Toronto is one of a number of North American cities in which Santouka Ramen, a Japanese-based restaurant chain, has set up shop in hopes of capturing the growing base of noodle fans. Santouka promises quick and efficient service but tries to deviate from the notion that all ramen soups are created equal. It steers away from rich pork belly, eggs and nori offered by others in lieu of a somewhat cleaner bowl of salty broth. I arrived at 1210 and got the last seat, which was at the bar with a clear view of the kitchen. I was a bit memorized by the long stove holding up 8 large vats of bubbling broth presumably prepared by a methodical and somewhat mystical process. Otherwise, it had the feel of a karaoke bar set up in a subway station, with orders sung in Japanese melodies muffling the continuous sound of clanking soup bowls. I had my meal and was out in about 30 minutes, receiving envious stares from the 12-15 onlookers in line when I left.
It’s apparent that each interpretation of this traditional dish is in the eye of the beholder. In this case, the Shio Ramen was a mellow, salty broth with a firm, tasty noodle and adorned with green onion, crisp bamboo shoots, fish cake, ribbons of kikurage (mushrooms), fatty back rib pork and a signature pickled plum. If I were a soup architect constructing the perfect bowl, I’d say the foundation (broth) was a bit oversalted, the walls (noodles) were solid and the accents spiced up the decor reasonably well. Both the plum and the spiral fishcake were a cute finish; a delicate reminder of the artistic importance put on Japanese food. The shoots and shrooms were mainly for taste and texture and somewhat succeeded at both but more so the latter. The pork was scarce. Perhaps my biggest disappointment was the lack of an egg. It’s like building a house without a pool; it works but you’re left feeling like there’s something missing.
The gyoza were satisfying. Not doughy or soggy, they had a nicely seasoned and fairly abundant filling and were served with a carousel of condiments which included chili oil, rice vinegar and soy sauce. At a little more than a buck a dumpling, they hit the spot. I would equate them to a nicely manicured but not spectacular lawn sitting outside the previously described ramen house.
I find something sacred about green tea and somewhat expect a little ceremony when I visit a Japanese restaurant. What I don’t expect is a generic tea bag (I think I can get a 100 bags of this brand for a buck or two at any teashop) in a cup for $2.50. At least bring me a good quality loose leaf tea and/or put it in a pot. Otherwise, don’t charge me a ridiculous price for an average product that maybe costs a cent or two.
Once again, no two soups are created equal. The seemingly infinite number of ramen houses mean an infinite number of ramen dishes and an infinite number of opinions. Santouka offered a reasonable competitor with a well flavoured but salt heavy broth (I drove home with the feeling that I had a chalice of water from the dead sea). The pork was a nice cut but the portion was minimal. The remaining additions were just ok. In summary, it’s a worthy, well-calculated addition to the neighbourhood of ramen soups, offering a house with a strong foundation, a few frills and a nice front yard (gyoza), although I still do miss the pool.