Japanese beef bowl in Markham. Or: Donburi-buri down!

There’s an interesting phenomenon that I’ve noticed after living in the GTA  for so many years (note to self: I really, REALLY got to stop talking as if I’m an external party observing life in Toronto. I’m NOT. I’m IN it every day and have been for a long time), which is that, despite the abundance of Asians living here and the equally-abundant varieties of Asian cuisine designed specifically to cater to this population, it is still up til now WITHOUT a single international Asian food chain. Bubble tea houses/cafes are the only exception, and even that is a recent phenomenon, as up until several years ago, the only international bubble tea chain available here was TenRen. And I never really understood why.

Let’s take sushi, for example. Well-loved by the many Asians (and non-Asians) that live in the GTA, you can find approximately TEN POINT FIVE MILLION sushi restaurants in the GTA, some of which are little mom and pop shops, and some are small local chains. But you’re not going to find, let’s say, Sushi Tei here. Another example? Korean food. There’s around FIVE POINT TEN MILLION (lulz) Korean restaurants here, but you’re not going to find something like Bulgogi Brothers (actually, we DID get them, then they closed down – which proves my point even further). For a time, there were a few small independent operators that served Japanese-style burgers, but you’re not going to find MOS Burger here. Ditto Japanese-style pasta. We got a little restaurant serving it, but no sign of Pasta de Waraku.

Whoops. It's  ten point SIX  million sushi restaurants now. My bad.

Whoops. It’s ten point SIX million sushi restaurants now. My bad.

This brings me to the main focus of this article: Japanese rice bowls. A nice, simple dish consisting of soft Japanese rice and some rich ingredients, the most well-known international franchise that serves this (that I’m familiar with) is Yoshinoya. No sign of that ever coming here, either. But this post WILL be talking about the local, mom and pop shop that serves it: Donburi. And while I may never understand why these Asian franchises don’t open shop here, I’m very thankful that the likes of Donburi are here to sate my appetite, ensuring that I don’t miss out on the delightful culinary morsels that I grew up loving and being familiar with.

Donburi, located interestingly enough in the extremely Chinese-heavy plaza of Commerce Gate, is an oddity in many ways. It is one of the only places in the GTA that serves this unique dish, and explicitly targets the mainstream population. This is in large contrast to its surrounding tenants, which deals almost exclusively with Chinese (and often fresh mainland Chinese) population. It’s also of particular interest for me because it occupies the exact spot where I had my first date with my soon-to-be wife. The old bubble tea cafe’s interior was so uniquely crafted with its little huts and ponds that it was a complete surprise when I found out that they gutted the whole thing and made it a sparklingly clean and bright Japanese restaurant. With all this peculiarities in mind, how could I NOT go here?

The restaurant’s main distinguishing feature is how open, bright, and cheerful the whole spot looks like. In contrast with the many restaurants in the plaza that looks like it was designed with little purpose other than to cram as many hungry Chinese families as possible, this little gem actually looks like it was created with purpose and care. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it WAS created to cram as many people as possible. But seeing the spacious open concept kitchen and seating, along with what feels like tons of space between tables, such a thing was far from my skeptical mind. It also helps that the waiters are always friendly and ready to help you, and (ERMAHGERD) actually speak fluent English! What a concept.

It's so clean, you really should implement the five MINUTE rule here.

It’s so clean, I’d implement the five MINUTE rule here.

During this visit (not our first), we decided to have the takoyaki (Octopus balls) to start with and the umami rice along with the fried shrimp rice. We also discovered that they now have a lunch special menu, displayed in the usual creative way that I’ve come to expect from this establishment. I personally don’t think it’s THAT much cheaper than their actual regular menu, but I suppose it’s a bit less, and I’m pretty sure you get soup with it, something which you normally don’t get. As for us, this time we’re eating like a BAWSE, so no lunch specials today! Maybe another time.

And in the summer, you can use it to fan yourself!

Grab his head, and you can use it to fan yourself!

The takoyaki came first, and it was delicious. It was piping hot, as is customary, but interestingly it wasn’t SO hot that the little bonito flakes on top of it looked like it was waving at you (something which has always creeped me out tremendously). Thus we didn’t have to wait like half an hour to eat the damn thing, which is much appreciated by this food blogger and his equally hungry fiancee. The balls were tender and fluffy, and the octopus pieces weren’t rubbery, which was nice. I still wish they had wasabi mayo, something I once had in Singapore, but then again I didn’t ask for it so maybe that’s something I should do next time. Portion size was standard, and while it wasn’t anything that blew me away, it was still better than many others I’ve had. Solid marks.

Heehee. Balls.

Heehee. Balls.

The umami rice is, by far, THE thing we always order when we come here and is also the dish YOU should order when you visit Donburi. Taking its name from the oh-so-satisfying flavour terminology that the Japanese came up with (it’s the really satisfying “kick” that you get in good-tasting foods, something MSG tries to replicate when you sprinkle it on your dish), the dish is very aptly named. There is sweet, savoury, salty, all mingling together, with the smoothness of the surimi pieces frequently broken up with the satisfying crunch from the vegetables that come with the dish. It was (and always has been) an excellent dish, worthy of being the signature item on the menu itself. And as someone who just can’t get enough sauce, I TOTALLY GOT ENOUGH. That should be convincing enough for you.

It's so delicious it's practically weeping tears of joy.

It’s practically weeping tears of joy.

The fried shrimp rice was a bit…interesting. It’s not bad, and is actually rather unique. I half-expected a version of the rather delicious tempura don I had on a previous visit, but this time I realized they were actually whole shrimps, deep fried to the point of super crispness (you could eat the whole thing) but without burning the inside part. In other words, the juicyness of the shrimp is mostly intact and feels almost like a freshly boiled shrimp. It’s kind of hard to explain, but the end result was a very crispy and seasoned exterior with a smooth but bland interior. It actually didn’t quite work for me. It’s definitely something new and very good to those who feel that the actual shrimp taste in a tempura is mostly gone (which it usually is). But for me it felt too much like eating boiled shrimp, which I’m not too big a fan of. Worth a try, but I’ll stick to the tempura don next time. The sauces on the shrimp were pretty killer tasty, mind. They do their sauces right, this place.

I ate 'em clean, eyeballs an' all guv'nor!

I ate ‘em clean, eyeballs an’ all guv’nor!

I would heartily recommend everyone to go visit Donburi. In fact, if you promise to review them on Yelp, chances are you’ll get a free dessert out of it. Our previous visits have yielded us with a deliciously light strawberry tofu cheesecake, along with an equally delightful green tea creme brulee. True to their Asian roots, neither of these desserts were heavy. I couldn’t show you any pics here as we didn’t have any during this visit. But this is definitely another notch on the restaurant’s belt. Bonus points also goes to the restaurant for having a charming logo and proper marketing of its design throughout the store, from the uniforms to the menu. As a marketing man, this pleases me to no end. They do their FOOD right, their SERVICE right, and their MARKETING right. Good.

Say hi to Irene, the uber-friendly manager there, along with Stanley (who I believe is the owner). They’d only be too happy to converse with you, and they truly care about making your experience eating there a positive one. And I’m perfectly OK if Yoshinoya never opens here in the GTA, ‘coz I got myself some Donburi!

 

–Final verdict: Mari Makan!

Donburi

505 Highway 7 East
Toronto, ON L3T 7T1
(905) 597-6505

A note of thanks!

Given my limited culinary preparation skills, I’m fully cognizant that I’ve been blessed by many people around me that have cooked for me. People like my parents, my in-laws, and my fiancee are HUGE, HUGE contributors to this list, and contribute to it so many times that I lost count. But sometimes there are individuals that, totally unexpectedly and out of the blue, prepare food for you just ‘coz they can. And that’s why I want to send a special shoutout to Michelle LeBlanc for her delicious chicken alfredo lasagna and lasagna roll-ups. Delicious, delicious things which I’ve never tasted before and hope to (soon) sample again.

I’m also aware that you probably don’t want too much attention to this so I will remove this post in the near future. So please consider this a small limited-time thank you article that’s made especially for you in recognition of your fine cooking skills. And may they ever continue. ONWARD with the MAKAN!

Please accept this micro pig picture as a sign of thanks. THANKS! --- from www.deathandtaxesmag.com

Please accept this micro pig picture as a sign of thanks. THANKS! — from http://www.deathandtaxesmag.com

A taste of the Balkans. Or: Trying out a kefir bar in Toronto.

I don’t often review non-restaurant places. The last one I remember doing was probably Easy Drink Easy Go, and that was a long time ago. That being said, a recent trek with my much beloved coworkers unearthed a little gem that I believe is worth profiling here. And that underrated jewel (actually, I take that back, they’ve been around for around 3-4 years so clearly they’re not THAT unknown – maybe it’s just that I’ve never heard of ‘em) is deKEFIR.

I first heard about kefir from my parents. They were trying out this new yogurt-like drink that they said came from Eastern Europe, and that tasted just like yogurt but with less of a sour taste. Given my dislike of all things sour (embarassingly, I still can’t bring myself to eat unflavoured yogurt), I naturally gave it a try and was mildly impressed. It was good for me, apparently, and I still liked it. However as with many food trends, our family sort of “forgot” about kefir and, naturally, so did I. Until last week!

Thanks for the reminder!

Thanks for the reminder!

deKEFIR is a kefir bar. They don’t really sell anything other than frozen kefirs and kefir smoothies. And I was very much interested in trying these out because, not only has it been a bajillion years ago since I actually had it, I can’t even remember what it tasted like! Hell I didn’t even know eating kefir was still IN.  The place also looked very inviting, with its warm and inviting light wood tones, and SUPER friendly ladies behind the counter. I love the simplicity of the whole place. So after trying out a small free sample, we decided to get kefir-ed up!

Notice the milk bottle outline in the background. Brilliant!

Notice the milk bottle outline in the background. Brilliant!

First things first, the frozen kefir comes in one of four possible sizes. I got the smallest one and STILL felt like I had too much. The portions are quite generous and the prices are pretty good too. It was $3.30 for the smallest size, which is way cheaper than what you’d get at Menchie’s or Yogurty. I can’t recall the other prices too well but I do know it was $4.40 for the next size up, and for $1 extra you can get 4 extra toppings (the usual price would include only one). And yes, this brings me to the topic of toppings. Being that kefir is, by and large, a healthy dessert, it’s not surprising that the majority of the toppings are various kinds of fruits and nuts. Some are mixed quinoa, and I personally liked the flavourless but delightfully cruncy and airy quinoa puffs. You really do feel that you’re eating dessert that isn’t going to totally wreck your gut. Oh, and the lovely lady told me that the small one is only around 90 calories. THAT IS AWESOME.

THIS is a small size. THIS is also awesome.

THIS is a small size. THIS is also AWESOME.

And what does kefir taste like? Well, keep in mind that this is soft-serve frozen kefir, and not the kefir drink itself. The kefir served here tasted very….neutral. And it’s not a bad thing. People who regularly read my food articles and/or know me personally know how much I love strong-tasting food. However in this case, I’d gladly make an exception. There’s something understated and strangely refreshing about having a rather bland dessert. And I really don’t mind that. Keep in mind that it wasn’t ALL tasteless. There is a very, VERY slight hint of sweetness (they did add cane sugar to the kefir), while the richness that is characteristic of a dairy product (which this was) is very much present. These two nods to flavour were all that I needed. The whole thing felt light and, seeing that we had to get back to work, this was an excellent thing.

If you’re ever in the PATH in downtown Toronto and are anywhere near the Bay-Adelaide Centre, I highly recommend you check this place out. It’s a light and wholesome dessert that won’t weigh you down, but will leave you feeling satisfied. Oh, and they also serve these morsels of delight with waffles, too! No, it’s not as tasty and  eye-wateringly flavourful as an Oreo Blizzard from DQ, but that’s just fine by me. Your gut will thank you, trust me.

And sorry for all the lousy quality pics! --- from upliftingreflections.com

And sorry for all the lousy quality pics! — from upliftingreflections.com

–Final verdict: Mari Makan!

deKEFIR

333 Bay Street
Toronto, ON M5H 2R2
(647) 352-2220

Cheese in my noodles. Or: Being all hip and trying out Kinton Ramen

Readers of my blog would be familiar by now with my increased affection towards ramen. I really did start not being very impressed by this dish (and I still think noodles in Jakarta are WA-A-A-A-Y better than any ramen you’d care to throw at me), but with the recent fascination that Toronto has with ramen houses, I’ve really begun to appreciate them in a new way. Which is good too because these ramen joints are popping up around this lovely city faster than Justin Bieber videos getting downvoted on Youtube.

Bet you thought I was gonna post a pic of the Biebs here, right? WRONG! :) --- from www.hellogiggles.com

Pictured: NOT Justin Bieber. You’re welcome — from hellogiggles.com

One of those hip joints is Kinton Ramen. It opened in Toronto a few years back and has a reputation for ALWAYS being busy to the point of patrons pretty much expecting to line up during mealtimes. I don’t know whether it was because the food was that good or if it was simply a product of the hype combined with Toronto’s recent ramen-philia, but I’ve always penciled Kinton down in my “to do” list as one of those places I just have to visit one day. And on a cold winter’s evening (is there any other in Toronto?), armed with the knowledge that they serve a delightful-sounding dish called cheese ramen, WW and I finally had our first experience of this much-hyped and much-loved ramen house. First things first. I have always wondered why every single picture I’ve seen of Kinton seems to show only the same angles of the place. Surely people would get creative and photograph other spots inside the restaurant? Not to mention, why do all the pictures keep on showing this narrow corridor-like area?

Yeah. I wonder why....

Yeah. I wonde- OH.

Well, when we got there, we found out that that narrow corridor pretty much IS the main area of the restaurant, with a little corner in the deep end housing a few tables and a smaller one close to the entrance (where we sat) housing a rather cramped table. The whole layout of the restaurant reminds me of a capital “I” letter turned sideways. It WAS, suffice to say, really cramped. That’s not to say that the overall ambience was disappointing, it was actually cool and hip in a wood-heavy and modern-minimalist-Japanese kinda way. But cramped is still cramped, and we struggled to be seated comfortably in our little corner, in which we practically almost had our faces plastered to the full-length glass windows.

Yeah. Kinda like that --- from www.visualphotos.com

Kinda like that — from visualphotos.com

OK so it’s not the most comfortable place to sit down and eat up your overpriced noodle soup. But at least it’s understandable as ramen places in japan have a very cafeteria-like seating arrangement. Plus, in Momofuku (arguably THE place to be seen eating this stuff in Toronto), the seats are like that too. So maybe there’s a template of sorts to follow. This can and will be forgiven provided the food is really as awesome as the hype. WW ordered the spicy garlic ramen while I ordered the astoundingly healthy-sounding cheese ramen, which I admit was a major reason in me wanting to try this place.

The food came pretty quickly, served by friendly (but really shouty) Japanese twenty-somethings that lend that little bit of coolness (I guess) to the place. Both looked rather large, and all attention was quickly drawn to the massive mound of garlic on WW’s bowl. “I think you should mix that”, I quipped, offering my wisdom, as if there was any other way of eating it. We both found the noodles to be a little al dente, which I love in a ramen setting but WW is not too keen on, while the broth was quite delicious but lacking a little bit of richness. Perhaps it’s not something that should be there, but I always like to have a little bit of smooth richness in my ramen broth to give it that extra “kick”. Speaking of kicks, it’s really not that spicy, especially to Mr. and Mrs. Iron Tongue like us. Overall, quite good but lacking a little something.

Oh, the corn was a nice touch too.

Oh, the corn was a nice touch too.

Of course, now my full attention is on my crazy cheese ramen, and despite a similar mound of garlic, what drew my eye was (understandably) the large quantities of cheese shavings all over my noodles. There was so much of it that it looked like the head of a mop. This was too beautiful for words (I do love my cleaning supplies), and I quickly mixed them all in gleefully, delighting in discovering that they immediately transformed into gooey cheese strings. As for the taste, I really did like how the cheese provided that extra creaminess that I was looking for in my noodles. The broth instantly became milkier and richer, but without turning into some sort of cream soup. The noodles were similarly al dente, and the ingredients all meshed nicely together. One weak point was the pork belly which is pretty much 100% fat (I guess the term “belly” should’ve given it away, really) and completely inedible, though it did have a hint of smoky char that I liked.

Or it could be a judge's wig in a British courtroom, I guess.

Or it could be a judge’s wig in a British courtroom, I guess.

Overall, I felt that Kinton is a good ramen place, but is not really the worth the over-hype that it gets. It’s chic, cool, with good food, but I still don’t think the overall quality and taste justifies paying almost $10 for what is essentially noodle soup. I can get ramen of similarly good quality at J-Town’s Niwatei. So the sum total of the experience was solid but unspectacular. Except for their washrooms. Those were freakin’ awesome. So unless your level of satisfaction in a place of dining is driven primarily where people go to experience bowel movements (or play Flappy Birds, whatever), then I’d probably say this one’s not worth the hype.

I do feel a little cooler for trying it, though.

I spent more time in here than I should have.

Washroom: I spent more time in here than I probably should have.

–Final verdict: Boleh Makan!

Kinton Ramen

51 Baldwin St

Toronto, ON M5T 1L1

(647) 748-8900

Everybody’s favourite restaurant in Niagara Falls. Or: Eating everything but the chicken at Falls Manor

Living in Toronto for 15 years (!!) as I have, I’ve become extremely familiar with Niagara Falls. Once viewed in almost awesome wonder when I used to visit Canada as a tourist (yes, those days definitely existed), this large waterfall has now become slightly less of a natural wonder and more of a getaway spot for me, and I suspect many Torontonians. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s still a wonderful sight to behold and I’m lucky to be living relatively close to such a natural wonder. It’s just that these days the trips there are more about chilling out, hanging out with friends and family, or just checking out what new crazy stuff the Clifton Hill tourist area has to offer and less about going on the Maid of the Mist ride.

No, not that kind of mist- OK WHO'S THE WISE GUY RESPONSIBLE FOR PUTTING THE PICTURES UP HERE?

No, not that kind of mist!

The positive point of becoming more and more “used” to Niagara is that it frees up time for me to go exploring other things that overseas tourists may not have time to (as they obviously have to spend time to ogle at the Falls themselves). And one of those results was the discovery of Falls Manor. An old-school, old-fashioned (just like how Ontarians love their EVERYthing) restaurant that is always full of patrons, with a little motel at the back that nobody really cares about. Everyone and their mother comes to Falls Manor for their famous broasted chicken (a fancy name for how they fry ‘em), including people like my brother who has in the past driven here just to get said chicken.

We as a family have been frequenting this joint for around 15 years now, and since it is a rule for every Torontonian to bring any guests from outside Ontario to see Niagara Falls, we have have brought a LOT of people here. Hell it sometimes feels that we’ve brought half the people from Jakarta to go eat this chicken. And that is why, even though their chicken is very good, on this trip we decided to eat everything BUT the chicken. Here’s the review that resulted from that visit (just as a side note – their broasted chicken is indeed delicious but nothing to really write home about. I never got what the crazy big deal is. We just brought people here out of habit, truthfully) …

It's like the interior of Montana's, just tackier (if you can believe that)

Delightfully tacky interiors? Check. Confused parents overwhelmed by menu? Check.

As they had an all-day breakfast menu ready, WW got the Eggs Benedict while my mom had the scrambled eggs. My dad always goes for their liver (and this time was no different), while I had the Hungarian steak, which I’ve always felt should have more prominence on their menu. The restaurant was busy with patrons lining up the door, and the whole place seriously had a feel of a German beer hall with too many people. There were so many people you’d think One Direction was performing or something (ha! that’s one reference that will NEVER go old). As such, the food was a little slow to come out, though the service was polite enough, if a little harried.

No, this is harrieR, not harrieD-OK WHO'S RESPONSIBLE FOR PUTTING THE IMAGES HERE?? -- from metro.co.uk

No, this is harrieR, not harrieD-OK WHO’S RESPONSIBLE FOR PUTTING THE IMAGES HERE?? — from metro.co.uk

The Eggs Benedict was, put simply, mediocre. It didn’t look bad, and in fact when it first came out I remarked on how vibrantly yellow they looked like. The problem was, unfortunately, the flavour. As in, there was almost none of it. The whole thing came with peameal bacon which would normally be salty enough to compensate for the plainness of the eggs, but in this case the bacon was bland (can you imagine that?) and forgettable. The Hollandaise also lacked the depth of richness that is normally characteristic of this sauce. The whole thing felt like a bland symphony of cholesterol-increasing madness. The texture was all good, and everything felt quite fresh, but if I’m going to have a heart attack on a plate, you should at least make it tasty.

Disappointing: Part un

Disappointing: Part un

The scrambled eggs were decent but not completely impressive either. It was stuffed full of peppers and onions, but was a bit small for its $7 price tag. The homefries were much tastier than most (same thing with the Eggs Benedict) as it actually had seasoning, but overall the dish felt underwhelming. To be fair though, I’ve very rarely found scrambled eggs that knocked my socks off and, as such, I’ve never been a big fan of this dish in general. So truthfully, you could present me with 100 different takes on scrambled eggs and I’d probably say 95 of them to be meh at best. I’m definitely biased, but hey whatever, it’s my review.

Disappointing: Part deux

Disappointing: Part deux

The liver, on the other hand, was excellent. I couldn’t exactly remember what it was called but there’s really only one liver dish on the menu. It didn’t have a very…uh….”liver-y” smell that sometimes puts me off the dish, and it was seasoned to perfection. The little bed of onions on top of it provided a great contrast in both texture and taste to the more steak-like liver, and all I have to say is that it was delicious. If you are even a little bit of a fan of this dish, you MUST try Falls Manor’s version of it. And even if you’re not a big fan but are curious, order it anyway. You won’t be disappointed. Make sure you order the gravy to complement your mashed potato side, and you’re good to go. Deliciousness all around.

Who knew liver can be so tasty?

Not disappointing: Part un

The Hungarian steak was also satisfying. I kind of stumbled upon this little-known item on the menu a few years ago when I wanted a change from downing buckets of chicken, and has since then become my number one go-to food to order whenever I wanted something that didn’t use to have feathers in this restaurant. The steak itself was very tender a well-marinated. The combination of herbs and spices used in the steak gave it a nice flavour, while ridiculous amounts of cheese on top made the whole thing an exercise in extravagance. The only thing I would’ve done to improve the whole meal would be to provide some au jus on the side, but then again I’ve been accused of loving sauce the way smokers love tobacco, so maybe that’s just me. Highly satisfying though.

Not disapointing: part deux

Not disappointing: part deux

So would I recommend Falls Manor? The answer is yes, but with asterisk. Come for the fact that it’s a homey, comfortable, well-known restaurant spot. Come to try their broasted chickens. And certainly come for the liver. But if you’re expecting anything uber-unique, or a high calibre of taste sensation that would justify the line-ups, then this ain’t the place for you. A fun place to go to, for sure. But not an unmissable place by any stretch of the imagination. If you happen to be at Niagara Falls, you probably should stop by. But I would never dream of being one of those that would drive 100+ kms just to get their chicken.

–Final verdict: Boleh Makan!

Fallls Manor

7104 Lundy’s Lane
Niagara Falls, ON L2G 1W2
(905) 358-3211

Ramen up north. Or: An izakaya that doesn’t serve alcohol?

Ramen (Japanese soup noodles) is one of the many things that I have begun liking only recently. Growing up, I never was a big fan of ramen, and the closest thing I ever come to liking ramen-style food is the instant noodles you get in Indonesia. But thanks to the power of influence of WW (as well as trying to make her happy), I’m glad to say that I now quite enjoy this salty delicacy. It provides a nice warm meal in what is normally a very cold country. However I have to say that being a recent convert doesn’t preclude me from being rather picky with my noodles. And I’m glad to say that I found a decent ramen place in New Kennedy Square. So along with Ilpunji Sushi House, that makes TWO rather nice places that I like to go eat at in this godforsaken ugly mall (I’m sorry, I really, REALLY cannot get past how shitty the building looks like).

Almost as shitty as this. But only just. --- from ajklijs.wordpress.com/

Meh, close enough. — from ajklijs.wordpress.com/

Walking in, you’ll be quite surprised to see how new and rather fresh the whole restaurant looks like. While it won’t win points for decor originality or innovation, the whole place feels quite bright and recently renovated, a nice change from the awkward and dingy place of the many other places in this mall. They even have a little private section (something I’m seeing more and more of in newer restaurants) for a small birthday party or gathering. Nice touch. We were seated quite promptly and got a cozy booth seat. This place really does feel spacious, and I appreciate that the owners didn’t go down the route that many Chinese owners usually go for: that of aggressively trying to cram as many tables as possible into a finitely small space (this must be some sort of sporting competition in China/HK that they carry over to Canada, some of them must be real pros at it). The result is that the whole place feels a bit more quiet than many of the other Chinese-owned ramen places that I’ve been to in the ‘burbs.

It was quiet, alright.

It was quiet, alright.

We ordered two very simple and straightforward items: the tonkotsu ramen (essentially a pork bone broth-based ramen) and the spicy ramen (which is very similar to the former, just with more BURN). Before I go on though, I must make a note that they serve stone pot rices here, which I did try in a previous visit, and it was delicious. The only problem I had (which, really, is the whole point of the dish) is that the pot really kept the rice extremely hot, so even half an hour into my meal, I was still huffing and puffing my every scoop of rice in a way reminiscent of the big bad wolf in front of a brick house.

Yep. That's practically me --- from themightymrbilly.blogspot.com

Yep. That’s practically me — from themightymrbilly.blogspot.com

I have to say, when the food came, it looked wonderful and just like how ramens should look like. Big steaming bowls of goodness, with oodles of stuff inside, and perhaps most importantly, large slices of chashu (pork) in them. After eating them though, I found them to be in the solid-but-not spectacular variety. The noodles were a bit overcooked (or maybe I just like my ramen a little al dente), and though the tonkotsu broth was rich, it was a bit more on the salty side. For those who say that ramen broths should be salty, I would actually agree with you, but I usually prefer a little bit of depth in my broth, so that the flavours are a bit more complex. Case in point would be the excellent ramen at Niwatei Ramen in J-Town, however invisible the place may be. Still, the overall dish was not bad, even if the chashu was also not as sweet (yep, you read that right) as Niwatei’s.

Pictured: the regular ramen. Not pictured: me blowing vigorously at the spicy one.

Pictured: the regular ramen. Not pictured: me blowing vigorously at the spicy one.

The spicy ramen, on the other hand, we’ve also had a brief encounter before. We kind of knew what to expect, and thus we sheepishly asked them to reduce the spice level a bit.As a Southeast Asian, you have no idea how much it hurt my pride to say that. But I vividly recall how burning the whole thing was the last time we ordered. This time, the kitchen staff complied with our request and toned down the chili pepper content. The result was a ramen that was similar like the tonkotsu variety, but with more heat. This actually gave the dish the added depth in flavour I was looking for, and I definitely liked this one better than the other dish. The reduced spice made it more manageable (and also made me NOT have to have a glass of milk handy) without losing its “kick”.

Overall, I would recommend this place. It’s not the best ramen out there, but it’s still very good, and certainly on par (if not better) than the massively overrated Kenzo Ramen places that prop up all over the city like a bad case of acne. The place has taken some heat for claiming itself an izakaya (which essentially means small bar) but not serving alcohol due to its pending license application. But as I don’t really drink, this fact has about as much relevance to me as Miley Cyrus does to the world of sensible people. A very good place, but definitely not one of those “must go” places.

–Final verdict: Boleh Makan!

Raku Ramen & Izakaya

8360 Kennedy Road

Markham, ON L3R 9W4

(905) 477 3828

The best value Japanese restaurant in Markham. Or: What the hell is this restaurant’s name again?

Here’s a question for those who live around the GTA: Have you ever heard of New Kennedy Square? Thought not. Let’s rephrase the question: Do you know about the sprawling, traffic-nightmare Chinese plaza at Kennedy and Highway 7?  I see more hands now. For the rest of you, here’s a quick recap: New Kennedy Square is one-half (the other is called Peachtree Plaza) of TWO shit-kicker ugly Chinese shopping plazas that were built presumably in the 1980′s in Markham. The best part is that nobody who manages that horrendous-looking mall has any intention of renovating it so that it may, 13 years late, look like something that belongs in the 21st century. Even their website (I think?) looks like something that was created using Basic and would look great on your Netscape Navigator. It’s gloriously awkward.

BUT for all my criticism for how bad the mall LOOKS like (people from Hong Kong should come and view it as a tourist attraction to reminisce how buildings used to look over there 30 years ago), there’s tons of interesting places to go shop in and awesome places to eat at. This article is about one such restaurant: Ilpunji Restaurant. Otherwise known as Sushi House. Otherwise known as Sushi House Ichiban. Otherwise known as ah fuck it I give up.

The restaurant is decked to the nine’s with all the cheap faux-wood and fake Japanese-style interior decor that apparently was all the rage 20-30 years ago (in keeping with the mall’s overall feel – I see what they did there). But the service is always pleasant and the food selection is pretty good. It has your usual assortment of Japanese dishes and random Korean food thrown in, which is pretty normal (sushi places in the Toronto area are usually run by Koreans) until you realize all the wait staff speak Mandarin. Huh. So we have an odd-named restaurant in an odd plaza, with food that makes no sense if you consider the people who run the restaurant. But here’s the kicker: THEY GOT AWESOME LUNCH SPECIALS.

Yep. It's more 90's than AsianAvenue. (YESIWENTTHERE)

As 90′s as AsianAvenue. (OHYESIWENTTHERE)

And that’s the main thing I want to tell you guys today. Cheap sushi is rarely good. But this place has pretty cheap specials that provide you with large portions food that are fresh and delicious, which is really all I can ask for. Still don’t believe me? Check out the picture below:

Just slightly more expensive than that stupid Q Water at the Ritz.

Just slightly more expensive than that goddamn Q Water

Yes, kids. You can actually get 12 pieces of sushi rolls/makis for just $6.95, including salad and soup. And the best part is that it is also available on weekends! For the best value, it’s hard to beat the Tempura Roll ($5.95 each normal price), which I ordered the previous time I came here and in itself is pretty delicious, but this time we decided to go for the Spicy Tuna and Spicy Salmon Rolls. I gotta tell you, they were pretty awesome. There are tempura bits inside the rolls, which provided a great texture contrast from the smooth fish pieces that they put in there. Also, they’re pretty generous with the ingredients, not falling prey to many cheap sushi restaurants’ annoying trick of giving you moundfuls of rice on the rolls while minimizing the actual fish. Protip: Order it with a side of spicy mayo. It may not be “authentic” Japanese-style eating, but damn it’s delicious. And as you know, authenticity means little to me, as long as the food is good.

$6.95 for all this. Seriously.

$6.95 for all this. Seriously.

Another highlight that you should try is the tempura lunch bento box. You basically get two shrimp, four (!!) yam, one broccoli, and one onion tempura along with a smorgasbord of other dishes like 4 small California Rolls, fried tofu in sweet teriyaki sauce, and salad and soup. All for $7.95. And it was all delicious. Nothing crazily fancy, but the batter was crisp and not too oily, the tempura sauce was warm and sweet (just the way I like it!), and the salad provided a nice dash of lightness in what is otherwise a heavy meal. Did I mention that the meal comes in a long bento box that can be separated by taking the top part off? It’s like Transformers: Bentos in Disguise. Awesome.

*makes transforming noises* (you know which one)

*makes transforming noises* (you know which one)

Quick note: the restaurant also likes to give you a nice bowl of sesame glass noodles before the meal, and this is probably one of my all-time favourite Asian appetizers. It’s light enough not to fill you up before your gorge-fest, but filling enough to make you feel that yep, you did have some proper food. The noodles were a bit oily, admittedly, but as this was sesame oil I think I can forgive them as it is one of the favourite type of oil around due to its intoxicating fragrance.

Almost good enough to be a PAID side dish (but don't tell 'em that)

Almost good enough to be a PAID side dish (but don’t tell ‘em that)

The only weak point about the food is that the rice used in the rolls (and presumably the sushi themselves) are not of the highest quality. They kinda crumble and don’t adhere very well to the nori. Again, I suppose that some cutbacks need to be made with prices this low, and I’m glad that they didn’t sacrifice the taste or quality of the main dishes themselves. For $20, you can have a gargantuan weekend lunch that is both delicious and filling, all in a kitschy 1980′s Japanese restaurant setting. You really can’t beat that.

Oh, and the naming confusion. It calls itself Ilpunji, but also goes by Sushi House on the large nameplates on the plaza sign, all while using the Ichiban logo that is rather prevalent across Toronto. Speaking of which, what’s up with the Ichiban name anyway? Is it/was it a franchise or chain of sorts? Why do so many seemingly unrelated restaurants have this name and logo? I know at least of two more: one in Richlane Mall in Richmond Hill and one inside Empress Walk in North York. In any case, make sure you come try out this place, it’s really quite amazing, proving once again that you should never, ever judge a book by its covers.

Except her. I'm 100% sure she's beautiful inside as well.

Except her. I’m 100% sure she’s beautiful both inside and outside — from topnews.in

–Final verdict: Mari Makan!

Ilpunji/Sushi House/I give up

8360 Kennedy Road

Markham, ON L3R 9W4

(905) 474-3677