Ryoji Ramen & Izakaya
Ryoji Ramen & Izakaya recently opened its doors in Little Italy, and we wandered in seeking some warmth. Would inviting service and comfortable surroundings warm our hearts? Would our tongues tingle from the heat of their ramen? I hoped I'd have the answer without much delay.
The Okinawa-based business was founded in 1988 by chef and owner Ryoji Kinjo. With nearly a dozen outposts around its home, this is the first location to make it outside of Japan. The colorful ryuku glass fixtures and hand-carved brick walls make for playful accents to the space - decked out by design savvy Yusaku Kaneshiro of Tokyo-based Zokei Syudan design company.
Seated at the long communal bar, watching the chefs scurry about the open concept kitchen, the booths behind us began to fill. Our server greeted us with a massive smile and we ordered some warm sake. Though not noted on the menu, heated sake is available, but your server may just not know it yet.
Somewhat spotty service continued throughout the meal, but everyone was extremely pleasant and well-intentioned. Kinks are always to be expected in the first days of service - this being number 5 - and I'll give those at Ryoji the benefit of the doubt that things will tighten up at the front of the house before too long.
But how's the kitchen coping with the new cacophony of customers? The menu has the advantage of catering to many of my personal preferences. Raw fish, street food inspired plates, a deep fried section, and ramen. We started with the atsuage ($8) - deep fried tofu with green onions and chili sauce. A tasty looking little dish, the toppings were astoundingly salty. Not sure if it was the sauce that did it or the way something was pickled, but it seriously overwhelmed.
The daily carpaccio ($12) was next on the edible agenda. The day's fresh fish was a soft cut of albacore tuna topped with red onion, sunflower seeds, jalapenos, sprouts and star fruit, in original Ryoji sauce. A kaleidoscope of colours made up this pretty plating, but I felt like the layers of toppings overshadowed the beautiful fish, making it more reminiscent of a salad. I'd have ordered more of just the fish and Ryoji sauce.
Takoyaki is one of my favourite Japanese snacks, so when the Ryoji takoyaki ($7) substituted the typical wheat-flour based batter with mashed potato I had to give it a go. The fried balls were filled with small bits of octopus (missing from some), drizzled with tonkatsu sauce and mayo, and then topped with green onion, bonito flakes, and red wine ginger. Though far denser than the popular street food tends to be, the toppings all worked well. If they could lighten up the inside and make it creamier, it would be a knockout dish.
Relishing in the warmth of our second round of sake we needed the added insulation of a bowl of ramen to close out the meal. Ryoji has both a tonkotsu (rich pork bone, "Otoko-Aji") and shio (lighter chicken and pork bone, "Onna-Aji") broth on offer, each starting at $11. We settled on the tonkotsu, which comes topped with Chashu pork belly, bean sprouts, scallions, kikurage mushroom - and then optimized it. Their Otoko-Aji "RYOJI" ($13) adds a seasoned boiled egg, and three extra slices of Chashu.
The broth was wholesome and rich, though I prefer it well-strained and silken, as opposed to the spots of collagen that lingered in the liquid. I appreciated that they asked if you'd like the noodles cooked soft, regular, or firm - ours were done to perfection. The toppings followed suit - simple yet well-paired - and the seasoned egg was spectacular.
A good soup always makes me break a little sweat and I was feeling the warmth now. While not all the elements of the restaurant are on fire quite yet, a little time is all Ryoji needs to stoke the flames and set this spot ablaze.
Ryoji does not take reservations but there is ample room with 103 seats and a bar.