Less than a year after opening Ruyi Japanese Steak House on Arsenal Street, the owners, Neil and Jane Shi, have opened a second Watertown restaurant, in Top of the Square Plaza where Court and Arsenal streets meet just off Public Square.
You know you're going to experience something special from the moment you enter Ruyi Asian Fusion. Water trickles down a huge mosaic waterfall in the center of the room, serving as a core for the circular arrangement of the tables.
Tropical fish swim around in a wishing pond at the bottom.
Beaded-string dividers separate the dining area from the sushi bar. Inventive lighting draws attention to the fully stocked bar. Shiny, acrylic-covered pennies — thousands of them — make up the bar top itself.
Sophisticated. Beautiful. Adorable.
Pinch me. Am I really in Watertown?
A quick stop at the classy bar was in order. There's no beer on draft, but there's plenty by the bottle. Two Japanese favorites, Sapporo and Kirin Ichiban were slowly poured for us into tall glasses. A good selection of wines by the glass, too — we enjoyed a Mirassou Chardonnay. Our bartender was busy making martinis for others.
A very accommodating host prepared a table for the five of us next to the waterfall, setting multipaged menus at each place setting. Folded pink cloth napkins were placed on small, square white plates; each held a pair of paper-wrapped bamboo chopsticks and a fork.
The menu, while heavy on Japanese foods like sushi, sashimi, rolls and tempura, also included quite a few Chinese choices as well as a sprinkling of Thai and other Asian fare.
Presentation is part of the deal here, and it's done well; our selections were all attractively arranged on plates or platters. Sharing is also easy since many of the selections consist of many small pieces.
Except for the sushi platter ($19). Eight "chef's choice" pieces of raw fish over sticky rice were lined up, marching down a lovely, dark green bamboo leaf. It was a nice assortment — yellowtail, salmon, white tuna and mackerel. Until someone at the table got the brilliant idea to cut them in half with a fork.
Now we had hunks of raw fish scattered around lumps of sushi rice, and five pairs of chopsticks making feeble, fumbling attempts at picking up our first of many Ruyi specialties. At least the California roll that came on the platter was cut into six easily negotiated pieces.
Soups got us back on track. They were supplied with flat-bottomed Chinese soup spoons.
Miso soup ($2.50), a Japanese culinary staple, had flavorful, almost smoky broth with bits of tofu, wakame (seaweed), scallions and shiitake mushroom floating around in it.
It was delicate and flavorful.
We were very impressed with the spicy Thai lemongrass soup ($6). A large bowl had evidence of chili oil floating on top — spicy, yes, but not enough to blow the top of your head off. Deep in the bowl were a shrimp and scallop or two, a little bundle of rice noodles and mushrooms in a piquant broth with overtones of lemongrass and cilantro.
It was dinnertime, and there are over a dozen fancy entrées utilizing chicken, duck, snapper and filet mignon ($15 to $22). But with over 100 other options that included soups, salads, appetizers, sushi, sashimi and specialty rolls, we decided to stick to that portion of the menu. More tastes to share, kinda like an Asian smorgasbord.
Here's what we tried:
nVietnamese summer roll ($6):What a delight — a salad in a roll! Lots of fresh greens, even some arugula, along with a slice of mango and a little shrimp, rolled up in softened rice paper. Two rolls were cut on the bias, displayed like little towers, surrounded with a circle of sweet chili sauce.
nShrimp dumplings ($5.50):Very good shrimp-filled, delicate steamed dumplings. Several steps up from the prefab Chinese dumplings you get at those buffet places.
nKani salad ($8):Now this was a real salad. Thin strips of crab mixed with finely diced cucumber and avocado was mixed together with mayonnaise. It was attractively served over mixed greens and sprinkled with tobiko (red flying fish roe).
nCrunchy spicy mango tuna tartare ($9):Tuna tartare with a twist. Billed as "Ruyi's modern creation," finely chopped raw tuna is mixed with diced fresh mango along with an interesting crunch provided by quickly deep-fried Panko breadcrumbs, all held together with a citrus mango "dressing." But not at all spicy.
nSamurai roll ($12.99):Let's get daring! This one has eel in it. Well, actually, on it. It was a pretty traditional nori (seaweed)-wrapped roll, filled with cucumber and avocado along with sushi rice. You have to look carefully, but on the outside, it's draped with tiny slices of eel that almost disappear into the green nori. Two nice tempura-coated shrimp, tails in the air, completed the plate.
nKing lobster roll ($17):"Soybean and seaweed wrap with lobster, avocado, cucumber, lettuce and spicy mayo, deep-fried on the outside." I guess, for $17, you might expect a whole lobster on a platter. The roll was attractively served, and we appreciated the unique wrap (even though it wasn't deep-fried), but we were hard-pressed to catch even a glimmer of lobster flavor. The sliced pieces of roll were a bit bulky and didn't hold together well when attacked with the razor-like precision of our chopsticks.
nChicken pad thai ($9):Here's a staple from Thailand, a slightly greasy noodle dish with bits of chicken, maybe a little egg, even some nuts. But mainly wide noodles, much like fettuccini. It reminded us of lo mein. The plate was garnished with salad greens, crushed peanuts and bean sprouts in little mounds around the main dish.
nChilean sea bass yakitori ($8.50):Bite-sized chunks of sea bass alternating with squares of green and red sweet pepper were skewered, daubed with teriyaki, and grilled. Sea bass is a luscious, buttery fish, and here it fulfilled its destiny. Thick teriyaki was provided for dipping. Top of the list for next time.
Dessert? Yeah, let's just keep going.
nCheesecake tempura ($4.99):While tempura is a batter coating usually associated with appetizers, who would think of it with desserts? The cheesecake was the dense, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth consistency. They forgot the strawberry topping — which would have helped cut the somewhat greasy tempura taste.
nOreo tempura ($5.99):OK, 86 the cheesecake. What a revelation. Oreos are seriously one of the greatest food achievements ever. Who would have thought this food of the gods could be improved with a little batter and a quick dunk in the fryer? Think of it as an extra layer of happiness, finished with a drizzle of chocolate sauce and a side of vanilla ice cream topped with whipped cream — while still maintaining the trademark Oreo taste and texture.
An evening for five at Ruyi Asian Fusion cost $124.83 before gratuity and before figuring in beverages.
Our server, Echo, was pleasant, attentive and helpful, with an accent that required some attention on our part, adding to the evening's ambiance.
Be aware in advance: Some of the menu descriptions do not exactly conform to the dishes served. Nonetheless, everything we tried was fresh-tasting and exquisitely presented.
Ruyi is a downtown restaurant that's long overdue. Décor, originality, newness, friendliness and food freshness — a touch of a big city in our little city. We hope you'll stop by and support this new venture.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ruyi Asian Fusion
111 Court St. (Top of the Square Plaza)
Sophisticated. Beautiful. Adorable.
The menu, while heavy on Japanese foods like sushi, sashimi, rolls and tempura also includes Chinese, Thai and other Asian fare.
HOURS: 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday
10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Noon to 9:30 p.m. Sunday
OUR PICKS: Spicy Thai soup; Vietnamese summer rolls, Kani salad; samurai roll, Chilean sea bass yakitori, Oreo tempura
RATING: 4 FORKS