Not so long ago, those of us who haunt the Northern Quarter on a regular basis were crying out for something new.
It is safe to say that the NQ is saturated with what we can most appropriately call American soul food, but there is one cuisine that has been massively under-represented.
Other than Cottonopolis, who have been fighting Japan’s corner for a couple of years now, Japanese food was nowhere to be seen in the Northern Quarter, which is something I could never get my head wrapped around with so many sushi-hungry hipsters walking the streets.
But just when we thought all hope was lost, two authentic Japanese food concepts opened up practically overnight, and they have been the talk of the town ever since. Being the open-minded and just woman that I am, I thought it only fair to try both out and tell my readers which one I preferred.
My original plan was to visit both and write separate reviews, expecting one to be considerably better than the other. I have since then had a slight change of plan and instead have decided to talk about them together because I couldn’t find faults in either.
Don’t get me wrong, they are quite different. Perhaps not in style (it seems minimalist concrete is very much in vogue right now), but certainly in substance. But how can ramen be that different, I hear you ask? Well, it turns out, quite considerably and I am going to tell you why.
Tokyo Ramen, which opened on Church Street just before Christmas has taken its menu down the more authentic route. Ramen, in its true sense, is designed to be eaten quickly and late at night. In Japan, it isn’t unusual to sit in a Ramen Bar, by yourself and slurp down a bowl of the good stuff before getting up and moving on with your day (or night).
Open between 12 pm and 3 pm and then again from 5 pm until late (or when they run out of the freshly stewed broth), Tokyo Ramen has a laid back authenticity about the place.
The menu is small and concise – 3 choices of ramen, 6 small plates and a handful of drinks. Frosty glasses are the vessel for the Asahi house beer (very fitting- might I add) and the interior is stripped back and basic with an open kitchen, metal chairs and small, intimate tables.
As for the ramen, long-established classics is the name of the game. Shouy Ramen (that’s the classic pork-bone broth with scorched pork belly with all the trimmings) Miso Ramen (mushrooms in a miso broth) and Tantanmen Chicken (fried chicken in a lightly curried broth) are the three choices. Each bowl is more delicious than the last, and each spoon of that delicious liquor will transport you to the streets of Tokyo upon every sip.
CBRB, short for Cocktail, Beer, Ramen + Bun is exactly what it says on the tin (or the signage as it was in this case). The offering, although simplified in the name, is a lot more complex than Tokyo Ramen down the road.
The Oldham Street site is bigger and less intimate but still manages to uphold a chilled, relaxed atmosphere that lets the food (and the drinks) really shine through.
Choosing from 5 different bowls of ramen, 6 small plates, 6 different Bao buns, and a plethora of extra bits to ‘pimp yo ramen’, it is safe to say the CBRB is more than just a Ramen bar. This restaurant is more of a homage to Pan-Asian cuisine as a whole. Expect dumplings, kimchi, mackerel and fennel Bao buns, Padron peppers, curry and all sorts of unusual bits that keep you on your toes.
On my visit, I couldn’t stay away from the Crab Tonkotsu Ramen which was built from pork broth spiked with crab curry, fried Padron peppers, spring onion, a whole soft shell crab, bonotio oil and coriander. Another mouth-watering choice is the Nagoya made with spicy gochujang broth with pork belly, crackling, minced pork, spring onion and chilli oil for a hot experience that is not for the faint of heart.
Cocktails are the other namesake of CBRB of which they are stunning. The menu is confident, modern and well thought out with a range of unusual ingredients. Ranging from £5-8 they are well priced and sophisticated and the perfect pairing to one of these avant-garde approaches to Ramen and Pan-Asian cuisine.
I don’t want my readers to think for a minute that I prefer one of these establishments over the other. I simply cannot choose, which is rather out of character for me if I am being completely honest.
The thing is, although they opened at roughly the same time, CBRB and Tokyo Ramen have two very separate things to offer.
Tokyo Ramen is not the kind of place you want to hang around for hours on end and that is totally the point. Authenticity and simplicity are at its very core and when it cost’s a king’s ransom to get a flight to Japan these days, Tokyo Ramen is satisfying a need we all never knew we had.
CBRB, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. Tradition is damned and replaced with experimental, eclectic and exciting flavours which really keep you guessing.
In short, Tokyo is the kind of place I want to take a date for something quiet and intimate, whereas CBRB is the place for a gaggle of friends catching up over a steaming bowl of ramen and one too many cocktails – which are both scenarios I thoroughly look forward to doing in the near future at these two epic restaurants.
Tokyo Ramen, 55 Church St, Manchester M4 1PD
Cocktail Beer Ramen + Bun, 101-103 Oldham St, Manchester M4 1LW