by Malcolm Jolley
The news from Japan is dark at the time of this posting. I hope it doesn’t come off as indifferent or trivialising to say that if I made my home in Tokyo instead of Toronto, then I imagine I would want something comforting and soothing to eat. Something a lot like a bowl of Netsu Ramen from the Bloor Street location of Kenzo Ramen, which specialises in the wheat noodle dish.
To be clear, a $8.95 bowl of Netsu Ramen plus 13% HST will set you back $10.12 which, strictly speaking, violates the premise of this series of articles. Worse still, if you order a large (600ml) bottle of Kirin beer, (which is encouraged) your lunch will start looking a lot more like $20. But, for the pay-off in flavour, texture and nourishment, 13¢ over the letter of a $9.99 law seems like a small price to pay.
I can’t say that I was dragged to Kenzo, since I believe I initiated my first visit. But it came about only after I put up a fair amount of resistance. Ramen noodles, in my previous experience were those 99¢ packages of instant, salty soup we used to buy in university thereby diverting precious resources from our food budgets to beer money. Ramen was simply a necessary hardship: something to be endured rather than enjoyed… at least for me.
Then, last December Joanne Kates gave Kenzo a glowing review in her Globe and Mail column, written very much in the fine diamond in the rough tradition of Calvin Trillin, Jim Leff and Jonathan Gold. Was I missing something? My curiousity was piqued for a Saturday morning, but then I fell back on old ways and silly prejudices, believing the Asian soup market had been cornered with the Vietnamese holding the commanding heights of subtlety with pho and the Koreans the golden ring of fiery delights with pork bone soup. What could I learn, I stupidly thought, from that old college nemesis.
It was my colleague and friend, Jamie Drummond, who woke me from my slumber and got me to smell the umami goodness of Netsu Ramen. Jamie was adamant: this soup was worthy of gastronomic attention. In fact, he had begun to develop a habit. If I was going to continue to luncheon with him, I would have join him and try it. “Really,” he said, “it’s very good.”
And he was right! Predisposed, as I am, to the bite of chilli I ordered Netsu Ramen, a Saporro-style miso-based soup with wavy, yellow wheat ramen noodle. It arrives piping hot, and never cools much lower than a scalding hot bath, since it is impossible to eat slowly or without slurping. The flavour is intense and complex. There is soy and ginger and chili and earthiness all put together. The other ingredients are simple: common mushrooms, some seaweed, green onion and little bits of garlicky pork sausage. The coup de resistance, though, is the topping of julienned onion, vegetable and bean sprouts. This gives a wonderful crunchy mouth feel to the whole deal. Good Lord, it’s got everything, I thought. I have tried some of the other ramen, out of the bowls of my friends and family. They are also all very good, but I am addicted to the crunch and heat. There is also a “King of Kings” version of the Netsu, with more toppings like sliced meats, but I am not interested. It sounds like too much. I have found the ultimate restorative lunch. In one bowl a perfect meal. It will cure all that ails ya. I am convinced and possess the zealotry of the converted.
There are two locations of Kenzo Ramen: Bloor Street just west of Spadina and Dundas and Bay. As if their soup wasn’t enough to sustain a love affair, their website is a food nerd’s dream with a really cool History of Ramen section, that explains the dish’s 19th Century migration from China to overwhelming 20th Century popularity in Japan and it has pictures of all the various dishes. Check it out at kenzoramen.ca.