A few days ago I was being extra whiny and totally indecisive about what to eat. After bouncing around between pizza, Korean, tex-mex and gumbo from my freezer, I finally settled in on general bitching and lamenting Austin’s lack of an izakaya. Just as I was hitting a particularly impressive stretch of fruitless grousing my lovely lady wife poked up her head and asked, “What about Ryu?”
“What about Ryu indeed” I thought. I know it’s not a real izakaya but I also knew that it was nearby, byob, and they had served me a really nice chirashi-zushi for lunch one day. It didn’t hurt that the place seemed to be run by Japanese folks instead of by a pack of teenage Romanians. I was sold.
A few minutes later we (and our bottle of sake) arrived at the brightly lit but comfortable little restaurant that holds down a corner spot in a shiny new strip center on north Burnet.
We were greeted by a super sweet waitress (later identified as Tomo-chan) and given our choice of seats. As we perused the extensive menu, two tiny bowls of well fried shumai made an appearance to fortify us during the decision making process.
We opted to stick to the “From the Kitchen” part of the menu and save the sushi for another time. We started with one of my favorite drinkin’ snacks, ankimo or monkfish liver. Think goose liver terrine but denser and less buttery.
This excellent version was sitting in a splash of ponzu and accompanied by shredded daikon, beautiful dulse seaweed, lightly pickled cucumber, grated daikon mixed with sriracha, and a sprinkling of sliced scallions. I love interactive eating.
On a whim we also ordered the agedashi mochi. I’m a big fan of the tofu version but have never seen the dish prepared featuring the addictive glutinnous rice balls that I fell in love with in Hawaii. Tomo-chan told me they were sold out. I burst into tears. Alarmed and presumably confused, she bolted to the kitchen and somehow willed there to be one last serving left. God bless her.
Check out their adorable togarashi shaker.
I didn’t know what to expect when it arrived but I now know that I’ll fight you for yours. The mochi were judiciously fried and oh so delightfully crisp then chewy. The chunks of bamboo shoots and asparagus tips added a nice freshness to the savory dashi sauce and bright grated ginger. She assured me that it was a temporary shortage and they’ll be stocking up on more soon. They’d better.
While we were stuffing our faces and guzzling sake, I was also spying on the next table over. They had just gotten a large shrimp-like dish of something and I wanted it. Instead of asking what they had ordered like a normal person, I took a random guess. I was wrong (big surprise) but not disappointed. Mainly because we got fried shrimp. How can you be disappointed in fried shrimp? Don't answer that.
Each of the sizable little guys had been carefully straightened in that way that I appreciate but that still totally cracks me up. They were dressed in a tangy plum sauce and accompanied by a rather complimentary pairing of kewpie mayonnaise and some not-messing-around hot mustard. This. Beer. Watching rowdy sporting event. Perfect.
Following the shrimp was a generous portion of beef tataki. The seared steak slices came topped with scallions and more of that spice-enhanced grated daikon. Folded over and dipped in the ponzu sauce they became rather addictive little meat pouches. (I really should learn not to describe things as meat pouches. It’s disturbing.)
Next out was the Hamachi kama or grilled yellowtail collar. Normally, I like my fish raw but this dish falls into the exceptions category. This lovely hunk of grilled, fatty tuna comes from just behind the gills and is served fins and all. You know how people are going all crazy for lamb neck these days; well it’s like that but fish. Lamb Neck of the Sea.
It’s perfect with a squeeze of lemon and a couple pinches of sea salt. You can’t be shy about it either. The best bits require some hands-on attention to coax out.
We almost didn’t order the ika-uni because I’m not the biggest raw squid fan and uni has to be scrupulously fresh or it tastes like eating ordure flavored toothpaste. I can’t tell you how happy I am we didn’t pass it up.
The yolk, roe and cuttlefish strips came together to make a super rich, taste and texture experience. The slightly sweet, slightly briny sea urchin coats your mouth and the squid makes sure your teeth don’t feel left out. I was initially concerned about the small serving size but by the time we had made it down to the shiso leaf base I was grateful for their portion control. It’s a decadent course.
We wrapped the evening up by splitting a cute little strawberry ice cream mochi. It wasn’t anything particularly special but it filled its dessert duties admirably. And hey, free toothpick!
A final nice surprise was that the bill only came to about 50 bucks. That’s like an eight-course tasting menu for $25 a person. Helluva deal if you ask me. While Ryu may not have its official izakaya badge, it certainly did a good job faking it. We’ll be back, but this time with more booze.