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KINTON RAMEN (51 Baldwin, at Beverley, 647-748-8900, kintonramen.com) Complete meals for $18 per person, including tax, tip and a lemonade. Average main $10. Open for lunch daily 11:30 am to 3:30 pm; dinner Sunday to Thursday 5 to 11 pm, Friday and Saturday 5 pm to 2 am. No reservations. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNNN
Sooner or later, every trend hits Toronto, whether it's platform shoes, the Common Sense Revolution or tapas.
And so has the cult of ramen, the Japanese food fetish that finds nirvana in a seemingly simple bowl of noodles. True, ramen's nothing new; round these parts, Konnichiwa's been doing the comfort food classic since back in the 90s, and more recently, Kenzo has launched a mini-chain of ramen restos. But only the month-old Kinton turns ramen into a religious experience.
Opening time is still 15 minutes away, but a lineup of supplicants has already formed outside the 30-seat Baldwin Village storefront. Once admitted, they find a long, narrow room dominated by an open kitchen and six cauldrons of rapidly boiling broth. Little wonder the frantic Kinton crew who attend them have commemorative tea towels wrapped around their heads.
As at its sibling, Guu, a lot of shouting in unison is involved, although the mantra turns out to be only the expediting of orders, the Japanese equivalent of "Cheeseburger to go, gravy on the fries."
Our initial visit starts with a bowl of each of the three entry-level broths. All are based on a complex blend of pork bone, chicken and unidentified veggie stocks, the lightest laced with sea salt (shio), the intermediate with soybean paste (miso) and the richest with soy sauce (shoyu, all $9.50).
Their ultra-al-dente noodles - all fresh and made off-site to specifications as secret as the exact ingredients of the broth - have so much bite, they almost bite back. Layered with thick slices of lean pork shoulder or fatty belly whose edges are caramelized at the last minute by blowtorch, each bowl is as much a feast for the eye as it is for the tongue.
Kinton's spicy ramen ups the ante with a broth seriously spiked with chili sauce and a huge whack of raw garlic, while the broth used for the vegetable version (both $9.80) isn't remotely vegetarian - in fact, it's the same as the others, only with asparagus on top. Purists might balk that Swiss cheese has no place in ramen, but the unorthodox combo works, especially when augmented by a sprig of Thai basil ($10.80). Add-ons include extra pork or noodles (both $2) and more raw garlic ($1).
Sides play a secondary role, from a quartet of tasty house-made pork gyoza pot-stickers ($3.50) to deboned karaage chicken wings ($4.80) and fiery cabbage kimchee ($3).
As anyone who's ever seen the film Tampopo will know, the eating of ramen is a ritual. You don't just start shovelling away, but contemplate the soup, allowing its aromatic steam to slap you in the face and entice your senses. Notice how the tiny globules of pork fat glisten like sunlight on some cosmic sea, albeit one strewn with frozen corn.
The soft-boiled egg goes first, its firm sake-steeped white giving way to a cool and runny centre. Next, you systematically work through the mountain of noodles, alternating with bites of pork and scallion until only the concentrated broth remains. Then, using both hands, you lift the heavy ceramic bowl to your lips and drink. Only a lightweight leaves a bowl unfinished.
There's one last step that Tampopo fails to mention. After your final slurp, head straight to Kinton's basement washrooms, where management have thoughtfully provided bottles of mouthwash. Your co-workers back at the office will thank you.