By Sandra Isaka
In the land of Sukiya, McDonalds, ramen shops, ramen shops and more ramen shops, a diamond in the rough can make all the difference. I can't say how I noticed it initially. At first glance it looks just like another shop along the endless strip-mall that is route 50. But then you look closer and see the bicycle on the front patio, the stained plate glass, the blackberry bush, and the meticulously designed rustic aesthetic. And then you see the name, Cafe Ragbag. My curiosity was struck, along with another more ethereal sense, I'll call it my cafe intuition. Ragbag turned out to be my oasis in the inaka of Chikusei-shi, Ibaraki.
Ragbag opened in 2006. It was owner Katsumi Yamazaki's childhood dream. He never went to school for cooking but definitely did his time in the kitchen. He had 15 cooking jobs from the age of 18 before finally becoming his own boss and making his own dishes. His unique culinary style is a hybrid of Italian, French, Spanish and, of course, Japanese. Choose from risotto, pizza, pasta, soup or salad. Or just come in and enjoy a rich cup of coffee or signature latte with a scone. The pastries are another unique and delicious feature of Ragbag. Rie Yajima, server, barista and baker, spends her mornings preparing bread, scones, cakes, cookies, macaroons and other marvels, while days and nights she cares for Ragbag's patrons.
Lunch offers several set menus including salad, drink, main course and dessert. Spend your lunch break with a book or talking with friends in this cozy cafe. Dinner, the highlight of Cafe Ragbag, brings a new menu and set options. While the one-person meal is fantastic, the multiple-person dinner sets get even better, because sharing is caring. For 1,700 yen 2 to 6 people get to choose from a variety of pizzas, pasta, and risotto entrees, drinks, salad, and dessert. In the pizza arena pick from a margherita (my personal favorite), Japanese style, three-cheese, or mozzarella tuna. Pastas include parmesan with olive oil or tomato sauce, bacon and black pepper in a cream sauce, shrimp garlic tomato, or my recommendation, gnocchi in a three-cheese cream sauce. And it's not over yet because the risottos are particularly savory. Take your pick from three-cheese, mushroom and tomato, or burnt saffron.
Once you decide on 2 or 3 of the entrees, depending on how many people are sharing, the feast begins. Salad comes first, but it is more of a small sampler plate that will excite every aspect of your palate. It is drizzled with lemon vinaigrette and parmesan, but there are also tempura yams, curried couscous, fresh vegetables, a sampler of delicately prepared seafood, and the dish that I dream of: mashed potatoes. I usually order the margherita or three-cheese pizza as one of my courses. I am a die hard pizza fan, and I have found not to expect too much from the pizzas I've had in Japan. However, Ragbag never disappoints. I do warn customers of Ragbag that fights can break out over equal sharing of pizza slices so please do your math before cutting the pizza, which Katsumi will leave in your capable hands.
Some advice for first timers at Ragbag: First, take your time when selecting from the menu. There is not a single dish that will not give your taste buds an amazing time. Second, take your time when eating. The food and the ambiance of Ragbag are perfect for a leisurely dinner spent in conversation and delighting over the various subtleties and nuances. And last, save room for dessert. Each set comes with a scoop of Ragbag's house-made yogurt sherbet, and there are many other desserts and pastries to savor over after-dinner coffee.
So give this lovely, little cafe a try. If you live in the Chikusei City area it is a local treasure, and if you don't it is well worth a drive. Bon appétit.
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