Quest for noodles

Want to hear something that will give you the willies? “Eric has ordered special pies.”

Quest for FireOkay, so special pie willies aside, this is all about the noodle. I really like noodles. I’m not talking pasta – that’s entirely different and since the demise of Pranzo’s it’s often a take it or leave it proposition for me, depending on what the pasta is (most of the time it’s “leave it”). I like noodles, especially noodles in broth. Plain noodles and fried noodles are okay too, but really… noodles in broth. It’s not my absolutely-favorite-must-eat-this-now-with-both-hands item, but it’s a combination that’s hard to beat and I am always on the lookout for a place that will serve me a great bowl of the stuff. Over the years it’s become sort-of a part-time quest for El Dorado, only with noodles.

I grew up with noodles, but I think I got really hooked back in 1980 during the first return visit to Taiwan. Apart from doing the standard punk kid stuff, I spent much of the time imitating a yo-yo, skipping alternately between noodle stands and the shaved ice stand (shaved ice got the bulk of my attention because >40ºC + 100% relative humidity = one soggy and unhappy Ivan). The quickie rāmen and soba bowls at Narita Terminal 2 during the 90s didn’t help.

And then I watched Tampopo.

バカ ! Why don’t you just break out the transglutaminase and glue the freaking noodle monkey to my back?

Tampopo also showed fun things to do with shrimp and I keep referring back to the film whenever I feel the need to suck at making omelettes, but it pretty much cemented the noodle urge. Anyway, I’ve even written a bit about this once elsewhere, though I mostly blamed the New Dotch Cooking Show (新どっちの料理ショー). I could do other things, but in the right now, the New Dotch Cooking Show keeps me falling off the wagon, especially the additional rāmen episodes I’ve located.

What to do, what to do…

Go out and do the Grace Jones thing

Well, easier said than done, and the line works a whole lot better when everyone is dressed like extras and riding on horses while waiting for the casting call for the remake of Conan.

If this were say, Taiwan, there are noodle stores everywhere and you’d have to work really hard to find bad noodles. They’re even readily available when shopping: the Taipei 101 skyscraper’s food court for instance offers up lots of noodle options including this tasty one with shiba shrimp and won ton.

Wonton ramen at Taipei 101

Or you could go Ka-ru bi-nu’s route and head off to Tokyo. I scribbled earlier about his attempts at assailing the rāmen stores here (a good plan, but not necessarily great timing after 30+ gyoza).

On this side of the Pacific, if you find yourself lucky enough to be in Vancouver (that’d be the one in British Columbia, not the one in Washington state), you could mosey on down to Denman Street and line up at Motomachi Shokudo. No website, no online menus and I’m not kidding about lining up outside, but it’s the French-inflected healthier sassier sister to Kintaro (also on Denman) and it’s really tasty. Also more expensive than its competitors as they use organic ingredients as much as possible, but they certainly have that slightly crunchy burnt deliciousness with their gyoza.

Motomachi Shokudo's gyoza

If it’s too humid for miso rāmen, shio rāmen is a lighter alternative.

Motomachi Shokudo's shio rāmen

Yes, still with the freaking bean sprouts (they’re under the onions). But perhaps some non-bean sprout-y extras to go with that rāmen? Extra egg – that’s available (and you really should if you know what’s good for you). Extra chasu – that’s available. Butter? Corn? Menma? All available. Spicy onion oil? Only for shōyu rāmen!

Motomachi Shokudo's shōyu rāmen

Kinda sucks to be you if you like spicy onion oil and have ordered shio rāmen.

😉

Closer to home, phở rules. Phở rules primarily because there’s a Vietnamese population in eastern Canada. There are small pockets of Japanese, but the Japanese in general are probably not insane enough to want to actually live in Montréal during the winter (ski vacations in Whistler while wearing pink bunny suits, okay; dress up like Anne Shirley to skip along the boardwalk, okay; ice storms in eastern Canada? no thanks).

Where does phở rule? At Phở Lien mostly, except on Tuesdays (they’re closed). Don’t bother if it’s ambiance (it’s primitive) or service (eat/pay/go, no chit-chat) you’re looking for because parking around the Jewish General is now a real b*tch with those frighteningly expensive meters make parking cost sometimes more than the phở, but do bother if you want a really good bowl of phở. They have other things, like okay spring rolls (shrimp, rice noodles, lettuce, bean sprouts rolled into a rice sheet) and a grilled chicken that looks pretty good, but all that only tries to compete with #8: large phở with rare beef, soft tendon and honeycomb tripe (you can ask for fresh birds eye chiles if you need extra heat or want to beat on the tapeworm). There are other combos also available, but this is the one I like.

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Chinese cuisine has a rich heritage of noodle dishes and many of them are sublime. Unfortunately for me, that doesn’t hold true here: there are plenty of Chinese restaurants, but most don’t offer Chinese-style noodle bowls. Of those that do, they don’t have anything remotely worthwhile (frankly, they’re bad), so if you’re looking for something good in this culinary vein, you are generally SOL.

There was a place called Les Nouilles Maxi-Phở which is now unfortunately defunct and replaced by an AYCE sushi bar. Why? Because the straight-laced and very uptight who live in Bois-Franc can’t handle ethnic restaurants that offer out of the ordinary. Never mind that the same straight-laced and very uptight also appear to be keeping the adult novelty store right next door to the restaurant space in fine economic form, they can’t handle culinary out of the ordinary.

But I digress. Before its demise, Maxi-Phở had a split personality (same kitchen, two separate storefronts) and did predominantly Chinese or Vietnamese depending from which door one entered. The Chinese side offered up wonton noodles as a menu option, which back in the day was $6.50 a bowl.

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Nice fragrant chicken broth, eleven (!) wontons and egg noodles garnished with bok choy, a little coriander and a little green onion. The wontons were about the size of the bowl of a noodle spoon and were filled with minced pork (a bit too lean) and chunks of shrimp. This particular bowl reaffirmed that I don’t like the egg noodles served in Chinese restaurants.

There was another noodle option here as well; same $6.50, same egg noodles, less bok choy but containing more variety on the protein front with beef balls, stewed beef, stewed pork and wontons. Those were the times.

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If the Chinese noodle variants are few and far between, the Japanese ones are even rarer.

The only one I’ve never minded eating was at the old Japanese standby Sakura (ex-Sakura Gardens , but they dropped the Gardens part when they moved a couple of doors over). It is a classic Japanese restaurant with classic Japanese flavor profiles, which you should translate as less Westernized (I’ve once heard of Sakura’s food being described as “too Japanese”). Still, it’s one of the few places on the island that has and makes good mixed tsukemono and if you want kaiseki ryori on the Big Croissant, it’s Sakura or nothing. It’s been a while since I’ve last been and they updated the menu after their move: one of my favorite set menus (tonkatsu) didn’t make the cut. Boo… hiss…

You can still get tsukemono though. And they still make a really nice ika yaki.

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The noodles (sansai soba/udon, tempura soba/udon, nabeyaki udon, shōyu rāmen, miso rāmen, zaru soba) did survive menu makeover, but they went from $8.95 for shōyu rāmen and a top price of about $12 for the nabeyaki udon to a straight-out $25.00 for any of the noodle offerings. Big ouch. It’s now a set menu which includes salad and maki, but still, big ouch.

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Actually there is something that the price increase did bring to what is essentially the most classic bowl in the city: upgrades. You can tell that new chef Endo Tadayuki ratcheted up the quality of the ingredients. The semi-curly noodles are better. The soup is much better. It’s still a classic bowl but it’s a very refined one and quite comforting.

Whereas Sakura is neck-deep in Japanese classicism, Oishii Sushi goes for modern Japan stylings. This is a cool hipster Mile-end sushi shop run by Nelson Tam which you may have seen on television: Fido has used it as a backdrop in its ad campaigns to showcase cool hipster products (never mind that they managed to break a couple of tables in the process – the restaurant looked great in the shot).

If you go to his store, sit yourself down at one of the orange tables, have a Tokyo-tini and order the chef roll to watch Nelson employ the katsuramuki technique on some cucumber (just don’t place 40 simultaneous orders of chef rolls because you’ll stress him out). While waiting, he has things like gyoza (mushroom flavor), shark fin and jellyfish salad, and grilled squid to nibble on, but what’s really nice is the miso and sake kasu-marinated black cod (gindara no saikyo yaki).

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And the ramen? Both rāmen and udon are on his menu and bowls go between $8 and $12 depending on the protein, but there’s one night a week when all bowls go for something like $7 apiece (cost savings = more $ available for more funkadelic martinis to go with dinner – I’m just saying). However, if you like char siu, don’t bother asking because it’s not an available option.

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The Oishii noodle experience is a different one: Nelson may not follow convention, but he does make a tasty bowl. To start, the tori niku rāmen has no bean sprouts (yes!) but I did find gai lan (okay…), atsuage (厚揚げ), large pieces of grilled chicken, egg, and… renkon! Thick pieces of braised lotus root! Actually the renkon was really tasty and retained a savory crunch that added a nice textural component to the bowl. The slightly-sweet broth is initially overpowered by the egg but the bowl is pretty well equilibrated and the straight noodles are softer and have nice chew. Since the bowl’s already flyé, I’ll have to find time to go have a bowl of the gyu niku rāmen to see how it stacks up for moo-y goodness.

The Japanese offerings are however starting to gain a little bit over the last year, and expanding outside of the context of the Japanese restaurant. At the time I wrote that other post about noodles, Montréal didn’t have any standalone rāmen-yas but that changed with the opening of a rāmen-ya last year which just happens to be called Rāmen-Ya (woo! real original there!).

I’ve even tried it: the restaurant is laid out in a narrow deep rectangular space dominated by the kitchen/bar in the back, a few tables in the front, and a small sushi station for those who don’t want noodles. Wildlife-wise, it’s full of lemming-like self-pretentious students attending the Université de Montréal (the students are lemming-like and self-pretentious, not the UdeM). Anyway, you know how lemmings have this habit of doing this mass-migration off clifftops? And how it always looks like they don’t figure out that it’s a really bad idea until the lemmings get about 10 cm too far off the edge of said clifftops? Unfortunately, the Rāmen-Ya experience had me feeling like that one lemming feels once the light bulb goes off after realizing it’s taken a couple of steps too many. No, there’s no photo of their rāmen – let’s just say that I don’t need to be reminded.

Tampopo - Gun gives his opinion on the noodles

Don’t say I didn’t say so.

I am also starting to hear rumors of a new place called Sumo Rāmen, but since it’s located at the base of Chinatown and Musgrave’s ability to taste is always a little suspect, this lemming is going to let quite a few others do the Cavia porcellus thing first before giving it a whirl.

Stop being lazy and make it yourself

True, making them yourself offers that “sense of self-satisfaction in a job well done” sentimentality that cub scout den mothers love to pound in, but it has additional benefits, such as well, money! $25 for a bowl of rāmen gets expensive really fast; if I use the Rule of 4, I would be able to make about six bowls of rāmen for the same cost.

Economics aside, there’s the bonus of being able to use quality ingredients in whatever quantity I feel like or can afford (e.g. for now, no Kagoshima Kurobuta [かごしま黒豚] char siu in the near-term since I need to get… a pony!). That by extension also means there will never be any of the nastier surprises that may be floating hidden below the surface of the broth, like them egg noodles. There’s also a little thing called variety, as with a little bit of planning I can have pretty much any type of noodle bowl I want.

For instance, if I want niu rou mien, I can make niu rou mien. Taiwanese niu rou mien (牛肉麵) is probably my father’s favorite noodle bowl, and he has very fond memories of it. I am happy to say that I can make one that is spicy/savoury enough and beefy enough that my father compares it favorably to what he had in his youth. I pretty much use only beef shank and tendon (for extra gelatin-y goodness), spicing the cooking broth with shōyu, chili, tomato, Sichuan peppercorn, spring onion, garlic and ginger.

Taiwanese niu rou mien

What’s more, I can ladle on as much mustard greens as I want without risking being kicked out of the Lai Lai Sheraton. Okay, I’ve never been to the Lai Lai Sheraton but I’m just saying I can have as much as I want. My father is considerably more restrained than his son when it comes to mustard greens, and he gives me a funny look and just sighs when he sees me ladling it on.

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For something less labor-intensive I could have duck noodles. Noodles in flavorful clear broth with roast duck jus to give it a little kick in the pants, and topped with roast duck (d-uh) and vegetables.

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Simple yes? Simple no in reality. If the broth sucks, the noodles will suck even if they’re good-quality noodles (remember what I said about the local Chinese establishments? they suck at both components). The broth has to be tasty and it has to be clear. Tasty you can do by piling in the chicken carcasses and doing a couple of umami tricks to enhance flavor. Clear? Well, there’s more leeway in post-processing – if your technique isn’t good, you can always fall back and use agar or gelatin filtration to mask your suspect lazy-a$$ broth-making ways.

Seafood noodles? Yeah, those too, but they don’t photograph well. Neither does ochazuke. Then again, ochazuke’s not a noodle dish.

I’m also working on making my own shōyu rāmen. The noodles are important but the broth needs to be just right for the type of noodle and that takes time that I currently don’t have. Char siu is no problem and neither is the menma, but I don’t yet have access to a circulating water bath to make the perfect dark-color soft-boiled egg, which takes, well, money.

I do however have the gyoza down pat.

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Restaurant addresses

Taipei 101
No. 45, Shifu Road
Xinyi District
Taipei, Taiwan
 
Oishii Sushi
277 Bernard ouest
Montréal, Québec H2V 1T5
+1 (514) 271-8863
   
Pho Lien
5703-B Chemin de la Côte des Neiges
Montréal, Québec H3S 1V7
+1 (514) 735-6949
Kintaro Ramen
788 Denman Street
Vancouver, British Columbia V6G 2L5
+1 (604) 609-0310
 
Rāmen-Ya
4274 Saint-Laurent
Montréal, Québec H2W 1Z3
+1 (514) 286-3832
Motomachi Shokudo
740 Denman Street
Vancouver, British Columbia V6G 2L5
+1 (604) 609-0310
 
Sakura
2170 Mountain
Montréal, Québec H3G 1Z7
+1 (514) 288-9122
   
Sumo Rāmen (Facebook link)
1007 Saint-Laurent
Montréal, Québec H2Z 1J4
+1 (514) 940-3668

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