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Salt, Fat, Neon Hell Photos courtesy of NeoTokyo.

Salt, Fat, Neon Hell

Montreal’s cyberpunk-themed ramen restaurant speaks to a cultural fascination with a high-tech future; maybe its flavour is a little off.

After five years of anticipation and Covid-related delays, this January saw the grand opening of Neotokyo on the edge of Old Montreal. The Japanese noodle bar is the brainchild of Yann Levy, the prominent restaurateur behind local spots like the izakaya joint Biirū and popular Mexican eatery Escondite, and Ilan Benhaim, a Paris-based investor and self-described “business angel.” The restaurant’s recipes are designed in collaboration with chef Shigetoshi Nakamura, whose acclaimed noodles have been served in over one hundred restaurants. Neotokyo’s success has seemed inevitable since its announcement, almost independently of the prospective quality of its food. It’s enjoyed glowing press coverage since 2021, well before anyone had eaten there, thanks to a killerhook: “Montreal’s cyberpunk ramen restaurant.” Considering the genre’s pessimism and violence, firmly anti-corporate origins and questionable relationship to food, the choice to theme a restaurant around cyberpunk raises questions around what its founders appreciate about the genre in the first place—and who they envision Neotokyo is for.

The cyberpunk genre coalesced in the eighties and nineties with the release of books like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and films like Blade Runner, Akira and Ghost in the Shell. These stories, set in the polluted megacities of the then-future (now-present), highlight lower-class outlaws using surreal tech to spar with brutal police and military. The genre dramatizes American and Japanese corporatism with ­cyborgs and flying cars to warn of the underlying dangers of techno-capitalist surveillance states. As Ryan Zickgraf puts it in Jacobin, “cyberpunk fiction predicted the opposite [of the techno-utopian fantasy]: that science and technological innovation under postindustrial capitalism would supercharge humanity’s worst instincts.” The original cyberpunk works aligned themselves with workers and outcasts, the seedy underbelly who occupy the night—hence the genre’s unofficial slogan, “high tech, low life.”

Cyberpunk has become virtually inescapable over the past few years, thanks to its iconic visual style and increasing relevance as our socio-political conditions deteriorate despite unrelenting advancements in tech. Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell continue to get sequels and spin-offs; fashion houses like Supreme and Comme des Garçons release collections featuring Akira’s futuristic hellscapes. The ambitious open-world action game Cyberpunk 2077, in which a protagonist navigates a violent high-tech landscape in order to remove a microchip from their head, was one of the most anticipated releases of 2020. Neotokyo may have chosen the perfect gimmick for this decade.

The restaurant has garnered coverage in La Presse, Eater, MTL Blog, Time Out and more; on Fridays, lines form outside before it opens for dinner. It’s tough to get a table as they don’t take reservations, so my partner and I head over to see what all the hype is about on a Tuesday evening. We exit the metro at Square-Victoria-OACIand walk a few blocks down a damp, windy Avenue Viger. The dull strip is populated mostly by anonymous grey office towers, and it’d be completely silent if not for the sound of distant cars splashing through puddles. But when we arrive at the restaurant, its glass doors open to a flood of noise and colour.

Exposed wires and ventilation ducts run across the high ceiling, from which red-and-white lamps and paper lanterns dangle over the tables. The lights are covered in chalky white Japanese text, as is practically every other surface in the room—the walls, the pillars, the floors. Blocky white graffiti reading “RAMEN” runs down a wall. There’s neon signage everywhere—a staple of the cyberpunk genre—most notably over the kitchen, where an illustration of a pair of chopsticks grabbing noodles from a huge red bowl shines down. I knew what to expect after perusing the restaurant’s Instagram feed, but I’m surprised by how different it feels in person—a little overwhelming when taken as a jam-packed whole.

Within this medley, the true centrepiece is the restaurant’s counter, a recreation of the iconic White Dragon noodle bar from Blade Runner. It practically begsto be photographed, running almost the entire length of the restaurant, with elevated red barstools and backlit panels overhead advertising Coca-Cola and Asahi beer. Sleek and highly curated, Neotokyo reframes the grimy, hyper-capitalist dystopias of cyberpunk as a picture-perfect aesthetic.

Levy has a keen eye for presentation and developed Neotokyo’s concept himself. All of his restaurants are meticulously arranged and vibes-forward—and Neotokyo isn’t the only one that takes liberties with its source material. His approach is culture-agnostic, appropriating elements from various international cuisines and combining them to create intentionally inauthentic dishes like “Monterey Jack and jalapeño gyoza” and “Mexican General Tao cauliflower.” Escondite’s South Shore location features a mural of Frida Kahlo-esque figures with face tattoos reading “FUCK HATE” and “EL BARTO” (Bart’s graffitiing alter-ego in The Simpsons). His colourful and edgy designs are aggressively Instagrammable—every wall is a backdrop. It’s an excellent marketing strategy that’s led me and many others to several of his restaurants in the past. Neotokyo’s photo-readiness was the pitch from the start, more fundamental to its concept, and its success, than the food itself.

Even my food feels more like decor. When our starter of takoyaki (battered octopus balls) arrives, I’m stunned by its presentation: six perfectly-browned balls stacked to form a mountain, with a drizzle of two different sauces, and green onions and birch-bark curls of bonito flake sprinkled overtop. But when we dig in, I’m disappointed to find the octopus uncommonly tough and the dish lacking in flavour. The sauces are only spread on the topmost layer, with the balls underneath left bland. Similarly, my cocktail—a highlighter-yellow concoction troublingly named “Vista del Rey” after a poverty-afflicted, tumultuous neighbourhood in the world of Cyberpunk 2077—is dazzling, but so sickly-sweet I can barely drink half. I feel duped; these dishes were prepared for my camera and not my taste buds. Worse yet, it worked—I snap pictures of everything in sight, food included, and they all come out great.

Our main courses thankfully offset my disappointment. I order the classic tonkotsu, or pork bone broth, ramen; the broth is light and delicate, but meaty and garlicky, and absolutely delicious. Toppings are surprisingly scant: I have a mountain of tender noodles for a meagre scattering of pork slices, half an egg and garnishes. My partner gets theTaiwanese mazesoba, a brothless noodle dish with an egg yolk on top. They call it an “absolute flavour-bomb,” and report that the yolk creates a nice sauce without overpowering the beefiness or spice.

Despite the quality noodles, I remain skeptical of Neotokyo’s premise. “Cyberpunk” and “restaurant” is an awkward pairing: cyberpunk stories almost never place an emphasis on food. In Blade Runner, the sequence with the White Dragon is the sole instance in which food appears on-screen, when Harrison Ford’s Deckard, a begrudging Los Angeles police officer, joylessly eats a bowl of unseasoned noodles on his way to work. By the events of Blade Runner 2049, a sequel set thirty years later, conventional agriculture has become impossible on Earth, and people subsist on bioengineered mealworms. Insects are also culinary staples in Snowpiercer, where they’re ground into protein bars, and Cyberpunk 2077, where they’re passed off as beef. In cyberpunk’s worlds, food exists for survival, not enjoyment.

Beyond that, the genre is frequently stomach-churning. Gratuitous violence is the core of its social commentary—characters are constantly breaking limbs, smashing through windows and spitting up blood. In Blade Runner, antagonist Roy, a rogue replicant (artificial human) turned terrorist, kills tech mogul Eldon Tyrell by snapping his neck, then pressing his thumbs deep into his eye sockets until blood spurts from his eyes. At the end of Akira, high school student Shotaro watches in horror as his best friend Tetsuo’s body balloons into a gargantuan tumour of flesh and machinery—countless new fingers and eyes form in melting waves of his skin; blue wires wriggle like earthworms across the surface. Cyberpunk envisions a bleak future, a far cry from the slick nightlife that Neotokyo presents. It’s hard to imagine the characters in these worlds mustering much of an appetite after witnessing such horrors.

Cyberpunk’s recent rise in popularity has required some sanitization, and it’s not just Neotokyo doing it. The newest wave of cyberpunk media aims for mainstream appeal by dampening the genre’s anti-capitalist messaging and emphasizing eighties references. This tactic is best exemplified by 2015 absurdist action-comedy Kung Fury, which uses cyberpunk’s gritty-neon aesthetic while purging it of any meaning. The film pokes fun at media that tries to convey deeper messages, typically through over-the-top fighting sequences: the protagonist, a heroic ex-cop, first faces off against a sentient arcade cabinet, shooting it in the head, and then kills a criminal by kicking him into an exploding oil tanker. Its ultraviolence, and references to action and sci-fi films, is pure entertainment and nothing more. Kung Fury rode a hodgepodge of eighties tropes to viral fame, banking on audiences being content to dwell in nostalgia. Neotokyo employs the same strategy—though less bombastically, more refined. Levy’s vision for the restaurant seems more like a version of cyberpunk recalled from a childhood memory of catching Blade Runner on TV than a genuine homage—it foregoes the genre’s key themes, but retains its distinctive visual flairs: neon, concrete, Japanese text, corporatism. The parts that office workers can admire as cool without risking any cognitive dissonance.

Neotokyo’s cyberpunk aesthetic is shallow by necessity—a menu full of mealworms and insect bars probably wouldn’t sell well—but it mostlyworks. The much-hyped replica of Blade Runner’s noodle bar is fun, and opens onto a glistening all-metal kitchen—as we all know, everything is chrome in the future. A projection of koi fish swim on the ceiling above me, flickering like an old TV. Although the neon signs feel a little excessive—does one restaurant really need four?—I’ll admit they do wonders to build an atmosphere, one that had to be constructed without any real guidance. Since cyberpunk media doesn’t care much for food, there’s little direction on decorating a restaurant in the genre’s style. Even the noodle counter in Blade Runner is only a counter, an outdoor eight-seater without waitstaff. To fill in the blanks, Neotokyo incorporates American diner elements like undecorated white plates and ultra-simple black-text-on-printer-paper menus. This is theoretically a brilliant pairing that suits cyberpunk’s retrofuturism, but in practice, it feels cheap.

Often missed in discussions of cyberpunk is that the two halves of the genre’s “high tech, low life” mantra exist in conflict with one another. The high tech of cyberpunk universes is built to the specifications of its fictional oligarchs and levied to controlthe lower classes. Flying cars are piloted by militarized police, replicants are exploited and holograms are most often seen in garish advertisements.

The working people of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles don’t inhabit the glossy skyscrapers of its aerial sequences; anyone who could afford to live in them has long since left the planet. Instead, most people live further down, in dilapidated  apartment blocks. There, the world’s futuristic tech does nothing to mask the decay. In the original movie, engineer J. F. Sebastian builds cyborgs in a regal old building with no lights and perpetually-wet floors. In the sequel, replicant Officer K’s neighbours burn garbage-can fires in the stairwell while he unwinds with his holographic AI girlfriend.

These poverty-afflicted spaces have little in common with the cyberpunk we often imagine, but they’re probably the most prescient elements of the whole genre. My friend’s place in Côte-des-Neiges has voice-controlled lights and a gaping hole in the ceiling. Other friends beg for rent money on dedicated begging apps. The tech isn’t inherently evil, but it underlines the absurdity of our conditions. These flashy technological advancements haven’t brought about a utopian future free of class inequality, they’ve just accumulated among the wreckage. It’s hard to imagine workers in the Blade Runner universe feeling much affection for the flying cars that chase them down, or the neon lights that keep them up at night. It’s worth asking: if Neotokyo imagines a cyberpunk world, whose world is it?

As if to answer that question, Neotokyo is located in the same building as Google’s new Montreal offices. Their doors are maybe thirty feet apart, and from what I can tell, they’re the only two businesses in the building. On the night I’m there the restaurant is full of techy types, joking and unwinding after a day at work. A man facing away from me wears a zip-up hoodie with a green wi-fi symbol on the back. His table seems right at home. As my cocktail kicks in—it may not have been good, but it was strong—I’m grateful for my corner seat. Nobody’s made me feel unwelcome per se, but I know I’m solidly outside Neotokyo’s target demographic.

As the tech industry spreads to every corner of Montreal and other major cities, pushing workers out of their historic neighbourhoods, I can’t pretend Neotokyo’s gritty set-dressing—the exposed ceiling and commissioned graffiti, the high-tech dystopia it gestures toward—only points to fictional worlds. Class war is real, and I’m sitting in a theme-park version of it. When I overhear women at the table next to us agreeing that “2023 is the year of being selfish”, I stifle a laugh and ask my partner if we can head home.

Once I pay the bill, we waste no time in bundling up and leaving. I’m struck by how quiet the Old Montreal street is: barely any pedestrians are out, and no cars at all. The restaurant is packed, and has been for over an hour; where do all these customers go when they’re finished? Walking through the business district to the metro, I get my answer in a feeling that the wealthy have already left this world behind. Towering office buildings sit empty as professionals opt to work remotely. Entire lives can be lived at home now, through a layer of techno-abstraction; working, shopping and ordering food through a screen, with the added comfort of solitude. Many people who still work in the physical world do so out of necessity—warehouse clerks, line cooks and delivery drivers can’t readily be digitized, though tech entrepreneurs will surely try. Their physical labour enables white-collar workers to transcend their bodies and live in a world where all labour is invisible, where the push of an “order” button can discreetly summon a package as if by magic. Directly beneath my feet, people on the metro commute home in noisy metal boxes. Up here, it’s silent. As technology evolves to shield the rich from the masses, we may need to consider that despite surface appearances, the worlds Neotokyo imitates aren’t so alien.

The existence of restaurants like Neotokyo is dystopian in its own, boring, way. Businesses set squarely in a neglected physical world, trying to garner acclaim by molding themselves into a fictional one. The result is fine—a nice distraction for a few hours, and probably exciting for hardcore fans of Blade Runner. But if you’re downtown and craving ramen, alternatives surround you on all sides. I’d recommend just about any of them before Neotokyo, not only for better food, but for better ambience—their low ceilings and wood panelling give the spaces a real, physical coziness. Maybe they don’t play as well on Instagram—the overhead lights are a little harsh, so photos don’t come out right. But enjoy them for what they are: increasingly rare spaces built for us, and not our machines. ⁂

Lily Alexandre is a writer and filmmaker based in Montreal. She creates video essays on how the internet disrupts our ideas about art and gender, and edits for indie production studio Depanneur Films. She is a devout lesbian with two cats, as is custom.