Smile Politely

Sakanaya: Champaign’s new ramen haven

While I was highly anticipating my first trip to Sakanaya, I was preparing for disappointment. During my nine years of living here, I have become leery of restaurants trying to bring a new concept to the area. It’s usually a half-assed attempt at capitalizing on a stale concept. These places hold the diners of C-U in contempt. It’s as if people try to guess at the least amount of effort they can get away with in order to seem novel. It’s not just the food. You can feel it in the attitude of the staff, see it in the decor. I am absolutely relieved to say that Sakanaya is bucking that trend.

We stopped by on opening night. As soon as we entered, we saw that the restaurant was packed with mostly Asian students. Always a good sign. The interior of the restaurant is stunning — just absolutely gorgeous, very chic, and modern. It feels very big city. My fiancée mentioned that it looks like a restaurant that you would see in Wicker Park or Lincoln Square up in Chicago.

A hostess took our name down and stated that it would be an hour wait. She was extremely polished and professional. She was managing the flow of people coming in so well that you could easily forget that this restaurant had just opened. We were seated in 45 minutes. A very friendly and knowledgeable server came by almost immediately to welcome us and take our drink order. He enthusiastically answered any questions we had.

After sitting down, I started to notice that whoever owns and runs this restaurant has carefully considered every detail of the restaurant. The staff worked efficiently at turning tables. If someone couldn’t get to a new table immediately, they or someone else made sure that they knew that someone would be right with them shortly. It even seemed like they had thought long and hard about each element of their table setting. The soy sauce, for instance, comes in a funky looking dispenser that works like a giant eye dropper. For sushi, this makes perfect sense since you can control the amount of soy sauce you want on a piece of sushi, and place it exactly where you want it — on the fish. What really got my attention was the tea. They served a perfectly brewed genmai cha. Most restaurants serve a cheap green tea from teabags. Other more ambitious places will proudly serve loose leaf tea and then oversteep it. At Sakanaya, we get the best cup of tea in town: good quality tea, brewed with care. Even its color is perfect, which they show off in clear cups.

At this point, I truly got excited about the food. We were set on getting ramen but we decided to order some sushi first. The sushi chefs really seemed to know what they were doing, and the fish looked so good that we had to try them. I was so pleasantly surprised to see how small the pieces were. This is the way sushi is supposed to be served. You get the right interplay between the rice and the fish; the sushi chef has much more control over how to section off different pieces of fish, and countless of reasons why those giant pieces of nigiri you get elsewhere are no bueno.

We then eagerly awaited our ramen. Ramen is one of my favorite things to eat. Making it is extremely time consuming and labor intensive so until recently, you didn’t see a lot of good ramen around except in cities with a large Japanese population. I get intense ramen cravings from time to time and the only passable one you could get in this town on a moment’s notice is the one at Kamakura. Even that one left you somewhat unsatisfied. There’s also a disturbing trend of Korean restaurants in town overcharging for serving packaged ramen with overcooked pork and hastily chopped up vegetables thrown in. Every once in a while, Mark Hartstein will do a ramen pop-up somewhere and these have deservedly become some of the most anticipated food events in Champaign-Urbana. But what would tie you over in between Mark’s ramen pop-ups? The very idea of a restaurant serving high quality delicious ramen regularly excites me to no end.

We ordered all three ramen: shoyu, tonkotsu, and miso. As with every dish we’ve seen come out of this kitchen, everything is plated beautifully. They all came with the same garnishes and toppings: tender and flavorful lightly smoked pork slices, bamboo shoots, fish cake slices, thinly sliced pickled ginger, nori, wakame, and corn. I enjoyed every single component. We did have some disagreements about the corn, though. My fiancee felt that it added too much sweetness to each dish. As for the noodles, they used a tasty high quality thin noodle for the ramen.

We absolutely loved the miso broth — our favorite of the night — unctuous, complex and balanced, wonderfully seasoned. It comes with a dollop of a red soybean paste on top and it is absolutely critical that you mix it into the broth. If your broth hasn’t taken on a slightly clay-colored hue, keep mixing. This makes a huge difference in how this ramen tastes. I should also note that we tried this one without corn. The tonkotsu ramen was our next favorite. Tonkotsu broth celebrates pork and pork flavor. It can however become a caricature of itself. David Chang, the man who single handedly made high quality ramen such a culinary craze in this country, even refers to tonkotsu ramen as the deep dish pizza of the ramen world. I’ve had some tonkotsu broth that was so fatty and salty that I couldn’t really taste anything else for a day or two. This one was the opposite of that. Its subtlety was a pleasant surprise.

The only item we ate that we didn’t care much for was the shoyu ramen. Its flavor was completely out of whack with way too much soy sauce flavor. Only when we were almost done, did we start being able to taste some of the other components of this broth. If this was due to being too heavy handed with the tare, then this is very easily fixable. This has the potential of being very good. I will certainly give this another shot in the future.

There were other bumps in the road throughout the night. The fish for the sushi was too cold, almost ice cold at times. Food in general came out too fast; the first set of ramen came out before we were even half way through with our sushi. This helped somewhat with the first problem, as we went right to the ramen and then finished the sushi afterwards. Ironically, at that point, the sushi was at the right temperature. From a big picture standpoint, these slip-ups are positive signs. It’s almost as if they over prepared for the onslaught of their opening night. Again, the theme that kept popping up tonight was their attention to detail.

We chatted with several members of the staff afterwards. Some of them who didn’t even serve us checked up on us and wanted to know how we liked the meal. As well as things went overall, we got the sense that they knew that things could be better. They mentioned that once they get their liquor license, they will stay open later and become an izakaya after 10 p.m.

There is a common theme among my favorite restaurants in town. They have a clear idea of the food they want to serve and devote every ounce of energy into realizing that vision. There are four restaurants that accomplish that: bacaro, Black Dog, Maize, Golden Harbor. From our first visit, Sakanaya could potentially join that list. They certainly are swinging for the fence. I can’t wait to eat here again and I certainly can’t wait to see this restaurant grow.

Sakanaya is located at 403 E Green Street in Champaign, and is open Tuesday through Sunday, 5-10 p.m.

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