Chef Juni talks Saka-Ba!, Ramen, and Montreal’s New Wave of Izakayas

As Japanese pubs continue to explode on the Montreal scene, savvy diners have become increasingly aware of the full range of Japanese cuisine. And while it unfortunately took longer for our own humble island to catch on to the izakaya trend, we’ve been slowly gaining ground on Toronto and Vancouver.

“To the Japanese, ramen is our soul food”

With the indisputable success izakaya joints have been having in recent years, it should come as little surprise that one of Montreal’s most talented and well-respected chefs could wait no longer to open up the restaurant of his dreams. Standing against the backbar with his arms fully extended, Japanese chef Junichi Ikematsu looked adoringly around the room as he justified the decision to open up the Saka-Ba! ramen bar in Montreal’s plateau district.

“To the Japanese, ramen is our soul food,” Juni tactfully explained. “I’ve always made ramen at home, so it’s nothing new for me. I’ve had the idea for a long time and finally decided the time was right.”

Saka-Ba! pays clear tribute to Japan in the ’70s, with the walls pleasantly adorned with original vintage posters, manga drawings, and other antiques and memorabilia that remind Juni of his childhood. Glass panels give patrons a glimpse into the kitchen, while a blood orange coloured bar wraps itself across the length of the restaurant. The bar showcases an impressive assortment of sake and other liquors, which Juni hopes will assure clients of its more casual, energetic atmosphere.

Contrary to popular belief, sushi is not eaten every day in Japan, but is usually reserved for special occasions. Far from being limited to raw fish and rice, the wide range of gastronomy offered by this Asian nation includes everything from the classics like sashimi and miso soup to deep fried pork cutlet, okonomiyaki, and of course, ramen.

Juni recently travelled back to his hometown of Kyoto, where he introduced his partners to the distinct types of ramen. Popular throughout the country, ramen is cooked in a variety of fashions, with the most noticeable differences appearing in the broth bases. Juni noted that the pork-based Kyoto style ramen was influenced by Kaiseki cuisine – indigenous to Kyoto – which are light and delicate traditional meals. The broth in the Kyoto style ramen is shouyu (soy sauce) based and is clear compared to miso or tonkotsu based soups.

“Of course, I’m Japanese, but my place is here. The people here are incredibly welcoming.”

The two types of ramen at Saka-Ba! are also differentiated mainly by their broth base. The first – shoyu – is mixed together with some secret ingredients Juni has been using for years. The second is a thicker lobster based broth, served with shrimp and corn. A third ramen served with chicken has also just hit the menu.

The most essential ingredients found in ramen are noodles, pork, and green onions. The straight noodles found in each ramen – prepared and shipped to Juni by 75-year old M. Goto in Toronto – are cooked for exactly two minutes to ensure perfection. The vegetables, pork and chicken are all sourced from Quebec farmers, while the seafood is imported from Nova Scotia.

In addition to ramen, the menu has standard izakaya fare like edamame, yakitori, deep fried chicken, and gyoza, but also features items such as fermented daikon, octopus salad, and curry-stuffed beignets. Perhaps the most impressive aspect in learning about the preparation was the fact that each item is handmade – each dumpling, each beignet is carefully rolled by hand hours before the restaurant even opens for the evening. This type dedication speaks volumes in today’s day and age, where restaurants are often pressed to serve a large number of clientele in one evening. Rather than reduce quality for quantity, Juni’s commitment to providing only the best – despite how time-consuming this can be – is precisely what has earned him so much praise in the past.

From the man who has carved out a name for himself as a premier sushi chef, it was refreshing to observe him in a different environment – one he says it a lot more like home. For years, Juni has quietly been perfecting a master recipe for his own ramen. Standing before a large pot of boiling broth, Juni steered a wooden paddle around in circles, sprinkling in sliced green onion before eventually adding in large chunks of chashu pork. Interested from a young age in foreign – particularly European – culture, he pursued an education in French cuisine. Like many Japanese chefs before him, he believed the culinary skills both learned and practiced in France were not only useful, but are easily applied to Japanese etiquette and culinary technique.

While Juni has been spending a lot of time lately training his new staff at Saka-Ba!, he remains dedicated to being executive chef at Juni and providing his loyal customers with the highest quality seafood and exceptional service that have come to be synonymous with his name. With a staff of four to five people in house, including head chef Diana Panaram, Juni expects them to have learned the proper techniques within a few weeks and be able to carry forward without him.

As a citizen here for the past quarter century, Juni has embraced his life as a Montrealer and considers it his home. “Of course, I’m Japanese, but my place is here. The people here are incredibly welcoming.” The words, softly spoken, reflected elements of his personality that translate clearly into his passion for cooking and his dedication to excellence. In speaking to a man with so much pride for his work, we’re confident this restaurant will remain on people’s go-to lists for a long time to come.

Saka-Ba! Facebook | 1279 Avenue Mont-Royal Est | 514-507-9885

Written by Daniel Bromberg