Ryoji, on Toronto’s leafy College Street, is the only Okinawa-style izakaya restaurant in the country, and delivers terrific flavours and textures in a sleek, contemporary space.
During the past six or seven years, izakaya-style dining (Japanese pub food) has taken off in Toronto. Ryoji can count itself as one of the standard bearers of this terrifically fun and wallet-friendly style of eating.
Each day, Ryoji’s kitchen makes a knockout tofu — delightfully creamy and smooth — and garnishes it with a sweetish, peanut-inflected soy-based sauce.
House-made tofu is stir-fried with crisp bean sprouts, tiny cubes of pork belly and leek, a textural contrast of soft and crunchy.
Ultra-fresh cucumber is crunchy and shot through with wasabi heat. In this kitchen’s hands, karaage — Japan’s version of fried chicken — is crisp, greaseless bird tinged with a pre-frying dip into sweet-sour soy. The chunks of chicken crunch mightily when we bite into them, and taste even better dipped into the house-made tartar sauce. The nightly sashimi brings sparklingly fresh Atlantic salmon and hamachi.
Ryoji does ramen — very well, as it turns out. The tonkotsu, its pork-bone broth milky white and rich from overnight simmering, is filled with perfectly chewy, thin egg white noodles, slices of rich pork belly, bean sprouts, scallions, mushrooms and a soft-boiled egg. Ryoji’s signature soy sauce adds sweet depth of flavour to the shoyu chicken/pork broth loaded with cabbage, leek, pork belly and seaweed.
And then comes dessert, made-to-order Okinawa-style doughnuts — wonderfully dense, not too sweet, utterly devoid of any grease, thanks to expert deep-frying. On the side, taro ice cream. There’s also smooth and eggy walnut crème brulee.
Finish with fragrant jasmine blossom tea served in a beautiful glass pot perched on a glass base.
All of this unfolds in a welcoming series of rooms outfitted with light woods, earth tones and modern light fixtures. There’s a lounge area, a larger area outfitted with a communal table, and the sushi bar augmented with additional tables. Throughout the evening, the open kitchen works silently and efficiently, turning out its irresistible Okinawa-style pub grub.
— Don Douloff has been a restaurant critic for over 30 years and, during that time, has critiqued more than 1,400 eateries. In 1988, he studied the fundamentals of French cuisine at Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, France. During his time in France, he furthered his gastronomic education by visiting the country’s bistros, brasseries and Michelin-starred temples of haute cuisine. He relishes exploring the edible universe in his native Toronto and on his travels throughout Canada and abroad.