There might be very few things better in this world than a salty, hot, carb-heavy ramen, followed by a sweet, sharp, cool green tea ice cream.
And there might not be many places in Dubai who are doing it better than Chef Shinji Tan iuchi at Bento-ya Kitchen on Sheikh Zayed Road.
With four tables downstairs and five upstairs, Bento-ya lives in a Dubai of old, oblivious to advances in central air-conditioning and interior design. I’ve been going through a phase of enjoying and understanding the restaurants that make up the heart and soul of Dubai’s quiet food revolution. It’s not like I am on a mission to become a voice for the culinary unheard, a Luke Cage of the restaurant world, but it is certainly necessary to recognize their importance to this wonderful industry.
On the streets of Deira, the lower corridors of JLT and the backside pavements of SZR, hundreds and hundreds of restaurants open their doors every day, and provide a livelihood to their cooks, owners, serving staff and their families.
Sure, these big openings with big name chefs and superstar managers are important, high profile, and certainly enjoyable. However, for every one of those, there are twenty other restaurants industriously grafting away at their kitchen ranges, hidden from the spotlight of the media and the PR machines who follow lucrative restaurant accounts like vultures circling the Serengeti.
When I announced that I wanted ramen to the Serb, she glanced up from painting her nails with a bemused expression. I immediately knew what she was thinking, and I assured her it was much more complicated and sophisticated than just a pot noodle. Alas – the damage was done – she was already putting away her nail polish. Ramen clearly doesn’t warrant fancy nails.
Ramen is a wonderfully simple yet complex dish – much like pizza, experts will sometimes argue for their entire lifetimes, about what is the perfect ramen – and no-one is ever right. I am not going to even attempt to sound like an authority on this magnificent dish; such is its complexity. I even read somewhere that rice is the dutiful wife that you can rely on and ramen is the flirty mistress you slip away to visit. Or maybe that was Vietnamese Pho – I can’t remember.
The menu is typical Japanese – image heavy, laminated and with super functional descriptions. Never will you see fancy menu descriptions in real Japanese restaurants. No organic, high welfare miso or heirloom quinoa katsu curries on these kinds of menus.
We arrived early to an empty restaurant and clomped up the stairs to the small dining room upstairs. The décor is really not worth discussing, so I won’t. They had tables, chairs and chop sticks. That’s enough.
We ordered chicken gyoza, and dashi tamago to start. Seven is a lucky number for the Japanese – they celebrate the seventh day after a baby’s birth, for example, and Bento-ya also serve their gyoza in seven pieces. No idea if they are linked, but I like to think they are. Bento-ya’s gyoza is homemade, and has a slightly sticky skin with a fragrant, light minced chicken filling. The dashi tamago is a Japanese omelet, which is made by cooking thin layers of egg in a square wok, and layering them over and over again, until you get a thick brick of delicate egg layers. Sounds weird. It is.
My chicken ramen was shoyu or soy flavoured, with a thick, rich chicken broth packed with emulsified fats, minerals, proteins and flavours. The noodles were thick and eggy; not quite purist ramen noodles, but they are freshly made on a daily basis and allow the broth to cling to them as you slurp them up, from the depths of your bowl.
It was a filling, highly satisfying broth, with a wonderfully marinated soft boiled egg, a sheet of nori seaweed and noodles. The chicken was a little overcooked and crumbled at the prod of a chopstick – I think a nicely sliced breast laid on top of the glistening broth would have made this a magical meal – but a chicken ramen isn’t really about the chicken.
However, I slurped and sucked like a noisy caveman, confident in the knowledge that this is how real Japanese people eat ramen to show appreciation. Until I was reminded that I wasn’t Japanese, we weren’t in Japan, and no angry Japanese people were staring at me.
The Serb, not really getting into the spirit of things, wanted edamame, (pfff) and ordered a bento box, with teriyaki chicken and sticky rice. The teriyaki glaze was not made with mirin as it should be, but it was still sweet and sticky and held a good flavour. The meat was thigh meat, fatty, flavourful and as it should be for teriyaki chicken.
As the meal progressed, more and more people arrived for lunch, and the majority of those people were Japanese, which is the best advert for a Japanese restaurant. If your Chinese restaurant is filled with Korean customers, you know something’s wrong with your Cha Han. (yes, I know.)
Left on the table for the entire meal was a single laminated picture card titled rather flirtatiously ‘Silky Ice Cream from Japan’ which would be more at home in Tecom, stuck in a car door window. The Japanese are flavour fiends, and ice cream flavours like red bean, or purple sweet potato would make even Heston blush.
The ever adventurous Serb chose chocolate ice cream with almonds. Crazy. I went for the green tea ice cream and don’t regret it for a moment. It was the perfect end to a clean, honest meal. Plus its green tea – it sounds healthy.
Bento-ya Kitchen is a great little place to slip away to when you are craving a ramen and ice cream. And who knows, they might even make a ramen flavoured ice cream one day.