Ramen and Izakaya Ryoji – Since 1988
by David Fujino
At 6:40 pm, I entered Ramen and Izakaya Ryoji as a diner. When I left about an hour later, I kept thinking, what did I know about izakayas in Toronto — especially an Okinawan izakaya, anyway?
They’ve been in business in Little Italy (College Street) for about a year-and-a-half, so I decided to have, as they say, a little taste, and see what it was all about.
When I was making a reservation over the phone, the young waiter asserted (he didn’t sound Okinawan) that, ‘wherever we seat you — at the bar, or facing the kitchen — you’re going to have a good time — no! in fact, you’re going to have an amazing time! Guaranteed. You really have to look us up on Facebook’. Or words to that effect.
Let’s just say I approached Ramen and Izakaya Ryoji with cautious optimism. The exterior wall and door were a solid deep brown wood. I heard the College streetcar wheel around the curve, and when I opened the door, I walked into a warm candelit room. On my immediate left, a long unfinished table in light wood. Running along its length were 10 white plates, each with a pair of black chopsticks and a white paper napkin placed to the left. From overhead, light bathed each plate, and there were comfortable backed and upholstered stools arranged along the table. One woman sat quietly with a cocktail and a bright backlit cellphone as I entered the mostly empty room, and the hearty greetings! I received from back in the open kitchen and the super-friendly waitress at the front desk, enveloped me.
At mid-room, the beaming waitress in the black t-shirt showed me to a long wooden table occupied on one end by a solo young male hipster wearing a nice hat and seated with a cocktail and a touch-screen phone. A medium volume kind of soft rock played over the speakers. I took the last seat at the far end. “No problem,” the waitress said, “it’s not like there isn’t any room tonight,” and with a smile, handed me the menu.
I ordered ramen and two dishes, which she approved of. And I didn’t feel rushed. Each time a new dish arrived, I was just finishing. In fact, my three dishes arrived “like teamwork,” I think the waitress said. I was comfortable enough in my Izakaya Ryoji element. It turns out the open kitchen served a strictly organized kind of menu. Five or six kinds of ramen. Six to eight kinds of appetizers, some with octopus in them. A very short list of wines and liquor, and a large list of cocktails. As the five kitchen staff went about their business, chop-chop-chopping and intently ladling soup stock into bowls of ramen, the young woman briefly looked out from the kitchen at me and smiled. At that moment, I was probably the only Asian customer in the nearly empty room.
What did I know about Okinawa? I’d heard about the diet of those living in the Okinawan islands, the southermost and economically the poorest Japanese Prefecture, where they know about war and strife in their land; and I’d heard of The Okinawan Diet, promoted as a kind of miracle diet based around the food that long-living Okinawans eat. Famous for its life-giving properties, the traditional vegetable-based Okinawan diet contains 30% green and yellow vegetables and it differs from the Japanese diet which includes larger quantities of rice. Interesting — the only rice item on the menu tonight was a bowl of rice. Was cultural difference being expressed here? Or, Hello! was I eating in a (Japanese– influenced) Okinawan izakaya? The jury’s still out on that one.
I started with the Ryoji salad of mixed salad greens, crispy calamari, sweet tomato mayo, shredded cabbage, and nacho strips. Very Western, I thought. ‘But it’s what I chose’, also went through my mind as I ate the mild sweet-and-sour leafy salad. I chose it because it had greens and it had seafood (though breaded and deep fried) and it had some nutritional value. The coloured nacho strips were added to the salad like croutons. The salad itself was sweet and tasted lightly of tomato. In general, the menu didn`t feature a lot of seafood.
The slim owner came by as I was eating my salad, and greeted me, and asked if I was “Nikkei?” and when I said, “Japanese Canadian,” he said, “Sansei!” and refreshed my tea bag from a thermos of water. I found that a nice gesture.
Now, I’d heard that Okinawans value * pork — and all of its parts — in their otherwise plant-based diet. Interesting, because pork formed the soup stock, along with chicken, in my ramen, and it was extremely salty, but it was shio, so I should have known better. (Predictably, my blood pressure shot right up.)
*The quantity of pork consumption per person a year in Okinawa is larger than that of the Japanese national average. For example, the quantity of pork consumption per person a year in Okinawa in 1979 was 7.9 kg (17 lb) which exceeded about 50% that of the Japanese national average. [online source unknown]
But I’m in an izakaya, and I’m really there for the food. Looking over the menu, I noticed there were fewer veggies, and when it came to greens, a typical fusion approach was taken (mixed salad greens are served everywhere). I suppose that if I’d sipped wine or beer or sake, or a cocktail, I’d have big fun at this izakaya, but tonight my happiness came mainly from the green tea.
The takoyaki was a small disappointment because the octopus balls were more potato than octopus. These smooth white balls had a novel squish in the mouth, but the texture and taste of seafood was missing. The dark sauce and nori shreds were acceptable condiments, but the beni shoga I found a strange taste to sprinkle into an otherwise mild and sweet broth. Yes, it’s all a matter of taste. The third dish was the ramen, tondou shio, in the ‘original Ryoji style.’ Because the warm pork and chicken broth wasn’t piping hot, the difference between this ramen and the sweat-inducing bowls of ramen consumed at a local Kenzo’s was tastable. I didn’t miss the sweat-inducing part at all, but the warm-ish broth tended to obscure the taste of the white kamaboko slices adorned with orange spirals. Meanwhile, a small slice of pork emerged among the bits of nori and green onion in a dish that was crowned with two orange yokey halves of a hard-boiled egg (ni tamago). As for the white noodles underneath and within the bowl, they were al dente, way too starchy, and sized somewhere between thin vermicelli and slightly larger cappellini, if I have my pasta facts correct. The too starchy white noodles are what I remember.
On that cold Wednesday evening, I visited an Okinawan ramen and izakaya shop. Instead I found a standard issue version of an izakaya/fusion approach to bar food and cocktails. And unfortunately, I really didn’t get to taste any traditional Okinawan food. It probably wouldn’t sell.