FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
The Nihon Trio, served at Nihon Noodles in McCully, offers a taste of the restaurant's three styles of ramen: Tokyo (soy-sauce based with medium-thin noodles), left, Hakata (pork with thin noodles) and Sapporo (miso with thick noodles). Noodles are served on the side to prevent them from getting soggy while you move from one bowl to the next.
Nursing a need for noodles
I was recently instructed by a reader to "check out more ramen and saimin in the future," so timing could not be better for the opening of Nihon Noodles on King Street, which has replaced Neo Nabe at the intersection of Wiliwili Street.
I prefer cooler weather for ramen outings, but there are always aficionados who will pursue these hot bowls of noodles rain or suffocating shine, and Nihon Noodles is doing its best to reinvent ramen service to the point that Japanese tourists are wandering in to check out the upstart.
I wouldn't be surprised if Nihon Noodles sparks a couple of trends in the motherland. The local restaurant has turned out to be a dual innovator, turning the usual solitary meal into a communal one, and has also, in a way, super-sized the meal for those who want to maximize their experience in one sitting.
Nihon Noodles starts with the premise of offering three styles of ramen in one place: Hakata, Tokyo and Sapporo. The made-in-Hawaii noodles are typical of every other ramen shop here, yellow, bouncy and chewy, and varying only in thickness.
The Hakata noodles ($6.45) are the thinnest, served in the area's traditional broth of pork bones boiled for hours, until the broth turns a milky white. All the noodles are garnished with bean sprouts, char siu, green onions and nori, but the Hakata style also comes with traditional shredded red ginger.
Medium-thin Tokyo noodles ($6.45) are served in a strong soy-sauce broth, and thick Sapporo noodles ($6.75) are served in a miso broth that varies in intensity, depending on who's in the kitchen. Consistency will come with time.
Any of these would make a nice comfort meal, the Hakata being the mildest offering. If you feel the need to add additional toppings, 15 are available, at 30 cents to $1.50 per item, including butter, wakame, bok choy and other vegetables, char siu, scallops and shrimp. Don't get too excited about the shrimp, which turned out to be the minuscule bay size.
If you want to taste this seafood, choose a side order of shrimp ($4.95) sautéed in garlic butter sauce. Scallops can also be prepared this way.
There's nothing like throwing a bunch of different options at people to make them curious about trying them all. Logic might invite them to make a couple of repeat visits -- the restaurant is certainly affordable enough to do so -- but one of the most popular orders has been the Nihon Trio ($8.95).
The noodles are cooked and immediately chilled to prevent further cooking and sticking. They're all served on a bamboo tray for adding to the broth when you're ready to dig in. Although the trio is intended to feed one, a couple could easily share an order, though there could be a small skirmish over who gets to finish the last bowl.
If you happen to be there with a group of friends, you can also opt for the Nihon Noodle Special, at $7.95 per person. Here, the shop owners take advantage of the nabe tables left behind by the former tenant, which allows an unlimited amount of all three broths to simmer at the table, before being scooped out and ladled over the three kinds of noodles.
Speaking of those familiar tables, not much else has changed in terms of decor. There's still all that cold, ostentatious and off-putting black marble so out of character for a nabe or ramen restaurant. See, there's this little Japanese concept of beauty called "shibui," which is indicative of refinement and the sort of nonshowy beauty that doesn't need announcement. In this case the space should be as comforting as the food, but instead it distracts from the simplicity of ramen.
Other options are somen and curry. Forget about the chicken "yakitori" ($6.95), which wasn't the grilled skewer I was expecting, but a plate of teriyaki chicken! I'm not sure if our waiter heard wrong, but this was a big mystery to me because teriyaki isn't even on the menu.
On hot days you can also opt for tsukemen, cold noodles that can be dipped into a broth full of vegetables and slices of char siu. Don't miss the thick white Sanuki udon ($6.95) imported from Japan. It's great for the end of day, winding down while you dip and chew at leisure.
Hopefully, affordable ramen will do better in this space than pricey nabe.