either cool as a “dipping soup” (tsuketsuyu) for chilled noodles such as zaru soba, or warm as a soup base (kaketsuyu) for hot noodles like udon. If you are using mentsuyu as kaketsuyu, the hot form, you will need to dilute it even further than the cool tsuketsuyu type.

Mentsuyu is flavourful and can either be purchased ready made from your local Japanese grocery store, or can be easily homemade as well. It gets its flavour from bonito flakes, kelp, soy sauce, mirin, and sake, and as with any sauce or soup base, you can adjust the proportions of the ingredients to your liking, depending on what you’re making. You may want it a touch sweeter with a stronger sake flavour for your zaru soba, but saltier, with more emphasis on the kelp for your udon soup.

The recipe here is one I like as a base, and you can adjust from there.

Ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup of bonito flakes, packed
  • 1/2 cup of soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup of mirin
  • 1/3 cup of sake
  • kelp (a small cut piece, approximately 2 inches wide)

Preparation

1. Place your sake into a medium-sized saucepan and bring it to a boil, let it reduce slightly and add your other ingredients. Give everything a quick stir.

2. Reduce the heat to a medium low heat and let the mixture simmer for a few minutes. Leave the cover off.

3. Remove your pot from the heat and let everything cool to room temperature.

4. Strain your mixture through a sieve. (You can keep your kelp and bonito flakes to use for onigiri or as a rice or noodle seasoning by dry roasting it in a pan with some sesame seeds. Yum!)

5. You can now use your mentsuyu right away or bottle it. It should last in the fridge for about a month.

A chilled reprieve: Zaru Soba

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It’s been a hot week. Sticky hot. The kind of hot where a walk down the block leaves your skin glistening, heart working a little overtime, and feet feeling a couple beats heavier. But it’s also been the last week of August and where we are, that may signal (possibly) the last of our summer. I really hope not. Some may call it denial, I like thinking of it as a hopeful optimism. So in anticipation of a little more summer spilling over into the September we kick off today, I’m posting on Zaru Soba: chilled buckwheat noodles. The perfect meal to satiate the lesser appetite that often comes with a stifling heat that also offers a little reprieve. Best part, it’s very fast and easy to make.

Ingredients: (serves 4)

  • 200 to 250g of dried soba noodles (1/2 of a larger 500g package)
  • 1/2 cup of mentsuyu (you can purchase this in a ready-made bottle, or make your own homemade version – I’ll be posting the recipe up tomorrow.)
  • 1/3 cup of seaweed, shredded (about one sheet of nori sliced up)
  • 1-2 green onions, finely chopped (also called scallions)
  • wasabi
  • 2 teaspoons of white or black sesame seeds (optional)

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Sushi rice in under 5 minutes?

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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.

My father’s daughter: A heart for sushi rice

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I acquired an early love and appreciation for sushi from my father when I was growing up. At the heart of sushi making, the most important aspect of it is the rice. Luckily, if you know how to make steamed rice, sushi rice is very simple and easy to make. The trick is to use a little less water, so it’s less moist, and to mix the sweetened vinegar mixture into the rice as soon as the rice is cooked and is still hot. (More on this below.) The recipe I use is the same one that my father used whenever he would make sushi for us. Do note that the yield is quite a lot, so if you’re preparing sushi for fewer people, you can use the second ingredients list.

Ingredients: (makes 6 cups of rice, good for 4-6 people)

  • 3 cups Japanese sushi rice
  • 3-1/4 cups of water (note, you may need to adjust the water levels depending on your rice cooker)
  • 1/3 cup of rice wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • Optional: 3 tablespoons of sake

Smaller serving to make 2 cups of cooked sushi rice (good for 1-2 people): 

  • 1 cup of Japanese sushi rice
  • 1-1/4 cups of water (note, you may need to adjust the water levels depending on your rice cooker)
  • 2-1/2 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon of sugar
  • 1/3 teaspoon of salt
  • Optional: 2 tablespoons of sake

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Breakfast fun with Yude Tama egg molds

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The next time you make hard-boiled eggs for your kids (or yourself), try these darling Yude Tama  egg molds.

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If you’re not able to find them in a local Japanese specialty store, you can order them from Kyoto-based Bento & Co, who happily ship anywhere in the world. (More about their fantastic online store here).

The molds come in two different packages: one that contains a fish and car, and the other that includes a bear and rabbit face.

As for making the eggs themselves, the process couldn’t be simpler. So simple that your little one can help you turn the eggs into their cute, whimsical creations.

Preparation:

1) Boil your egg as you normally like them.
As a tip, counter to what is a popular practice, avoid putting salt in the water. The salt can result in a rubbery texture. I like mine medium-boiled, so I normally place my eggs in cold water where the water just covers the eggs (about an inch of water above the eggs) and bring the water to a boil. I turn down the heat to low to keep the simmer, cover the pot, and let the eggs sit for 4 minutes.

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2) Once your hard-boiled eggs are ready, put them into cold water. Let them sit for a couple minutes or so to cool enough to hold and ready your molds!IMG_7732

3) Gently peel your eggs and place them into your mold.

4) Close the mold and place the eggs back into the cold water. Let them sit for about five minutes.

5) When you open the molds, they’ll be staring back up at you as the bunny, bear, fish, or car from the mold you used.

These molds offer a great little touch of playfulness to start your day.

Special Delivery from Bento & Co!

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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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