Oxford has a new Japanese-style ramen restaurant and as a noodle-lover, I hurried over to Ramen Kulture in St Giles for a taste this weekend. Opening last Thursday, the ramen joint replaces short-lived NJF (Not Just Food) diner, previously St Giles Café.
There is now a Japanese vibe as you enter under the new sign and pass through the traditional curtains hanging over the doorway. It’s a bit disconcerting that the hot-dog diner décor remains unchanged (as does the owner I later learned), but then the staff greet you with the standard Japanese ‘Irrasshamiase’ welcome and hand out a menu of all-Japanese offerings. I went in just for ramen, but once there was tempted to try a range of dishes.
The centrepiece of my lunch was a big bowl of the Spicy Tonkotsu Ramen (£10.50). The combination was well balanced: firm noodles, meltingly soft-braised Chashu pork belly with its rim of fat, and a Nitamago egg (soft-boiled then marinated). The mushrooms, sweetcorn, and pickled ginger were tasty additions, though I didn’t locate the promised beansprouts. Kimchi added spice – not quite enough for my taste, though probably okay if heat isn’t really your thing.
But what about the all-important 12-hour broth?
A good pork-based Tonkotsu broth should be creamy and have a full-bodied texture thanks to the slow simmering of the bones full of marrow. This one was certainly golden-rich and the flavour was there. It might have slightly lacked the perfect intense meatiness that makes you savour each spoonful in joyful contemplation. But even if I wasn’t wowed into a respectful silence, it was a good soup and I ate it all quite happily.
I also tried the Duck Teriyaki Donburi (£11.50). What’s not to like about crispy roast duck in sweet teriyaki sauce topped with sesame? If you have a liking for meat + sweet, with an emphasis on the sweet, this is a dish for you. It was served simply over sticky white rice with a fried egg on the side. Getting a bite of the three elements together was a fine combination of sauce-lacquered meat, starch, and rich yolk. A bowl of salty edamame beans (£3.00) on the side was the perfect foil.
The final choice was Takoyaki Balls (£4.50), deep-fried octopus balls that are a popular street food originally from Osaka. The smooth interior had a seafood-ish rather than a particularly octopus quality and even the crispy exterior couldn’t rescue these snacks from being just a bit bland. They were the weak link in my lunch, but luckily dessert was a step back in the right direction. Instead of the mochi, I went for a bowl of black sesame ice cream (£3.00). It looked like cookies ‘n’ cream but actually had a lovely nutty sesame flavour that lingered pleasantly on my tongue.
Ramen Kulture in summary…
The meal had had a few imperfections (don’t we all) but happily ended on an upbeat note. Service was fast and friendly and before I knew it I was out the door with time to spare for the Oxfam bookshop down the street.
My view is that there can never be too many outlets serving hearty bowls of noodles around town; you never know when you might need a good soupy pick-me-up. I welcome Ramen Kulture’s arrival, for bringing Japanese comfort food to a St Giles venue that needed a boost. How do you say bon appétit in Japan?