- Location: 5051 Yonge St., Toronto
- Atmosphere: Brightly-lit, loud room is often full at lunch and dinner. Expect to wait in a line at peak hours.
- Price: Shio and Shoyu ramen ($14), tonkatsu ramen ($13), lobster ramen ($14, Wednesdays only)
- Drinks: Pints of Asahi beer ($9.50)
Ramen, in Japan, is a mostly anti-social affair. People rarely go in groups; most diners are alone.
Patrons order from a machine, retrieve a ticket and pass it to the kitchen staff. Seating is at a small bar next to the kitchen. Sometimes, there are partitions to shield the diner and his or her bowl from the world. There is no talking, no lingering. The most prominent sound is people slurping.
Ramen in Canada isn’t as efficient or as solitary. At Konjiki Ramen on Yonge near North York Centre, there is seating for around 42 people. People come in groups of as many as six. They linger and even dare to talk while they eat.
Perhaps it’s partly because what’s in front of them is so worthy of conversation.
Konjiki Ramen in Toronto is the first international outpost of a highly regarded, Michelin-checked Tokyo restaurant helmed by chef Atsushi Yamamoto. What makes his ramen stand out is a uniquely maximalist approach to what has traditionally been a minimalist, utilitarian meal. With layers of flavours and multiple condiments, it is delicious, the kind of food you might want to share the pleasure of eating.
Yamamoto is completely obsessed with his chosen métier. To ensure quality, he has imported a special noodle-making machine from Japan. He is fiercely competitive, and says he wants to best chef David Chang of Momofuku Noodle Bar, the restaurant that has arguably done the most to popularize ramen to the masses in New York and here. “I want to beat him at this,” boasted Yamamoto.
At $28, Konjiki Ramen’s lobster ramen special – only served on Wednesdays – is perhaps the most expensive bowl of noodles in Toronto. It’s also the best you’ll ever eat in this city.
A thick, creamy, orange-tinged soup that’s more akin to a classical French bisque than a traditional ramen broth. A whole lobster tail and a claw, out of their shells. Dollops of a briny tomalley-based sauce. A slice of braised chashu pork. Noodles cooked to the perfect texture. A spoon of porcini mushroom-infused oil. All of this adds up to a luxurious and delicious bowl of noodles.
The aroma intoxicates with a powerful, condensed essence of crustacean. The flavor is operatically complex, with the star – lobster – supported by other shellfish, pork, chicken, mushrooms and cream. The result is a masterpiece.
Yamamoto, who started an eight-seat Tokyo restaurant in 2006, has foregone expansion in his own country to jump straight onto the global stage. He followed his Toronto opening with a branch in Singapore soon after. Here, he’s a huge hit: Expect a lineup at prime lunch and dinner hours, especially on Wednesdays. A second Toronto location is slated to open later this year downtown on Elm Street.
Japanese cuisine typically favours restraint, with clean and simple flavours to allow ingredients to shine. Konjiki is the opposite. More ingredients, not fewer, are used.
His shoyu (soy sauce) ramen ($14), the most popular on the menu, stands apart. His trick: He blends clam, pork and chicken broths (in Toronto, Konjiki uses cherry clams from the Pacific). The clam broth is a brilliant innovation, adding a new flavor dimensions.
When Yamamoto first started making his clam-broth ramens, the Tokyo diners rejected it. “For three years, I was just selling five bowls a day,” he recalled. He used the downtime to “study, always improve” his ramen. He’d play with new ingredients and condiments. Gradually, the public would come and he built a steady following.
His tonkatsu ramen ($13) – that milky pork bone broth made from days of simmering – is unlike any other I’ve tried, creamier, bolder, thicker than your traditional take and bolstered by a dollop of black garlic oil. It’s heavy and delicious, like a slowly reduced cream sauce you’d get at a French restaurant.
Maximalist cooking still requires a deft touch and a taste for balance to avoid creating a muddled mess or a cheap high (Extreme Doritos or stuffed-crust pizza, anyone?). Konjiki gets it right. Individual ingredients are still identifiable. I love classic ramen; Konjiki tastes like its ambitious offspring. This is Ramen 2.0, unconventional but not far from tradition.
Konjiki’s global expansion is just getting started, and Yamamoto has now been thrown into the unfamiliar role of jet-setting chef. He intends to visit Toronto at least four times a year and introduce new dishes each time. He arrives this week for his seasonal visit, though he wouldn’t reveal his new creation. If we get one dish a year on par with that lobster ramen, we’d be very blessed.
Our star system
No stars: Not recommended
One star: Good, but won’t blow a lot of minds.
Two stars: Very good, with some standout qualities.
Three stars: Excellent, with few caveats, if any.
Four stars: Extraordinary, with near-perfect execution.