Tokyo souper chef

Why At­sushi Ya­mamoto chose Yonge ’n’ Shep for his Miche­lin-en­dorsed eatery

North York Post - - Food - by Karolyne El­la­cott

On an oth­er­wise hum­ble street in Tokyo’s Shibuya district sits an unas­sum­ing door­way. If it weren’t for the or­derly queue that forms daily on the side­walk out­side, the space wouldn’t war­rant a sec­ond glance. But as per fa­mil­iar lore, a plain ex­te­rior be­lies a rather ex­tra­or­di­nary in­te­rior.

In­side, the en­try­way opens up to a min­i­mal­ist room with eight seats oc­cu­pied by pa­trons silently slurp­ing back bowls of ra­men. This tiny ra­men shop has earned Miche­lin Bib Gour­mand sta­tus (one level be­low a Miche­lin Star) for three con­sec­u­tive years since 2015, mak­ing Kon­jiki Ho­to­t­o­gisu one of world’s top desti­na­tions for the beloved Ja­panese com­fort food. And as luck would have it, Toronto is about to re­ceive its own out­post of the shop: Kon­jiki Ra­men.

“I was not born in a rich fam­ily; ra­men is a thrifty eat in Ja­pan,” says chef At­sushi Ya­mamoto, the mas­ter­mind be­hind Kon­jiki Ho­to­t­o­gisu, which landed on the Tokyo scene back in 2006.

Grow­ing up in the Ja­panese cap­i­tal, Ya­mamoto re­calls en­joy­ing the dish at a young age: “A bowl of hot ra­men at a street stand in win­ter is the best pos­si­ble mem­ory.”

“I like ra­men. It is a sim­ple soul food to a lot of Ja­panese,” Ya­mamoto says.

In his early 20s, Ya­mamoto found him­self work­ing at a fa­mous Tokyo ra­men stand. This ex­pe­ri­ence was eye-open­ing to the fu­ture en­tre­pre­neur, and it was Ya­mamoto’s first con­tact with the world of ra­men.

“I worked there days and nights for about six years, and then I fell in love with ra­men,” he says.

He be­gan to ex­am­ine the com­po­si­tion of this seem­ingly sim­ple com­fort food, un­pack­ing the el­e­ments that join to­gether to cre­ate the dish.

“I de­con­structed ev­ery com­po­nent of a bowl of ra­men, tried to per­fect it and cre­ated my own ver­sion of the best ra­men in Ja­pan,” Ya­mamoto says.

Tra­di­tion­ally, ra­men broth is avail­able in two it­er­a­tions: shoyu (soy sauce based) and shio (salt based). Miso (soy­bean) and tonkotsu (pork bone based) are pop­u­lar regional broths that are the re­sult of evo­lu­tion.

Af­ter de­cid­ing to open his own ra­men shop, Ya­mamoto bucked tra­di­tion, of­fer­ing cus­tomers his own unique ver­sion built on clam broth. Why clams? For no other rea­son than he loves clams!

Toronto’s Kon­jiki Ra­men is gear­ing up to open at 5051 Yonge St. in North York — a strip in­creas­ingly rec­og­nized for its wealth of Chi­nese, Korean and Ja­panese eater­ies. Food­ies from across the city head to this Asian food utopia with goals like Owl of Min­erva’s gam­jatang and Ar­ti­san Noo­dle’s bian bian mi­ang in sight. Ra­men is also plen­ti­ful. A glut of ra­men shops, like Ajisen, Kenzo and San­sotei, dot the streetscape. The noo­dle equiv­a­lent of a pub crawl could be ac­com­plished with ease (though per­haps less ease for the stom­achs in ques­tion).

The com­pet­i­tive ra­men en­vi­ron­ment doesn’t faze Ya­mamoto.

“I see this as a pos­i­tive force to con­stantly re­mind my­self to of­fer the best of my­self,” he says. “New York and Lon­don are too ex­pected for an over­seas ex­pan­sion. I like places with spe­cial char­ac­ter. I can’t wait to see the chem­istry be­tween my ra­men and Toronto.”

In­side, Kon­jiki will dif­fer greatly from the Shibuya shop. Rather than cater to eight pa­trons, Kon­jiki Ra­men will boast 40 seats in a com­par­a­tively sprawl­ing 2,300square-foot space. Whereas in Tokyo din­ers or­der their ra­men via a rather spiffy vend­ing ma­chine, T.O.’s noodle­heads will or­der their wares the old-fash­ioned way. That’s not to say that Ya­mamoto hasn’t en­sured that the kitchen is up to Ja­panese stan­dards.

“We want to bring the taste as close as pos­si­ble to what we have in Ja­pan,”Ya­mamoto says. “Our ra­men noo­dle-mak­ing ma­chine is im­ported from Ja­pan, as well as the stock pot and other cook­ing uten­sils, bowls and chop­sticks.”

When it comes to the menu items, there are com­mon threads link­ing North York to Shibuya.

“We will serve our sig­na­ture ra­men — the one with clam broth — plus some spe­cial ra­men de­signed just for Toronto,” Ya­mamoto says. In ad­di­tion to the clam-based broth, the dish that got the Miche­lin nod, Kon­jiki will la­dle out clas­sic soups. The se­cret-recipe noo­dles, which are spun out of the im­ported ma­chine, are cooked in fil­tered wa­ter, a.k.a. Pi wa­ter, which is a key el­e­ment.

“It brings out the full flavour of in­gre­di­ents,” Ya­mamoto says with re­gards to the soup base. With the noo­dles, “it brings out the flavour of wheat, adding body to the taste.”

Ya­mamoto notes that, due to the size of T.O.’s Kon­jiki, it’s not fea­si­ble for the menu to shift shape as fre­quently as in Tokyo. How­ever, the week­ends will call for some play­ful­ness, with ro­tat­ing flavours of ra­men dot­ting the menu. “Stay tuned …” Ya­mamoto says.

At his Tokyo shop, Ya­mamoto’s ra­men has scooped up a num­ber of ac­co­lades, in­clud­ing Walker mag­a­zine’s top Tokyo ra­men pick three times, as well as the Ta­be­log Ja­pan Best Ra­men Award from 2010 to 2017. But, of course, there is noth­ing quite like gain­ing the stamp of ap­proval from Miche­lin.

“The Miche­lin Guide’s rec­om­mended restau­rants are not solely judged on food,” Ya­mamoto says, not­ing that the revered food guide also con­sid­ers the am­bi­ence, decor and ser­vice of a restau­rant.

“My shop in Tokyo is a self-serve, eight-seat ra­men stand lo­cated in an al­ley. I am so hon­oured at Miche­lin’s recog­ni­tion purely on the qual­ity of my food.”

When it comes to ra­men, Toronto hasn’t seen any­thing yet.

Clock­wise from left: At­sushi Ya­mamoto pre­par­ing ra­men, his hush-hush noo­dles, fin­ished bowls of Kon­jiki ra­men

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