A new Asian restaurant makes Broadway a better place

Restaurants | by David Sullivan

Café Japabowl
821 Broadway Ave.

“Can you smell that?” my friend asked. I could. It was the smell of cooking oil, like a wispy cartoon hand beckoning us in.

Cafe Japabowl, a charming family-run operation with a handful of tables, quietly opened on Broadway Avenue a few months back. It’s down the street from Sushiro, and I hope there’s room for both spots. They share some menu items but they’re different enough to be complementary — for example, Café Japabowl doesn’t serve sushi.

The atmosphere is a bit white and sterile but I appreciate its minimalism — not to mention the cleanliness (that oil smelled clean, if that makes sense).

Each time I’ve been, the service has been impeccable, imbued with ceremony and politeness. Servers glide quietly up to tables, seemingly just appearing, bowing slightly and offering to take orders. I’ve had at least three different servers there in all the times I’ve been, and the service has been hyper-consistent.

On this visit, the official review visit, there were six of us, including my toddler, who they are always happy to accommodate.

We decided to share a variety of food and placed our order. Meanwhile, I had the black raspberry wine with a deep ruby hue and a sweet taste, though not as sweet as an ice wine. At $29.00 for a 375 ml bottle, this Korean beverage is like liquid gold but man, is it ever worth it. I don’t know if it’s infused with an addictive substance (besides the alcohol), but I’m hooked.

Besides wine, Cafe Japabowl has the usual beer and highballs plus a wide selection of sake, as well as tea and smoothies.

Dishes began hitting the table, starting with some vegetable courses. The organic edamame (soybeans served in their pods) were fresh and delicious. Next up was the namul, a Korean vegetable dish with thin-sliced, colourful vegetables — zucchini, spinach, carrot, onion, and red peppers. It was well-seasoned and flavourful.

The most popular dish was the chicken karaage — deep fried chicken served with chili mayo. It’s crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside, and comes with a little salad. These bite-sized morsels didn’t stay on the plate long.

Next came the izakaya tempura —  tempura battered beans, yams, and prawns, with a sweet sauce for dipping. It’s hard to mess up tempura, being that it’s just deep fried awesomeness, and Café Japabowl’s didn’t disappoint.

We also ordered the tonkatsu rice bowl and the bulgogi rice bowl. The tonkatsu is a deep fried pork cutlet with salad and rice. I don’t have a lot of confidence in the phrase ‘pork cutlet’, which brings to mind trips to Ponderosa Restaurant with Grandma in the ’70s. The tonkatsu (the word, of Japanese origin, refers to the breaded, deep fried cutlet) was a far cry from those childhood memories. Like the chicken karaage, it was crunchy on the outside and juicy on the inside.

The bulgogi rice bowl was a similar dish, but with “kobe-style” beef, sautéed carrot, onion, and spinach. ”Kobe-style” is a type of beef that crosses Wagyu with Angus in an attempt to imitate the Japanese Kobe traditions. American “Kobe-style” beef usually has darker meat and a bolder flavour than real Kobe beef.

We also shared a bowl of BBQ pork ramen, which was a miso paste and soy-based ramen topped with BBQ pork belly. It was warm and pleasant, perhaps not as rich in flavour as some ramen I’ve had (like at Momofuko in New York, which destroys all other ramen. Probably not a fair comparison, though).

Going back to the service, I should mention that they brought out several gifts from the chef during the meal. It might have just been because we were a bigger group ordering a lot of food and drink, but they comped us roasted seaweed at the start of the meal (which were like seaweed crackers; my son loved them, which is weird because he’s usually adverse to green food). They also brought out some deep-fried squid at the end. A friendly touch in an era when many restaurants will charge for extra dipping sauce.

Café Japabowl is a welcome addition to the neighbourhood and a good place to go  for comfort food. I’m not saying it’s the best Japanese restaurant I’ve ever been too, but it is a solid eatery. Out of all the dishes I’ve had on my multiple visits, there hasn’t been a bad one, nor something that suffered from sloppy execution or poor attention to detail. I see a lot of new restaurants that are more about hype than about giving their customers with a wonderful experience, so it’s nice to see a local business doing things in such a meticulous manner.

I hope that Saskatoon can dismiss some of the frozen food chain places to support restaurants like Café Japabowl.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go sell some family heirlooms so I can get some more of that sweet, sweet black raspberry wine.