We are very familiar with sushi, ramen or izakayas, these Japanese-style bistros where you can taste many delicious little dishes to share. No doubt, Japanese culinary specialties are increasingly known and appreciated by Quebecers. That’s why I was intrigued to discover a rather unknown one: donburi bowls, in the spotlight at LeDon Donburi, a counter and micro-restaurant in La Petite-Patrie that opened last summer.
Éric Dong and Charles Lévesque met at the School of Catering and Tourism in Montreal. They always talked about opening a project together, but it was only after each of them had traveled on their own — Éric at the Big in Japan or at the Enfants Terribles de Place Ville Marie, Charles in the hotel industry — that the stars aligned for them to take the leap. “I work as a real estate broker on the side, and when Charles called me to offer me a start, I was starting a job at a large real estate brokerage firm. I had to choose between the restaurant and the real estate,” says Éric. The heart rather than the head won, and it was after a trip to Japan that the duo had the idea of opening a counter specializing in donburi bowls that brought together Eric’s love of Japanese cuisine and the Charles’ taste for comfort food. “We realized that donburi was much more popular than we thought in Japan. With the closure of the Big in Japan, which had it on its menu, we thought that Montreal needed a new place to taste it, ”adds the latter.
Donburi? The word literally means “bowl” in the Japanese language and consists of a bowl of rice served with various toppings. Éric likes to compare this dish to a poutine, a reference that all Quebecers will understand. You always find the same basic ingredients — rice, cabbage, a sauce — but you can vary the toppings endlessly. The best-known variations, found on the short menu of LeDon Donburi (LeDon is a contraction of the owners’ two surnames, Lévesque and Dong), are katsudon (with breaded pork), oyakodon (chicken and beaten egg, or the vegetarian version, dofu oyakodon, with tofu) and unadon (grilled eel), among others.
I landed on a Tuesday evening in March at the LeDon Donburi with my son. The place offers a simple, but fun decor, inspired by the manga universe. The television also broadcasts Japanese animation of the genre, at a fairly high sound level. Despite a chilly start to the week, the place, which has about twenty seats, is busy with the comings and goings of customers coming to pick up a take-out order and by those who sit down to swallow one of the bowls on the menu, Serve with a starter such as karaage fried chicken, gyozas (vegetarian dumplings) or edamame. For those nostalgic for Big in Japan, Éric has obtained permission from chef Yukata Abe to use and reinterpret some of his recipes, including the sauce accompanying the crispy fried chicken, made with chili paste, honey and mayonnaise.
Our choice stops on the takoyakis. These small spherical bites of pieces of octopus mixed in a batter that can be reminiscent of pancakes are particularly successful. Plump, chewy, they’re sprinkled with dried bonito and tonkatsu sauce — I have a hard time eating more than one, as my little sweet tooth raves about them at breakneck speed! Intrigued, I also order a dish that our friendly server tells me is divisive: natto, fermented soybeans “for those feeling adventurous,” the menu warns. It is true that their sticky texture and their pronounced fermented flavor, which can remind some cheese, will put some people off. I find the whole thing all the same interesting, although surprising for my neophyte palate, but son, he doesn’t want to know anything!
No doubt, these well-stocked bowls rhyme with comfort. The combination of hot rice, shredded raw cabbage and protein — in this case, a katsudon, which is homemade panko breaded pork served with beaten egg and onions — works perfectly. We understand why donburi are popular in Japan and elsewhere. Like the famous ramen, these bowls serve as comfort food par excellence! I brought home the Karaage Don, based on the famous Japanese fried chicken, which made the lover happy. The donburi is also an excellent candidate for take-out orders.
Speaking of ramen, that’s what son chooses. There is always one on the slate. During our visit, the shoyu broth, made from roasted chicken bones, is in the spotlight, and comes with a marinated egg and a piece of châshû, braised pork. The whole is correct. The broth, too greasy for my taste, isn’t the tastiest I’ve tasted — let’s just say that with the many (and excellent) places specializing in ramen in Montreal, such as Yokatoyokabai or Tsukoyomi, the competition is strong .
The drinking menu is short and could be a little more extensive: a few choices of hot or cold sake (nothing really out of the box), Asahi beer and a few kinds of Japanese whisky, including one served as a cocktail. A few soft drinks (but not the famous “ramune” drinks, much to the despair of the child, who loves them) are also included.
Here’s an affordable outing! Donburi bowls retail for $13-$17; entrees will cost you between $4.50 and $7.
LeDon Donburi is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. Also Wednesdays and Thursdays during the day (noon to 3 p.m.). The place does not take reservations. Take-out orders are made by phone, on site or through the Skipthedishes platform.