It's Japanese, but there's not a single slice of fish in the house, and you won't miss it. Given the city's overwhelming sushi invasion, there's been an understandable assumption that if a restaurant is Japanese there must be sushi. Not true. Not in Japan. Not in other cities. And now, not in this city.
Case in point, the sushi-less Kyu Bistro, which identifies itself as the city's newest ramen shop. As far as I know it's the only one, but more about the ramen later. They may have been what I originally came for, but what stole the show, what I left raving about, were the izakaya-style small plates.
There are 16 of them in small, but shareable, portions, mostly light and far too easy to keep ordering beyond one's capacity to eat. Not beyond one's capacity to pay though, since most cost a mere $4 to $6, with the sole exception of $8 for butterflied shrimp in ultra-light panko coating, complemented by a slightly sweetened chili-spiked mayonnaise.
All I tried were wonderful. Even the bottom price of $4 buys four sublime balls of agedashi tofu in a sweet dashi sauce with which (and I never thought I'd ever say this about tofu) I fell in love. I've liked tofu before, usually in various Chinese dishes when it was disguised (highlights were with chili and pork in mapo tofu, or with eggplant in black bean sauce), but this kind of tofu was a revelation and the first time I've ever loved tofu for itself alone -- fried crisp on the surface, but seductively creamy, almost custardy, within (in fact there actually is some egg in its preparation).
Make a note of the impossible-to-remember name of gyuniku tsuke ninjin, because these skewers of tender, marinated sirloin wrapped around strips of pickled carrots are another knockout. So were chicken kara-age -- little chunks of marinated, starch-coated chicken deep-fried to a juicy, flavourful and incredible crunch and topped by dabs of wasabi-flavoured mayo. And so were the skewers of simply pan-grilled shrimp that were plump, juicy and slightly redolent of sesame oil.
Too many gyoza dumplings I've had recently have been frozen, commercial preparations, and too often deep-fried as well. Not these, which are house-made, properly pan-fried on one side only, with thin-skinned wrappers that enclosed meaty interiors of pork, streaked with shiitakes on one visit, but enfolding a sweet little shrimp on another. They were excellent in both versions.
Thin, delicately flavoured slices of cold pork, described as barbecued (but not in the occidental or Chinese sense of barbecue), are prettily fanned out on a plate, and sided with a dollop of hot mustard. Big, bacon-wrapped scallops look pretty much like bacon-wrapped scallops anywhere but are perfectly moist and tender.
As for the ramen, those I tried were soothing and satisfying, if not exceptional. There are four different versions of these meal-in-a-bowl noodle soups (from $8 to $8.50). The thin, twisty wheat noodles are neither hand-made nor house-made, but they are purchased from a place that does make them fresh daily and have a nice chewy texture.
The shio ramen (my favourite) is based on a clear, full-flavoured pork bone broth which had been gently simmered for hours, then fortified with little pieces of pork shoulder, two kinds of seaweed -- soft (wakame) and crunchy (nori) -- with a jolt of earthy flavour from fermented bamboo shoots, and a topping of diced scallions. Also included are slices of processed pink and white fish cake (more decorative, in my opinion, than tasty), and a soft-boiled egg.
The shoyu ramen broth is seasoned with soy sauce and topped with slices of pork belly, fish cake, bean sprouts, spinach, green onions and a soft-boiled egg. Spicy miso ramen is the most forcefully flavoured, with spicy miso paste and fermented bamboo shoots, and is thick with chopped pork shoulder, bean sprouts and kernels of corn for crunch and spirals of shredded carrots for decoration. The fourth (unsampled) ramen is shio broth garnished with a variety of vegetables. The only other options on the menu, unsampled, are donburi rice bowls with curried chicken, beef or pork ($7 to $8).
There's no alcohol as yet (a licence has been applied for) but the iced lychee tea is refreshing, and there's ginger ice cream for dessert. This appears to be a two-person operation, although during most of my visits only one person was present, doing double duty as cook and server, and doing both efficiently. His service was faultless on my visits, but since there were few others present I can't predict how it might be in a full house.
Kyu is located in a small strip mall, which is convenient for parking (if you get there early enough). It's an attractive little place, done in minimalist but charming Japanese style, with walls partly painted avocado green, partly panelled in very pale wood, with seating at black-stained regular size tables and chairs, or at slightly higher tables with stools. There are three small televisions set high up, near the ceiling -- mercifully silent on my visits. I wish I could say the same for the soundtrack.
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below or click here.
Restaurants marked with a red flag were rated between 0.5 to 2.5 stars; yellow flags mark those rated between 2.5 to 4 stars; and green flags mark those rated rated 4.5 to 5 stars. Locations marked with a yellow dot were not assigned a star rating.