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Saka-Ba!

19 Apr

Minor culinary confession time: I had never had real ramen before. One of those food blind spots that I figured I would eventually correct given the right context. Truth to known, giving my lack of knowledge regarding ramen, I was never quite sure what to look for in good ramen or where even to find good ramen here in Montreal. Well, Chef Junichi Ikematsu, owner of JUNI on Laurier, solved that part for me with the opening of a Ramen Bar in the Plateau, Saka-Ba!. Taking advantage of some vacation time, I went down on a Sunday night with a couple of friends to finally try out some Ramen.

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Located on Mont-Royal east of Christophe Colomb, Saka-Ba! is a sight to behold when you walk in. Modern in look but still very welcoming – nice touches of Japanese culture (art prints, anime strips on the walls) amongst the wood floors, grey walls and bright red tabletops. The focus of the space is the massive red wrap-around bar which really makes an impression. The kitchen in the back is visible to all so you can see the craziness happening as you wait for your food. Saka-Ba doesn’t take reservations so depending on when you go, you may end up waiting. We were there for 8pm on a Sunday night and still needed to wait 30 minutes so please take that into consideration.

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Food-wise, the menu consists of 3 types of Ramen with a variety of Izakaya or Japanese pub dishes available as well. As we were 3 pretty hungry guys on this visit, we attacked the menu with fervour and eat almost everything available. First up, Tako kiuri – an octopus salad with a spicy sauce. Deliciously tender octopus tossed with some cucumber, green onions, sesame seeds and a little sauce – a very nice starting point. The killer here was the octopus – texturally perfect without any of the chewiness one fears with poorly prepared octopus.

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Next up, Kimchi daikon. Kimchi, for the un-initiated, is a fermented vegetable dish using a combination of spices which typically create a very strong and spicy flavour. In this case, the vegetable in question was daikon. Served in a tiny preserves jar, Saka-Ba!’s kimchi started off softly but packed a strong punch at the end.

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The third dish was the Gyoza – fried pork and cabbage dumplings. Big fan of these through my multiple Izakaya visits so these weren’t hard to enjoy on my end. Nice sear on the dumplings and the filling was quite flavourful – there really wasn’t much need for the dipping sauce in my opinion.

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Next, we had the Kara Age – fried organic chicken with spicy mayo. Probably the best of our starters – great crunch to the chicken while still remaining juicy and tender. The spicy mayo was also on point – even though we ran out of chicken, we finished off the sauce regardless!

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To follow the path of fried food, we also had the Corn cari – curry stuffed doughnuts. Probably the most disappointing dish sadly – the fried balls themselves were great however the curry mixture inside lacked much punch. It really didn’t add anything to the dish and left all 3 of us wanting.

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The final starter (yeah I know…. what can I say, we were hungry) was the Satsuma Age – sweet potato fries. Served with more of that great spicy mayo and lightly tossed with some paprika, these thickly cut fries were delicious and not over breaded either which was appreciated.

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And now we reach the main course – the Ramen. Saka-Ba! offers 3 types of broth each with their own extra ingredients to mix with the house made noodles and the boiled egg. First up, the Shoyu Ramen – pork and soy broth, braised pork, bean sprouts, bamboo and green onions. As a first experience with Ramen, this one struck me as a very good one. The broth was rich and flavourful – huge pork notes within the broth. The noodles were awesome – great texture with their own nice taste. The braised pork simply fell apart – so good. The egg added some rich creaminess to the mix and the rest of the ingredients provided some nice notes to the mixture. A great intro to Ramen for yours truly.

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The second variety was the Ebi Miso Ramen – Lobster and pork broth, miso, braised pork, corn, bean sprouts, bamboo and green onions. The addition of lobster in the broth and the miso brought forth a slightly less pork flavoured broth with not much of a lobster taste to be honest. The rest was as great as the first bowl.

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The final variety was the Tori shio Ramen – chicken and salt broth, pain seared upper leg chicken, fried onions, bean sprouts and green onions. This was a very different profile than the other two due to the lack of pork and the use of chicken. The chicken meat itself was nice and tender and the fried onion brought some crunch. The broth here was quite a bit saltier than the previous two – more noticeable for the two of us who primarily ate the other two than for the one who ordered this bowl but still. Of the three, I would likely stick to the 1st one but each had their strong point.

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As an introduction to Ramen, Saka-Ba! hit all the right notes – great decor, nice vibe and awesome food. As someone who hates waiting in-line for any meal (still the biggest reason why I don’t return to Kazu), I am not sure I would do so again for Ramen but Saka-Ba! certainly made a great impression on me. As a starting point for Ramen, I definitely feel I got the proper experience to judge future bowls. I’m sure you will as well.

Cheers!

Saka-Ba!
1279 Mont Royal Est
(514) 507-9885

Saka-Ba! on Urbanspoon

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Park

16 Sep

Trust in your ingredients. Showcase the product. My enjoyment of the TV show Top Chef Canada has made these statements stick in my head to the point where they just sound like stupid TV buzzwords now. However, there is definitely something to be said for a more restrained approach – one where things are not overdone. The freshness and unique flavours of the ingredients are allowed to shine. Restaurant Park definitely falls into this category of locale.

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Park is the brainchild of chef Antonio Park, formerly of Kaizen and someone I had heard many great things about. Funny enough, I’d had lunch there very shortly after the place opened and before word-of-mouth had actually developed. Fast-forward over a year later and I was back for dinner – very specifically for the Omakase, the chef’s tasting menu. When one comes to Park, this was apparently the way to do it. Simply let chef Antonio and his staff work their magic.

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The first course was a Heirloom tomato soup with jalapeno and fried plantain chips. Now given this was a warm summer evening, the presence of a warm soup as a entree was a little odd but the flavours worked well enough. Nice sweetness of the tomatoes with the spicy of jalapeno mixed nicely. The consistency of the soup was nice and smooth all the way through. The fried chip added some crunch and the use of plantain added a little extra sweetness.

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The second course was a zucchini flower stuffed with veal sweetbreads and tempura fried on a bed of heirloom tomato with 12 yr old Balsamic vinegar and natural yogourt. This looked so good that I forgot to take a picture before digging in so pardon the half-eaten one below. The sweetbreads were cooked perfectly. The tomatoes and the vinegar provided some acidity to balance the fattiness of the veal. The tempura added a nice crunch as well.

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The next course was the Nigiri plate. This was the main event of the evening. Chef Antonio has a private fish import license so he brings over fresh, never frozen fish from places like Japan a few times a week. In some cases, the fish has been send over using Kaimin tai technique where the fish has been acupunctured to maintain a high level of freshness compared to traditional methods of killing and shipping fish. we were served 6 different kinds of fish – each on top of sushi rice and a small additional element/seasoning. The extra elements ran the gamut from a tapping leaf to chimichurri to marinated caviar to maple syrup and fresh wasabi. This was pretty much the freshest sushi I have ever eaten. Simple and elegant, there was no need for wasabi or soy sauce hence why there wasn’t any of the table anyway. The fish just fell apart in your mouth and the little extra each added a unique element but without overpowering the natural flavours of each fish. This Nigiri has probably destroyed my future enjoyment of Nigiri anywhere else in Montreal so I guess I will need to stick to maki rolls outside of Park.

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The fourth course was fresh brown butter BC halibut on a plate of razor clams, radishes and Quebec corn. The overall technique and execution here was flawless. Beautifully fresh and flaky halibut with a wonderfully rich brown butter sauce. The combination of clams, radishes and corn add some lightness to the rich sauce. A very nice main course dish.

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The final course was of course dessert. Chef Antonio served us Patbingsu, a Korean dessert of shaved ice and sweetened azuki beans. The flavours of the shaved ice were cantaloup, pineapple and watermelon and that was augmented with fresh fruits and hazelnuts. For me personally, this was the least successful dish of the evening. To be fair, I am not a fan of melons (yeah I know…. let’s just move on from here) so 2 of the 3 flavours didn’t work for me but the whole combination of everything felt kind of flat. No real punch or “wow” moment. A bit of letdown to finish the meal but the rest of the menu will eliminate this dish from my memory.

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Omakase means “I’ll leave it to you” which in the capable hands of chef Antonio is definitely the right call. Everything Chef Antonio presents you shows a level of respect and reverence for the product which can only be described as elegant. Technique just shines through at every level. Restaurant Park is worth a visit if only to try the Nigiri or Sashimi but I suspect you will find other dishes to enjoy as well. Park may just have driven my sushi standards up a notch but if that means I have to come back more often for sushi, that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

Cheers!

Park
378 Victoria Ave.
514 750 7534

Restaurant Park on Urbanspoon

Satay Brothers

10 Mar

A couple of years ago, while visiting Atwater Market with some friends, I tried a food stand called Satay Brothers. Don’t exactly remember why I chose that particular food stand for food instead of the other ones present but I was quite happy with my choice that day. Fast forward to today and the Satay Brothers have opened up their prep kitchen on St-Jacques a few blocks over from the market to customers looking for their amazing asian fare during the winter time as well.

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The restaurant has a small sitting area of probably about 20 or so people. I arrived solo on a surprisingly busy mid afternoon Saturday. It was busy enough that I was set up at the bar counter since no tables were opening up anytime soon for a solo customer.

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To start with, I ordered the green papaya salad with grilled pork. This was a wonderfully fresh and light salad – a combination of what tasted like lemon, lime, mint and basil with the added crunch of peanuts to play with textures. Great start to the meal.

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Next up, there was the classic steamed pork buns. A nice piece of fatty pork with some coriander, cucumber and a hoisin-like sauce. I loved these the first time I had them at the market and I still loved them now.

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With the buns, I also added one chicken satay. Perfectly grilled and tender, when you added the amazing peanut sauce, the dish had a great kick to it. Believe me, I hate cucumber but you certainly needed them afterwards to help cleanse the palette.

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Finally, for dessert, I decide to try the Kueh Salat. A combination of coconut, stick rice and pandan, this was a perfectly light and sweet dessert that played very well after the rest of the meal.

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For all fans of the Satay Brothers from the Market, this is a must-visit to enjoy your usual summer favorites. For the rest of you, this is an extremely worthwhile visit – great food at a very reasonable cost. The Winnicki brothers and their mother have created a wonderfully homie restaurant experience. Alex, who was tending to the floor, was quite active – always interacting with his customers, starting up conversation while keeping service very snappy. The love shown to him and his family from all the patrons is a testament to the attention they put on everyone who comes through that door. I must also praise Alex from being quite understanding towards a situation with me that involved leaving money at a ATM prior to my arrival (unbeknownst to me when I came to pay) which is a problem at a cash only place. Quite the embarrassment for me but Alex was very trusting and was not concerned that I wouldn’t come back later on to pay (which I did 20 minutes later). For the way he handle my situation, I thank him very much and, irregardless of the amazing food, he has certainly ensured that I return on a much more frequent basis in the future.

Cheers!

Satay Brothers
3911 Saint-Jacques (in the winter)
514 587 8106
Atwater Market (in the summer)

Satay Brothers on Urbanspoon

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