“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.
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