The décor is minimalist to an extreme – all hard wooden surfaces painted in black and orange. Through an opening I can see the chef in his kitchen, brow furrowed in concentration.
Across from me my friend shifts nervously in his seat, takes another pull on his jasmine bubble tea. He leans over, and whispers that he actually doesn’t like ramen.
And stopping to think about it, I realize that neither do I. For me the dish connotes the grim austerity of student cooking, or perhaps a lukewarm pot noodle. A bland necessity. His distress is understandable, as we are dining at United Ramen, a restaurant that positively delights in upsetting such preconceptions.
The waitress brings over a plate of gently steaming gyoza. These Japanese dumplings are delicately spiced, filled with tofu, and is one of a few items on the menu that staunchly refuses to list its ingredients, liberating you from expectation and encouraging you to detect the flavours on your own terms.
The chef and founder of United Ramen is Aaron Resch, who saw in broth-and-noodle the perfect medium for blending typically distinct cuisines. This extends beyond Asian Fusion, with dishes such as the Yankee Doodle Ramen, which gleefully combines spiced buttered sweetcorn, BBQ pulled chicken, and slices of crispy bacon – the latter lain atop so as to prevent drowning. Aaron further honours his American-British roots with the wickedly named British Bulldog Ramen, though the meat in question is in fact rare roast beef.
Before our mains arrive we are each served a flight of sake, three small glasses of sweet rice wine (when ordering by the cup, you are invited to select from two dozen or so uniquely patterned glasses, of which several were stunning), the clean floral taste serving to complement each course in sequence. Excepting the more complex character of the Shusen (which is best enjoyed as a digestif), the sake also doubles as a quietly dignified palate cleanser.
The ramen arrives. I look down at a bowl of Spicy Salmon Kimchi Ramen, my right hand clutching chopsticks, for pincering, and my left a ladle, for slurping. It is hearty eating, both colourful and warming. My friend and I forget our reservations.
The geography of the bowl is very well defined, managing to keep each ingredient separate (spinach in one corner, kimchi another, beansprouts a third etc), that you might combine them at will, each bowl emblematic of the spirit of experimentation Aaron is so keen to incite. Moreover the crunch of beansprout, the springiness of noodles, the soft fermented cabbage, and the tender flaking salmon deliver a meal that is as texturally satisfying as it is sumptuous.
Following this sharp challenge to our prejudice come the first of the desserts; the Trio of Little Moons, each one a miniature scoop of ice cream contained within a skin of gelatinous, pounded sticky rice, a sweetmeat known as Mochi. Standout flavours are the mango-chilli (pleasantly fiery), and the yuzu, a Japanese citrus that recalls lemon and lime but is so much more. Much recommend.
I take a sip from the third glass of Sake, the Shusen; it tastes of the forest floor.
Last to arrive is a solitary scoop of black sesame ice cream, with wooden spoons. A soft charcoal grey, all aromatic nuttiness, carefully balanced between savoury and sweet. Describing this one is no substitute for experiencing it, please, you must.
United Ramen is located just off the green in the heart of the Angel, and you should go there.
United Ramen review by Loren Harway