On the menu at The Ramen Bar, there's an item called kae-dama. It costs €3, and there's a helpful asterisk indicating what this means, for customers who are new to the whole ramen thing. It says: "Kae- dama is when you have almost finished your first serving of ramen noodles and [are] still hungry for more. Say kae- dama and your server will quickly bring you a fresh, extra portion of noodles. Please keep enough soup so you can enjoy ordering the kae-dama."
After my lunch at The Ramen Bar, I'm finding it hard to believe that anyone ever says kae-dama there. And that's not because the noodles are no good - far from it, they are excellent - but because the portions are so enormous that I can't imagine anyone ever finishes even their initial serving.
Ramen is a phenomenon. Originating in Japan, the cult of the noodle has been taken up in the US, where last year the food magazine Lucky Peach published a guide to the 20 regional ramen of Japan. I have never been to Japan, and suspect that until my visit to The Ramen Bar that I have not eaten fresh ramen before. The Ramen Bar's noodles are made on the premises using a state-of-the-art machine imported from the city of Kagawa, the first of its kind in Ireland.
My only other knowledge of ramen derives from the movie Tampopo, known as the first 'ramen western'. The film explores the relationship between food and love. In one scene, two men sit at the counter of a ramen bar. The older of the two instructs his companion as to the correct way to eat ramen. "First," he says, "observe the whole bowl, appreciate its gestalt, savour the aromas… the jewels of fat glistening on the surface… the shinachiku roots shining… the seaweed slowly sinking… spring onions floating… concentrate on the three pork slices… they play the key role but stay modestly hidden. First caress the slices…" And on he goes.
I invited my American friend, Mei Chin, to join me for lunch. She is a food writer whose work has been published in Lucky Peach and other high-end publications. It's always a good idea to go to a restaurant with someone who knows more about the kind of food being served than you do - how else will you learn? - so I handed over the ordering duties to her.
Between us we tried three ramen dishes and two sides. The chicken kara-age is addictive, strips marinated in soy, ginger, garlic and mirin, and then deep-fried. A grown-up version of chicken nuggets but so much better. Chashu rice with pork - simple rice topped with meat, chashu sauce and mayonnaise - was tasty. Either of these would have made a filling meal on their own. Of the three ramen dishes that we tried, my favourite was the Kokoro tonkotsu black - tonkotsu soup (the pork and vegetable broth simmered for 14 hours until rich and creamy) with pork chashu, black garlic oil, green onion, dried nori seaweed and bean sprouts. The flavour from the black garlic was intense. We also tried the tonkotsu white - pork and chicken, and the spicy miso vegetable ramen. Mei added spiced eggs to each, which personally I found a bridge too far.
Afterwards, Mei wrote that finding actual Japanese ramen with homemade noodles in Dublin was mind-blowing. "It is miles ahead of any other place in Dublin, frankly. Plus it is a space where I, personally feel very comfortable. I would eat there regularly. It also might be an Asian-in-a-city thing, but I find a lot of comfort in the regular haunts: the places that aren't necessarily going to blow your mind, but the regular haunts that you go to to refuel.
"The broth needs to be improved; there needs to be more depth, and hopefully that can be sorted out. I wasn't sold on the black garlic as everyone else has been; but I think it was because the broth was meek, so therefore, the black garlic slightly overwhelmed. My personal preference is the miso ramen; which would be so much better if it had a rich pork stock (plus miso and butter) but I get that you can't please everyone. The noodles are really, truly lovely. As is, I think, the egg. Also the combinations are authentically Japanese."
With a couple of soft drinks, our bill came to €54.30, to which we added €10 for charming, efficient service. There was so much food left over that I asked for it to be packaged up for me to bring home, and there was enough in the leftovers for dinner for five of us. I decided to let the expert do the rating, and Mei gave the food nine out of 10, with the qualifier of that being in the Dublin context, where proper ramen has not existed until now.
ON A BUDGET
The cheapest ramen dish is the Kokoro torishio ramen (chicken broth, chicken chashu, pak choi, bean sprouts and spring onions) at €10. If you shared this and a portion of the chicken kara-age (€6.95), the bill for lunch for two would come to less than €20.
ON A BLOW OUT
It’s almost impossible to spend a lot of money at The Ramen Bar. The spicy salmon ramen costs €12.50, and if you had that with a side of pumpkin korokke, your bill would still be less than €20 per head.
THE HIGH POINT
Authenticity without pretension.
THE LOW POINT
The seasoned eggs. But that’s just me.
8/10 value for money
During the heady days of the Celtic Tiger, Ocean, on the ground floor of Millenium Tower on Charlotte Quay in Grand Canal Dock, was where it all happened on sunny evenings. More recently, the premises was home to the Mourne Seafood Bar. Now the space is being taken over by the Marc Bereen and the Coppinger Row (dish left) team, with Kilian Durkin (ex-Thorntons) in the kitchen. Expect simple Mediterranean-style plates with a hint of the Middle East when Charlotte Quay opens in early July. No better people to make that great location work.