It's Friday night, and there's a line of hungry patrons streaming out the door of Manpuku, the new-ish Japanese eatery in the Village Grange complex. I think there's something in the Canadian psyche that makes us equate queues with quality. Not only do lines build a healthy sense of anticipation (and hunger), they channel that anticipation in an orderly, regulated fashion. Thoroughly regulated excitement? This humble line outside a Japanese restaurant may be the most Canadian thing going.
After an interminably thrilling wait (7 minutes), my companions and I are finally seated and greeted by a chipper server. Tea's on the table, and we make our orders: Curry Udon with Vegetable, Curry Udon with Beef, Kitsune Udon, Niku Udon, Takoyaki, Takosen, salad and chips.
The chips and salads arrive first, and teach us that at Manpuku, "chips" is a euphemism for "cutely packaged fried noodle bits". The noodle bits are pretty plain, and the mixed salad, topped with Italian vinaigrette and deep fried onion pieces, is tasty and tangy.
Next in line are the mains: four steaming bowls of thick ropy udon noodles in broth. The good thing about writing food reviews is that I can steal bites from my companions with impunity. Oh, was that your last fish cake? Sorry. Sometimes I just get so caught up in my work.
I sample each broth, all varied blends of savoury and sweet, and reminders that it was a Japanese scientist who first discovered the umami flavour (For hundreds of years, English words were limited to the four major flavours: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Although tongues could taste the rich glutamate tones that make the umami, they couldn't form an exact definition for it, grasping around approximations like full, round, deep and savoury). The udons I sampled were all these things, with Curry Udon providing the strongest taste, Niku Udon strong, but less pungent, and Kitsune Udon flavourful, but mild in comparison.
Most of us agree that Curry Udon is the tastiest. It also comes with a vegetarian option, but since I chose a meat based broth for my veggie-topped noodles, I can't vouch for it here.
20 minutes later, the most interesting part of our meal arrives. Made-to-order in custom molds, Takoyaki are crispy balls of dough surrounding a dollop of octopus and topped with wide bonito flakes and Japanese mayo. We also receive Takosen, Takoyaki balls served with crispy shrimp crackers. I take a Takoyaki ball and squish it between two crackers to make my very own seafood-crispy-soft cracker-sandwich.
Although the blogosphere had warned me the Takoyaki at Manpuku is not up to Japanese street food standards, I came in with an open mind. The only Takoyaki I'd had previously was in Korea: closer to Japan, for sure, but still not actually Japan--so I assumed that my standards might be a bit relaxed. I can't say whether the Korean version is as good as it is in Japan, but it's definitely better than Manpuku's attempt. Where I expected a crisp outside with generous bonito flakes, and a light, soft inside with a big piece of octopus, Manpuku's Takoyaki are heavy, doughy, lightly garnished and accompanied by only the merest hint of tentacle. With strong tones of seafood and salt, crispy skins and sweet mayonnaise, Manpuku's Takoyaki treats are worth trying, but may disappoint former inhabitants of Japan.
Reasonably priced, and serving tasty simple dishes, a meal at Manpuku is definitely worth a 12-15 minute wait in line. Any more, and I'd try another day.