Jonathan Schofield on a pleasant place that needs to stop banging the drum
If you stand with your hands out and your mouth open in an empty unit on a ground floor in central Manchester a Japanese restaurant forms around you. Your hands fill with nigiri and your mouth with noodles.
There's absolutely no accounting for food fashions. Twelve years ago there was an avalanche of Americana. Places such as Reds True BBQ (now closed) tried to convince Mancunians that grits were not the scrapings from a dog-fouled gutter but actually edible. Nobody believed them.
Korean food has had (and is arguably still having) its moment. Foodhalls have proliferated like boletes in the damp, fecund litter of an autumn wood.
But right now it's Japanese, or perhaps 'Pan-Asian' with some 'sushi' nudged onto the menu. If there's a collective noun for such establishments opening in Manchester it would be a 'glut'.
This is a clever and well run outfit that lifts the area.
Maki & Ramen on Fountain Street is the latest Japanese arrival. It’s a carefully thought through mini-chain and brings to an odd part of the city, between office land and the mayhem of Market Street, some real quality. It started off in Scotland the notion of Teddy Lee who's 'journey began as a chef studying in a sushi academy in Tokyo, with an aim to introduce high-quality ramen and sushi'. He's achieving his aim.
In 2015 he founded Maki & Ramen. The first foray outside Scotland has come to Manchester and soon will move across to Leeds.
The exterior is generic new office dull but the inside carries an attractive lightness of touch. There are a few booths, a bar, an open kitchen with a screen above the pass showing gentle images of nature being cute rather than red in tooth and claw and a fake bit of floweriness overhead.
There's a wall of post-it notes left by customers offering sensible advice such as: 'Eat ramen wear a bib.' Sound indeed. There's a another slightly disturbing note with: 'I made my friend lose his sushi virginity!'
There's also a drum.
Every time a customer walks in the staff bangs a drum twice and shouts welcome in Japanese. All the staff shout it including the chefs.
That's every time a customer walks in.
What starts off charming turns out to be toothache. They do this in Shoryu Ramen in Piccadilly 'Gardens' but with a smaller drum. Perhaps size matters. At Shoryu Ramen the view out across the 'Gardens' is an entertainment that can veer from tranquility to horror in seconds. At Maki and Ramen the view is of Fountain Street, vehicles and the building opposite.
The food is really good but I’m going to have to go straight for the one dish I'd like to eat at least once a day, every day. This is the main star, the grilled nigiri of eel (£7.50) which was distinctive, complex, sticky like syrup and with that peculiar rich meaty sweetness that is the killer characteristic of eel. The omega 3 came flooding in from the oily beast and I nearly cracked several unsolved problems such as Goldbach’s Conjecture or even how to finance HS2.
If you go to Maki & Ramen get this, it's a sincere recommendation. The other nigiri of clams and mackerel (both £4.90) were really good but were put in the shade by the eel.
I was less convinced by the prawn tempura (£10.90) which were competent but a little dull and the same goes for the gyoza (£6.90) but the ramens really hit the mark.
The steak tataki (£15.90) is a cracker. The broth is rich, warming, with loads of mouth-buzzing heat. Try spooning it up on its own as a prelude to tucking into the steak. The steak is excellent quality, served rare and almost gentle as it breaks in the mouth infused with that superb broth. Other elements, the noodles, the cabbage and so on combine well. 8/10 for this one easily.
The black garlic tonkotsu (£13.90) comes with ‘a twist’ according to the menu. 'Twist' is a marketing term that went out of fashion with ‘grits’. The ‘twist’ here is an ‘8-hour broth infused with black garlic oil creating an even more intense flavour for a decadent experience’.
Well, no, it’s not a Roman orgy, but it’s very very good, a little flatulent with all that garlic oil, but lush too and the hunks of pork are almost boisterous.
The noodles in the various ramens are apparently made ‘from scratch daily’.
The one bucket of ice water over the face was the chicken yakisoba (£13.90). The chicken was hard to chew and very dry, not as juicy as one would like with a karaage.
I cheered up over banana fritters (£6.50) with vanilla ice cream. This might have come from a Little Chef on some city bypass back in 1978 but were none the worse for that. I looked banana fritters up and they aren’t traditionally Japanese but who cares? There’s simply no such thing as cultural appropriation in food and anybody who says so is a fool. I enjoyed the banana fitters immensely and scored accordingly.
Maki & Ramen are doing so much right here. This is a clever and well run mini-chain that lifts the area.
The food quality is high, the service cheerful, the ambience comfortable. I didn't try the cocktails which the post-it notes tell me are good, because I seldom do, but the other drinks fit the bill as this is clearly and, as it should be, more of a high-quality quick-eat place than a lets-make-a-night of it restaurant.
I'll be banging the drum for Maki & Ramen although I wish the staff didn't have to bang their drum. That's a silly bit of theme park nonsense that adds nothing. Although I confess I never noticed the drum as I was falling in love with my eel.
Maki & Ramen, 11 York Street (the entrance is in reality on Fountain Street), Manchester M2 2AW.
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, and ALWAYS paid for by Confidentials and completely independent of any commercial relationship. They are a first-person account of one visit by one, knowledgeable restaurant reviewer and don't represent the company as a whole.
If you want to see the receipt as proof this magazine paid for the meal then a copy will be available upon request.
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.
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Eel 9, mackerel 7, surf clam 6.5, black garlic tonkatsu 7.5, steak takaki 8, prawns 6, gyoza 6, chicken yakisoba 5, banana fritters 7.5