Ramen lovers tend to develop very particular ideas about what constitutes the perfect bowl of Japanese noodles. While one aficionado will espouse the qualities of one place and trash another, yet another self-proclaimed expert will pronounce the polar opposite.
That makes things all the more challenging within the ramen wars currently being waged in Vancouver, with its epicentre situated at the Robson and Denman street intersection.
Consequently, when Toronto-based Touhenboku Ramen opened up at 854 Denman Street in August, locals went in with high expectations, even when the restaurant was still in its soft-opening phase.
After several months of receiving feedback, owner Jay Liu has decided to relaunch the place as his own new venture: Yuzu Shokutei.
In a chat with the Georgia Straight, Liu explained that breaking away from the franchise will allow him to respond more directly to the preferences of the Vancouver market, which he finds is different from Toronto.
With a clearer vision of what he wants, he said the new menu will reflect the idea of the yuzu citrus that is the restaurant’s namesake: everything, he explained, will be refreshing, light, flavourful, with eye on healthy options.
While the new incarnation still serves ramen, it has since diversified and expanded its menu, bringing in chef Phong Vu from Vietnamese restaurant House Special in Yaletown.
Vu told the Straight that he was inspired by a recent trip he and Liu took to Tokyo, where they were deeply struck by how well-balanced the flavours were.
Consequently, Vu, who said he’s “not afraid to create”, designed a menu inspired by what he found in Japan.
Yes, there's still ramen (ranging from $8.75 to $14.75) with bowls available in sea salt or soy sauce versions of several broths: chicken, paitan, or chicken truffle, with a vegetarian spicy tan tan.
Rice sets (from $9.75 to $13.75) are served with rice, vegan miso soup, and house pickles and include cha shu (chicken or pork), gyu steak, oyakodon, or curry (chicken, pork, or tofu).
A variety of small plates (from $4 to $10) include the likes of takoyaki, gyoza bacon cream, agedashi mushroom tofu, and vegetable tempura.
Encapsulating the idea of light and refreshing, the cucumber avocado Niçoise salad, with wilted tomatoes, gomae dressing, a teriyaki glaze, and sesame seeds, is just that. Similarly, the panko (chicken, pork, or tofu) is feather light and non-oily.
As one of the few ramen places that serve dessert, they’re also retained the wonderfully delicate Japanese cheesecake, and added two new items.
There’s the artistically presented and ethereal matcha parfait (frozen matcha cream with seasonal fruits, raspberry sauce, and yuzu sauce). Meanwhile, the matcha azuki brulée features red bean paste and mochi perched on a crackling sugar surface of matcha crème brulée ($6 each). All are gloriously light, the appropriate coda for a savoury meal and a belly full of broth and men.
The drink menu now offers an extensive sake list, along with a variety of classic Japanese soft drinks (such as ramune or suika cider). To live up to their name, there’s a sweet yuzu featuring iced organic green tea, fresh lemon juice, yuzu, and bar syrup ($4.50) and a yuzu sour cocktail, consisting of fresh lemon juice, yuzu, and junmai sake shaken on ice ($6).
The menu expansion allows diners to opt for non-ramen selections, particularly during warm weather when preferences may skew towards lighter or non-broth-based foods. Vu is clearly working on a more subtle, sophisticated, and nuanced level than what was previously on offer, and there'll be some seasonal specials to keep an eye out for.
Liu emphasized that they’re still in soft-phase mode so there’ll be adjustments and minor tweaks to both the menu as well as the decor, which Liu said will have a more home-like feel. They haven’t set a grand opening date yet but are aiming for about a month’s time. So for the time being, it's best if patrons keep an open mind as it's still a work-in-progress.
The new direction is a wise move as the area's stiff ramen competition (with the likes of Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, Marutama Ra-men, and Kintaro drawing loyal lineups) and Vancouver's savvy diners mean that it's not enough to simply deliver good ramen—each establishment needs to break out in its own distinct way.