Neil Sowerby gets busy slurping, crunching and dredging his way through the menu at this new late night NQ noodle place
IN Matt Goulding’s fascinating Japan food travelogue, Rice Noodle Fish, he encounters a ramen blogger who eats 400 bowls of the stuff each year – a man who “consumes his ramen with a sense of urgency, conveying thick ropes of noodles into his mouth like a duck, barely pausing to chew.” So I can be forgiven for some messy slurping of my soft shell crab tonkotsu in the most interesting Northern Quarter arrival of the year, Cocktail Beer Ramen + Bun.
Ramen is a religion in Japan
Anyway, I feel liberated by new research that reveals “Stained Clothes Might Just Mean You Have A High Level of Intelligence”. But will the dry cleaners ever rid my white shirt of the chilli and ajitsuke timago (soft boiled, marinated egg) stains?
Ramen is a religion in Japan, hence that blogger’s good fortune in relocating to Fukuoka on Kyushu – the cradle of tonkotsu ramen made from long simmered pork bone broth. I remember touring there with a Kabuki theatre company (it’s a long story) and lapping up bowlfuls of pork-topped wheat noodles in a broth milky with deposits of sticky fat and oily collagen. A world away from ‘instant’ ramen.
That was a decade ago and occasional reintroductions, even to the proper stuff, haven’t been over rewarding - even in London where it has been all the rage thanks to Bone Daddies and other slowpot broth obsessives. Strangely Manchester has been slow to adopt ramen, though that is slowly changing through reliable Shoryu in Piccadilly Gardens and the newly opened Tokyo Ramen in Church Street.
There’s a more eclectic allure, though, to Cocktail Beer Ramen + Bun. It serves all of the above, so no issues over trade description. We didn’t sample them exactly in this order. That would be Pavlovian. It’s the good news in a NQ resorting to faux Irish ‘pubs’ and ‘gourmet kebab’ joints. Each of the four elements is thought through and enticing - and no, it doesn’t do 535 covers and look like a geisha’s boudoir.
It’s just forty covers here with decor leaning towards the minimalist. No booking, so to wait for a free table you sit at a counter I might have constructed in a woodwork class. The real concentration has gone into the food and drink offering.
Best introduction is via the aperitif style cocktail list, created in partnership with ‘Into The Gathering Dusk’ curator Emma Roberts and her playful palette of home-made ingredients. The list is divided into Lights and Signatures, the first section subtle and designed to ride with the food menu, the second priced a couple of quid dearer and more assertive.
My wife’s #1 married Cava, orange bitters and Floc de Gascogne Blanc with Emma’s ‘secret formula’ Hipsterol; meanwhile, my Light concoction featured F de G Rouge, blackberry and vanilla balsamic shrub, lemon verbena bitter and soda. Pick of the bunch, though, was The English Smokey Malt, perfect antidote to a dank Oldham Street dusk with its cinnamon smoke, apple honey nocino cordial and dark night bitters. Night owls can hang out at CBR+B till the early hours playing cocktail lounge lizard and eat late, which is great.
We over-ordered food but don’t regret it. Korokkes are basically deep-fried panko-crumbed croquettes, quite dull when mash is the main constituent, but the pig’s head rich trio (£7) that arrived were on a different level, subtly herbed pulled meat shards with bonito flakes and served with a miso mayo. A second batch arrived due to server confusion, but we wouldn’t have said ‘take them away’, even if they hadn’t said gratis – they were so fine.
A unique combo of padron peppers with kimchi (£4.50) worked a treat too. Co-owners Ben Gretton and Tom De Santis are not hidebound by any sacred Japanese rulebook. They also, whisper it softly, may also source more sustainably than a country with an insatiable appetite for pigginess. Ben told us that all their pork is free range from Cumbria – both broth bones and the double char siu pork belly and crackling that sits atop their signature tonkotsu (£12). Xo sauce adds umami and there’s sesame oil and spring onions contributing their flavours.
Splendid, but my soft shell crab version upped the experience a couple of notches as I dredged huge softened carapaces of crustacean out of my noodle broth. This was the crunch moment when a bib would have been my saviour. For £14.50 curry, cilantro, bonito oil, padrons, this felt more tonsil Armageddon than authentic, but who cares?
Before all this we had enjoyed more umami from charred hispi with seaweed butter and a duo of fluffy buns – a pretty straightforward bao packed with Korean-style steak with kimchi and addictive gochujang mayo, then a mackerel, fennel and green sriracha version that was genius. Baos are £4.50 each, two for £7.50 with a £1 a bun supplement for both the ones we tried.
Beer might well be the fifth element if the title grows exponentially. My wife certainly drank one while awaiting my arrival, but we never saw a list. A wine menu wasn’t forthcoming either but on the advice of our server (part of a really friendly team) we ordered a couple of Australian Chardonnays from Coonawarra’s Penley Estate, expansive but balanced, perfect for coping with the ramen’s big flavours.
So Cocktail Beer Ramen Bun Wine + Friendliness. It dispelled all my advance fears sparked by echoes of those voguish minimalist menus. We’ve all been there; roe - verjus - salsify - buckthorn. A splash of matching natural wine to get the juices flowing, you know the ‘cutting edge’ score. Downmarket, maybe one day chip shops might ditch the bad puns (The Codfather, Happy Haddock, A Fish Called Rhondda etc) and tell it straight too: Fish Chip Saveloy + Pie, anyone?
What the Fukuoka would that be about? Go ramen and bao now. And wear a bib.
Cocktail, Beer, Ramen + Bun, 101-103 Oldham Street, Manchester M4 1LW.
Follow Neil Sowerby on Twitter @AntonEgoManc
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you're passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Light cocktails 7, signature cocktails 8, kimchi/padrons 7, pig’s head korokke 9, grilled hispi 8, mackerel bao 9, Korean steak bao 7, Signature Tonkotsu 8, soft shell crab 9
Uncluttered and bright, NQ hip at its best
Knowledgeable with co-owner Ben leading from the front