Spotted a short while back by a friend as now being open, I decided to go check it out myself today… a new Japanese ramen shop called Benke Ramen (1741 Robson, Tel: 778-384-1460) on Robson Street between Denman and Bidwell Streets and thus just around the corner from what is probably the current king of the genre in this city, Kintaro Ramen. I had heard rumors of it possibly opening around early November, but apparently renovation and staffing delays resulted in the official opening on January 21st. A month had passed so I figured this was enough time for them to work through the ‘just-opened’ issues. Walking in at about 1pm (Sat), my lunch companion and I were seated quickly though the place was practically full. We were sitting in the front area where there were those glass shutter-type doors that open up, as one would find in say a café on this very same street. I sat facing this side as a result I could see lots of people walking by, with many of them stopping and pressing their faces against the glass to sneak a peak inside, so obviously they too noticed this was a new joint and were curious.
Some background queries on this place revealed that it is being backed by a noodle production/ramen ingredients supplier company based in Kyoto, Japan called Takara Sangyo, and that Benke Ramen was in fact created as a subsidiary company. The interior design was created by a Japanese food industry consulting company called Kukan Kikaku (in English, this would literally translate as perhaps ‘Space Planning’) who has done this type of work for many restaurants back in Japan. The overall theme of the design was ’Japanese style’ and was based on earth (or clay) walls and tones with Japanese paper coverings and embedded, indirect lighting to give it a warm feel inside. Even the seat dividers on the walls added to this theme, by their use of natural bamboo. The total floor space is 1700 sq. feet, with a four-seat counter at the back end, and larger tables (with four or six seats) with an overall seating capacity of 42. There seemed to be a great deal of pride in the product, as it was said it was a totally manual process in preparing the soup and resulting ramen dishes, using all organic vegetables, and wanting to present a true representation of ramen as one would find in Japan. The owner has said that by the start of the 2010 Olympic games in the city, he aims to have four outlets in the city, with even grander hopes of opening up in Paris, New York and Los Angeles!
Okay, back to the menu and the food. It was quite simple and straightforward which I thought was a good choice, as most really good ramen shops in Japan are really focused on a few key select items and do them well. A two sided, one sheet color menu revealed a choice of three soup flavors: Shoyu (soy sauce), Shio (salt), and Miso. With base toppings of onions, Chashyu (sliced pork), bamboo shoots, a standard price of C$6.60 for each. The base Shoyu soup was a chicken stock combined with some beef part stock apparently (what part, remains a mystery to me), with a seven vegetable mixture (tomato and celery were known) added in, cooked and reduced; the dish was finished off with some shavings of Yuzu fruit for both flavour and aroma. For the Shiyo soup, it was made from pork bones cooked down over five hours, with added vegetables, seafood (what exactly, was not told), and sea salt. The Miso soup was a mixture of both the Shoyu and Shio flavorings, which were then added to some direct-from-Japan Miso (more specifically, the Shinshu brand, originating from Nagano Prefecture), which itself was a combination of both red and white Miso. Additional toppings such as extra Chashu, corn, butter, etc. were also available for prices ranging from fifty cents to a dollar. An option to add all available additional toppings could be had, raising the base price to C$10. Also, extra noodles could be had for an extra $1.50. Both of us had the standard Shio bowl, wih me adding an extra topping of a half boiled egg, and extra noodles. From my past experience at Kintaro Ramen, I was interested to see how this pork bone based soup would compare. It turned out to be a bit more heavier than I expected (can’t recall offhand how heavy the super fatty edition of the Kintaro version was), and was really salty, which my dining partner disliked but I could manage. I think with both us being bigger fans of lighter tasting pork bone-based soup after eating many in Japan, this kind of turned us off, but for others who like the heavier flavour I am sure they will like it. The Chashyu was also much fattier than I had hoped, it was cut nice and thick though but I would say over half of it was pure fat, which I just had to cut out and discard. A shame as I like my Chashyu leaner.
Aside from the ramen, there were some side dishes such as the usual Gyoza dumplings (pork). These could be had for C$3 and came in a set of five pieces. They were perhaps a bit on the small size but were incredibly juicy inside and nice and crispy on the outside, which I enjoyed. I am guessing though, that they were not handmade and probably a mass produced variety judging from the total uniformity of the folds and general shape they came out as. A young couple next to us had chosen to get a side dish of Kimchi, which they were eating like a salad on its own, which brought smiles to our faces knowing its not what one would do with that spicy Korean dish in most people’s minds.
In the end, would I go back? Probably. But I would not be in any major rush. Perhaps to try out the Miso soup version and ask for a lighter soup stock (but perhaps the mix with the Shoyu base would thin it out a bit). Will be interesting if this debut will cause Kintaro to jack things up a bit but judging from their loyal fans who always stretch outside in a lineup, I figure there is room for both on this busy block. Anyhow, nice to have some selection of good ramen made by people who understand it and are passionate about it in Van city...
Image 1: Interior, taken at a previous time
Image 2: My bowl of Shio Ramen, taken with cellphone camera so not great