When he launched his first Sansotei Ramen on Toronto’s Dundas Street West in 2012, Michael Zhang wowed diners and critics alike. Within days, there were lineups down the street and Globe and Mail food writer Chris Nuttall-Smith raved that Michael Zhang’s soups were “supremely tasty stuff” and “heaven in a bowl.” Four years on, the busy Toronto restaurateur has three popular locations in The Big Smoke and launches his first Ottawa restaurant today.
City Bites Insider caught up with Zhang and Ottawa-based franchise operator Ling Pei as they conferred with Toronto interior designer Joe Cho, who was busy overseeing the finishing touches to the 40-seat noodle house at 153 Bank St.
Michael, first up, the obvious question. Why Ottawa and why now?
It’s a green market! And the city has grown so much — both in size and diversity. I remember when we opened the first Sansotei in Toronto, people assumed that the clientele would be Asian. But ramen appeals to everybody — all backgrounds and age groups.
What drew you to ramen in the first place?
My wife is Japanese. In 2009, we travelled to Japan and my very first meal when we arrived was ramen. From the first sip, I was blown away. I was hooked. I had ramen pretty much every day of that visit.
And you learned the art of ramen in Japan, correct?
Yes. By 2011, I’d been working in the food industry — with Tim Hortons and Freshii — for a decade. I knew I was ready to run my own business and I was passionate about ramen. I enrolled in a Japanese ramen school in the middle of nowhere. I hired a translator and took a two-week crash course. There were just seven of us in the class.
It was. The first week, I learned about the history of ramen, then we learned about the flours and noodles and how to make them. In the second week, we moved to a huge kitchen that was like a lab. We learned about traditional broths and sampled hundreds of seasonings and sauces. It was very tiring, but very productive! I then had to pick a favourite broth and develop a recipe. I’d make it, take it to the instructor, who would send it back with suggestions. I kept working on it until I had a final graduation dish and received my certificate.
And your broth of choice?
Tonkotsu. It’s a pork bone broth — very rich. I love the aroma, flavour, and texture.
And then you opened the first Sansotei Ramen?
First I spent four months at home cooking, developing recipes day and night, and establishing connections and suppliers. I opened my first restaurant in late August 2012 and I can still remember our first customers. It was a young couple and they finished the whole bowl. I was so excited! It was a huge morale boost and we have been breaking records every day since.
When it comes to Asian restaurants, Ottawa diners are used to Vietnamese eateries with 10-page menus. You have just six soups and six apps.
Exactly. The very small menu means I can control the quality of the raw ingredients and the finished dish. I do evolve the menu, but on a yearly basis. I only remove and replace one or two dishes each year.
Ottawa marks your second franchise restaurant. How do you decide whom to work with?
Each restaurant is like one of my babies, so I have to know that the people I work with appreciate my philosophy and mission. I’m not in a race — for me it’s about quality, not speed. I make sure to choose the right people — I look for my own clones!
Ling, how did you come to work with Michael?
I visited one of the Sansotei restaurants in Toronto in 2013. I got in touch with Michael soon after that and we began talking back and forth. I have been a Tim Hortons supervisor for the past two years while we worked on plans and I looked for the perfect place to open.
So this will be your first restaurant?
Yes, I came from China as an international student to study finance at Carleton University. I graduated in 2012 and have been in Ottawa ever since.
What have the past few months been like?
Very busy for my husband and I! The renovations are almost finished and for the past few weeks, I have been in Toronto training. We can’t wait. My family will visit from China in July so I’m very excited for them to eat here.
Michael, what do you do when you’re not onsite in Toronto or Ottawa?
I try to visit Japan twice a year. I call them inspiration trips. I do my homework —taste a lot of ramen, look at the trends, see what’s happening in the ramen world.
For me, the last few years has been a journey. What a journey!
Thank you. Looking forward to it.
153 Bank St., 613-695-1718.