Robata Of Maplewood: Sushi, Ramen Yakatori Review

“A bowl of ramen is a self-contained universe with life from the sea, the mountains, and the earth. All existing in perfect harmony. Harmony is essential. What holds it all together is the broth. The broth gives life to the ramen.” (Maezumi – The Ramen Girl 2008)

Like most Americans I was introduced to the wonderful world of ramen via a tiny cellophane wrapped package.  Located in the soup aisle on the bottom shelf, rows upon rows of ramen in every possible flavor a kid would want.  Beef, chicken, shrimp, oriental.  And for the more adventurous, creamy chicken, chili, roast beef.  Plus growing up poor in the heart of the Midwest it was also cheap.  Like $.10 a package cheap.  So there was the allure of the crinkly package with the mystery foil pouch.  But was it true ramen? To me then yes I would say it was ramen but after last night?  It would be remiss of me to say yes after eating at one of the new ramen shops located in St. Louis, MO.  Robata in Maplewood.

Nestled into a tiny converted Church’s chicken sits Robata of Maplewood with its floor to ceiling glass windows and obscure parking lot.  Robata of Maplewood is the first of its kind in the tiny little borough but is part of a rapid growing trend in the St. Louis metropolitan area and it is a welcome addition to the culinary scene here.

It caters to the dinner crowd, opening its doors at 5 pm and closing at 11 pm Monday through Thursday and 5 pm through 12 am Friday and Saturday.  The quaint restaurant seats 35 patrons and offers a variety of sitting from bar style to table which flank both the kitchen where you can watch the hustle and bustle of the chefs working the line in a kitchen no larger then half my bedroom or alongside the glass windows which offer up a view of the patio as well as Manchester Avenue.   The genius behind Robata are the former owners of the now closed Sekisui, husband and wife team Thom and Emily Chantharasy so needless to say, given my long standing patronage of Sekisui, I was more then ecstatic to experience and subsequently enjoy the culinary treats of this new venue.

Upon arriving we were immediately greeted by one of the servers who inquired as to whether or not we wanted to sit at the bar or at one of the tables located to the right of the door.  Normally I’d want to sit at the bar to watch the preparation of the meals but I diverted from my traditional seating and opted to sit in the small and cozy dining area.  Due to the cold weather outside and the comfortable temperature inside, the ceiling tall windows were covered in condensation and provided a rather unique albeit unintentional water feature to our dining experience. The restaurant was near full capacity yet did not seem to be inundated with noise from the conversations had at each of the individual tables.  It was cozy yet did not feel cramped with that busy bustle feeling that did not make one think they were intruding.  The longest we waited was 3 minutes for our water while both Kyle and I glanced over the over sized menus with a child like enthusiasm. Almost immediately I squealed with delight as I noticed the a la carte menu.  Listed were the traditional St Louis tempura options: shrimp, crab stick, mushrooms, asparagus, broccoli and my personal favorite, sweet potato. As we sipped our hot green tea and choice caffeinated iced beverages we perused the menu with an unfiltered enthusiasm.  Deep fried garlic, tempura soft shell crab, bacon enoki yakatori it all looked so good.  It all dragged you further and further down the menu, but our goal was the ramen.

They offer three different broth types: pork broth, chicken and vegetarian.  Kyle being the porcine lover and supporter that he is quickly opted for first option and chose the tonkotsu to be the broth vessel in which his ramen experience would be voyaged.  Proclaimed to be the most holy grails of ramen broth it displays a thick, creamy nearly white in color flavor adventure obtained from the pork marrow bones which had been cooked to oblivion and back.  Each bowl came with the “standard” ramen fillers of roast pork, spinach, a lovely halved hard boiled egg with a still somewhat soft yolk, seasoned bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, nori, red ginger and kikurage (wood ear mushrooms).  That in and of itself is a sure palate pleaser yet Robata offers even more tantalizing toppings ranging from pork gyozo (fried) and takana (pickled mustard greens)..  You were only limited by either your wallet ($8.95 for a basic bowl and no additional topping being more then $4.75 for scallops) or your aversion to going outside your comfort box and well lets face it.  If you’re at a ramen shop in the middle of Maplewood at 7:30 on a Wednesday and your main staples are White Castles or Taco Bell then you’re already out of your comfort zone and I commend you for it.  Along with the cornicopia of toppings as well as broth types you are also given four options in noodle style from regular cut, thin cut, fat cut and for an additional $1.95 rice noodles.  I opted for the corn miso with the add ins of kimchi and takana as I love pickled and sweet vegetables and felt it would be a beautiful accompaniment to the.

ramen

 As we talked of our day and enjoyed our appetizers we were quickly gifted two large bowls of steaming hot ramen, our mouths forming perfect little cherub o’s as we let our eyes wander over the the humble feast before us. Our conversation quickly went quiet as we attempted to the best strategy in which to consume the luscious noodles and broth.  Remembering recent episodes of “In the Mind of the Chef” i recalled Chef David Chang saying that eating ramen was not a graceful act as you are more shoveling your noodles into your mouth bite after bite.    Kyle quickly opted for the mixing of toppings option where I preferred to obtain a little of each in every chopstick full.  The kimchi and takana played perfectly with the chicken based broth of the corn miso.  The little kernels of sweet corn burst in my mouth contently and provided a necessary crunchy component to the harmony of delicately steamed vegetables.  The constant chatter from the other tables seemed to fade away into the background.  There was nothing but these never ending bowls of ramen before us.  As Kyle finished his bowl I leaned back in my chair to see the dent I had made and I was astonished at how much I had left.  Not because I didnt like it but because it was that filling.  Our waiter quietly presented us with our check and as I asked for a to go container he quickly whisked my bowl away and brought it back in a plain white soup container.  Our total bill for the two of us was only $42.90 which is less then what we normally spend at a sushi restaurant for a nice dinner.  We were thanked for our patronage and told to come back soon as we journeyed back out into the cold dark night of St Louis in January with our bellies full and a lighter happier mood at the notion that the following day I’d be able to enjoy the ramen all over again at my job for lunch.

All in all our experience at Robata was stellar.  The proximity of the tables to each other did not take away from our experience.  It actually enhanced our experience as we were able to exchange conversation with our neighbors without feeling as though we were intruding.  The food while humble in origin was not lacking in flavor or presentation.  The portion size was amazing for the price and the serving staff personable and inviting.  It is a place worth visiting and worth visiting again and again be it for a special occasion or just as a adventure destination for dinner.  Not wanting to wait in line?  Call ahead and place a pick up order.  Kyle and I plan on going back and enjoying the sushi and yakatori along with more delicious bowls of ramen.  Hope you discover this little gem and enjoy what the steamed up windows have to offer.

Robata in Maplewood is conveniently located at 7260 Manchester Rd, Maplewood, MO 63143

Advertisements

The divinity of porcine

There is no love lost between me and this even toed ungulate.  I’ve never been partial to the swine.  One to many canned hams coated in a gelatinous goo that turned a stomach and made one green in the gills.  No, me and pork will never be Facebook friends.  I will however use it to experiment with.  My beloved Kyle however is a huge supporter of the Suidea family.  Serve it up as chops, ribs, bacon, sausage, slathered in gravy, shoved in a tin and called SPAM the boy loves it.

It had to have been a few months ago when I first started toying with the notion of experimenting with pork belly.  I recall it was around the time i was making roasted butternut squash gnudis (totally different blog post but sooo damn good!!!).  A local osteria here had been posting videos on line which featured items served in their restaurant and there was a pairing of butternut squash gnudi and smoked braised pork belly.  Color me intrigued.  I promptly went out and purchased 2 pork bellies at the local Asian market (I live for that place) and then put them in the freezer and promptly forgot about them.  A few days ago whilst digging through freezer bags filled with roasted tomato puree, marinara sauce, roasted butternut squash puree and persimmons i came across both bags of pork belly and immediately wanted to play with them.  But what to do.  It was pouring rain outside.  The idea of setting up my chiminea for smoking sounded as inviting as a sudden outbreak of shingles and I haven’t yet purchased my stove top smoke box.  So what was a kid to do to inundate this slaughter slab of sow with flavor.  And then it dawned on me.  Why not dry age it.  You always hear of dry aged beef but not a whole lot about pork.  After doing some research (link provided at the end of this blog) and reading up on the process I quickly found a dry rub that I felt would provide me with that smokey taste as well as a (hopefully) a good bark.

I quickly went to my pantry and pulled out a plethora of herbs.  Whole coriander seeds, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, star anise, whole black peppercorn, smoked paprika, things that I thought would imbue and permeate the pork belly with flavor without taking from the richness of the fatty piece of meat.  A quick toast in a dry skillet and a few whirls of my magic bullet and I had an aromatic rub that cleared my sinuses for days.

 

I “carefully” scored the skin of the pig in a criss cross pattern, being mindful to not cut to deeply into the meat and then applied a generous amount of scotch bonnet sea salt.  salting

Then….chaos.  I went nuts with the rub.  I was bound and determined to push the entire cup and a half of rub into and onto this pig in order to get the results i wanted.  I may have gone overboard.  Just a little…a tiny bit…just the taddest bit overboard…>.>…..<.<rubbed to death

Then into a zip lock bag for 3 days to sit in the fridge until Sunday.  Why Sunday?  I had read several recipes that said to allow it to sit in the rub for 3 days. Why?  In all honesty I havent the slightest clue but I’m sure as I continue to experiment with this and ask questions I’ll discover the reason.

Three days went by and bam Sunday.  The day of reckoning.pre roast  Did it work?  Did it fail? Are we bound for the ER?  No clue.  So we whip the oven up to a whopping 450 degrees and lay the perfumed porker on a bed of roughly chopped onions which were liquored up with a bottle of my favorite shandy from Leinenkugel, the grapefruit shandy. I picked this particular ale in hopes that the acidic qualities would help to balance out the richness of the fat.  Tossed that bad boy in for 45 minutes,  reduced the heat to 250 degrees and continued to roast for another 3 hours, pouring a second beer in at the 2 hour mark.  And this was the end results.

pork done

The onions were beautifully cooked in the comfit of pork fat and beer.  The pork displayed a bark that made me bounce with giddiness at the hopes of a success…Now would it be as tasty as it looked or was this a complete and utter kitchen nightmare. After a 10 minute rest (which felt like an eternity).  I sliced the slab of goodness in half.  Kyle stood patiently next to me eager to try the bounty of 3 days of waiting.  We were not disappointed.  Well not entirely.  The rub offered a nice bit of heat which did not overwhelm the palatte.  It crept up slowly along the back of the mouth and lingered just long enough for you to enjoy the sweet and salty flesh.  The thin layer of fat which had not rendered off literally melted like butter on the tongue.  The only disappointment was the skin.  While the bark gave the illusion of a crispy skin it was anything but that.  In error I had not read the recipe completely.  I was only to have coated the actual meat and not the skin, leaving it exposed to the elements.  The dry rub essentially sealed in all the moisture and turned it into a sort of rubbery exterior.  Definitely not good eats but easily remedied.  I simply cut it off.

inside pork

The plans for this piece of pork heaven is not yet decided.  Will I slice it thin and serve it up with a bit of celery root puree or will i have it along side some ricotta ravioli with grapefruit buerre blanche.  I dont know yet.  All i know is this adventure was both educational as well as delicious and while I might not be a fan of the three little pigs quite yet, this little bad boy is definitely on my list of things to do again.

 

2015: a year in review

Last year was an okay year.  It wasn’t stellar.  It didn’t suck.  It was merely….okay.  I experienced highs and lows and a lot of in betweens….I traveled (albiet just to Minnesota and Wisconsin and back), I loved, i lost, I loved some more and I made a commitment to myself and to Kyle that 2016 would be filled with as many amazing moments as possible…Oh this is Kyle…god that’s a horrible picture of him.  Oh and that’s me, in the deadpool hat..and the obscurred Thundercats t-shirt.  AnywaysCHICAGO

2015 was a pretty okay year.  One thing that I did more of was cooking as well as venturing outside my culinary bubble.  This all happened in May after we moved from our rather tiny Harry Potter-esk type closet of an apartment to a spacious 1200 square foot beauty with a kitchen that pretty much was my idea of the dream starter kitchen.  Counterspace for days and cabinets that went up to the ceiling.  It was amazing.  And it spurned in me a desire to do more cooking.  It’s hard to get motivated to make a meal when you’re stumbling over your own two feet to get to the fridge and then working in a tiny space to create a meal which feels like a meal. Let alone the old pit was rather gross and unwelcoming and I hated the idea of having people over so why bother cooking when it was just the two of us.

That tune has since changed and I find myself wanting to cook every day, multiple times a day if given the opportunity.  Inviting friends over even if just for breakfast or snack type foods.  It’s amazing.  I’ve created so many awesome meals in my apartment.  I’ve cooked ethnic food that I’ve not tried my hands at.  I successfully prepped, prepared and pulled off 3 Sunday supper club events as well as 3 large family meals.  And I loved it.  To have a group of people come into my home on a random Sunday for a meal thats been in the making for a month fills me with a certain giddy joy.  While I dread the washing of dishes I love seeing the faces of my family and friend around my now larger dinner table as we sit and ask to pass the peas or wasabi marinated grilled skirt steak from one person to another.  It’s happiness at that table.  And its food that caused it.  Well and me and my friends..they take a little part in it im sure.  But yeah this year has been an okay year but an amazing culinary year.  May 2016  be filled with amazing meals shared with new friends and old friends