Location: 13200 Macleod Trail, Calgary
Price: $7 to $55
Atmosphere: Spacious, airy and relaxed
Drinks: Wine, sake, cocktails, craft beer
Best bets: Ishiyaki wagyu, tobiko bibimbap, wagyu katsu ball, blue fin otoro sashimi
Vegetarian friendly? Yes
Additional information: The restaurant gets shipments of fresh seafood from Japan on Wednesdays, so if you’re looking for specific types of overseas fish, that’s the day to pop by.
After arriving in the suburban neighbourhood of Canyon Meadows 15 or so minutes south of downtown Calgary, I quickly realized that quality dining choices in the area were few and far between.
There is no shortage of tasty casual eats courtesy of spots such as Beirut Street Food and To Me Vietnamese Sub, but if you’re looking for a nice – or even nice-ish – spot for dinner aside from a throwback such as Caesar’s Steakhouse, you’re pretty much out of luck.
The recently opened Ryuko may not be the answer, but it is certainly part of it. The Japanese eatery took up shop in a space that looks like a two-level house across the parking lot from a massive GoodLife Fitness – a cursed location that has been home to many culinary concepts and changed owners more times than a longtime Calgarian could count.
There is little to gripe about when it comes to Ryuko. Walking inside, the space is a breath of fresh air thanks to a bright-white and beach-wood design in its spacious main-level dining room. With primarily large booths that could easily sit up to eight, the restaurant is ideal for groups, but perhaps not for twos during peak service hours aside from the stools along the central raw bar.
The natural focal point is the raw bar, where chefs prepare sashimi, nigiri and rolls.
Ryuko’s uniqueness lies in its playful creativity above and beyond its traditional Japanese offerings such as rolls, wafu salad, and miso soup.
The ishiyaki wagyu, a searing hot rock along with slices of maldon salt-flecked wagyu beef, is equal parts satiating and interactive. Paired up with two sauces (daikon, ginger and ponzu and a creamy sesame dip), the tabletop experience of seared melt-in-your-mouth wagyu should not be missed.
Servers will inform you that the restaurant gets its overseas fish shipments on Wednesdays, so if you’re a sushi lover, it’s best to visit before the weekend. The blue fin otoro sashimi was nothing less than perfection during a Thursday lunch visit.
There is also notable value to be found in Ryuko’s open rolls, especially during the 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. happy hour.
The chopped scallop open roll will hit your table in true substantial-portion glory. On my visits, it has always been a bit messy to eat, but perfectly filling. A dual-layer wrapper of nori and soy paper attempts to contain the generous amounts of rice, scallop (dressed in a light wasabi mayonnaise) and healthy topping of black tobiko and finely sliced green onion.
Ryuko’s tobiko bibimbap is the true showstopper on the menu. The dish is a textural delight with a compartmentalized presentation of colourful tobiko with crispy quinoa, slivers of fried Japanese yam, kimchi, nori, diced salmon (though the type of fish can differ day to day) and tomatoes with a perfectly fried egg positioned on top. Crunchy, funky, sweet, salty and savoury.
The restaurant’s fun meatball take on katsu gives the bibimbap a run for its money. Delivered softball in size, it is golden and crispy on the outer layer thanks to plenty of panko and filled with ground waygu and mozzarella. It’s an indulgent delight.
Orbiting around it on its platter is a tangy wafu dressing, house-made katsu sauce and tartar sauce as well as a salad of finely shredded cabbage with wafu dressing. A small mortar and pestle is filled with toasted sesame seeds, allowing one to grind and top their own sauces as desired. It’s a nice touch and the presentation as a whole makes me ask myself: why can’t all meatballs be served as playfully as this?
On the drink menu is a red and white wine blend from Grace, Japan. Both acid-forward, the Yamanashi De Grace (red) boasted berry notes while the Gris De Koshu (white) leaned to stone-fruit and light florals.
The cocktails are the low point of Ryuko thanks to glaring unbalance. The Earl Grey highball – a mixture of tea-infused simple syrup, Suntory Toki Whisky and tonic – is unpleasantly sweet, lacking the distinct bergamot notes that have likely been drowned out by sugar in the aforementioned syrup.
The momoyoi goes down a touch easier thanks to some notable acidity. However, with its elderflower liqueur, soju, sake, Stella peach and peach bitters, I’d find similar pleasure chewing on a handful of sour-peach candies. Stick to wine, sake or beer.
Much like having to convince a suburbanite to make a trip downtown to experience a buzzworthy eatery, I am equally happy to say to a downtown dweller that driving south to enjoy Ryuko is a worthy voyage.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this review described Ryuko's menu as Japanese-Korean. While the restaurant does have a Korean fusion dish on its menu, the owner describes Ryuko's primary cuisine as Japanese.