Noodles

Ngopi, Birmingham

Remember Modu? You are lucky if you do. The slow burn restaurant on the edge of town slowly gathered a reputation for uncompromising authentic Korean food from an ageing lady who spoke little English and her daughter. Everything was made in house; fermentation was used to full effect, sweet potato transformed into transparent noodles, chicken wings painstakingly deboned and rolled. It was unlike anything else in the city. Word slowly got around and they got busy. Opening hours extended and just as the success they deserved started to come, Mother Modu fell ill. The heartbeat of the restaurant was unable to cook and they never reopened. Modu is one of the saddest stories of recent years for the hospitality in this city. They deserved far more.

In a way Ngopi reminded me of Modu. Of how the Saturday lunch was mostly full of those familiar with the cuisine, and how the majority of westerners would pop in to look at the menu and then leave. The food is Indonesian, a cuisine I know little about other than rendang and nasi lemak, neither of which feature on the menu. Prices are kind; twelve dishes with nothing over a fiver.

Lets get the big one out of the way first. The reason I’ll be coming back is for the Batagor, a dish that could easily become a cult classic. Fried prawn wontons mingle with fried tofu and meatballs under a blanket of peanut sauce. Every forkful is a lottery; one where it could be bland tofu, dense beef, or sweet prawn meat, all in a satay-style sauce that grows in prowess. On the side is treacle-like ketcap manis and an umami fueled sambal, both of which get thrown in to the mix. The result is a plate of food unlike any other I have tried before. It is worth a visit for this alone.

I probably won’t order the Indomie again, but I think my girlfriend may. The combination of noodles, grated cheese, poached egg, crispy onions, and corned beef is a bit student dinner for my liking, and melted cheese on noodles is something I’ll never fully get on board with. Instead I’ll take more of the Martabak, which is essentially a Findus crispy pancake, and really gets going with a lick of the chilli sauce. Likewise I’ll gladly have more of the Bakwan, which is kind of rosti/bhajii hybrid of vegetables. It’s greaseless and bright in both colour and flavour. We order prawn and chicken dumpling that get eaten before I take a picture. They are good as far as dim sum go.

The bill for all of this is £30, including two very nice cups of Indonesian coffee. Look, I have never been to Indonesia and I know very little about the cuisine. I can’t tell you that it is the greatest of it’s kind because I don’t know that. But what I can tell you is that for the first time since Modu I felt fully immersed in a style of food that was both new to me and extremely tasty. It might not all be as great as the Batagor, though at fifteen quid a head anyone with an interest in food should be paying it a visit to see for themselves.

8/10

A2B got me here, just like they always do

Ngopi don’t have a website per se, though you can find them on Dale End

Tonkotsu, Birmingham

Tonkotsu comes to this city on the back of high praise, beloved of paid food critics and those pesky bloggers alike, throughout the six locations across London.  The groups first steps outside the capital is a curious one; being the food hall of Selfridges, where shoppers presumably show what taste they lack by going between Yo Sushi and Krispy Kreme.  We go three days into the launch and already the fifteen or so counter chairs are almost full.  Either Birmingham has a very knowing food crowd or I have underestimated just how hungry shopping for a Michael Kors handbag makes you.

 

The name Tonkotsu apparently translates as “pork bone”, which makes up a large portion of the menu – a long simmered stock of piggy bits that would normally be discarded as waste.  The result of this process is the backbone for this type of ramen; a stock soup with noodles and a few added bits and bobs that the Japanese have been chowing and slurping on for decades.  Ramen verdict later, we start with pork gyoza and chicken kara-age.  The gyoza’s are a disappointment, watery and flat on seasoning, only springing to life when dredged through the soy sauce.  Much better are the kara-age, crisp bits of deep fried chicken thighs, with a batter that snaps like fortune cookies when tore apart by hand.  They do a burger here with this chicken which on this form will be the sole reason for my return.

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The Tonkotsu arrives in branded bowls.  The signature bowl is a murky off-white colour of pork stock, creamy in texture with thin bouncy noodles that they are rightly proud to say they make in-house.  There are thin slices of pork belly, half a boiled egg that has discoloured in the stock, spring onions and bean sprouts.  The first slurp is comforting, thereafter it is too salty.  I persist in the name of gluttony and awake the following day so dehydrated I feel hungover, despite sticking only to the yuzu lemonade that evening.  Another bowl with a pork and chicken broth is cleaner in taste and vibrant with a homemade chilli oil that first smacks the mouth and then the lips.  The chicken portion is meagre and we find it difficult to get excited about.  It reminds me of a similar dish at Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York which punched well above its weight.  This version was only just treading water.

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We play it safe and go for dessert elsewhere, not before being passed an incorrect bill which requires amending.  I welcome London’s finest coming to our city, though it needs to be done with the same quality.  No doubt others will love it, but crispy chicken aside, Tonkotsu left me underwhelmed.

5/10

Momofuku Noodle Bar, New York

The queue at Momofuku Noodle Bar reminded me of home.  Person after person, all lumberjack shirts, beards and beanies, waiting in line for a bowl of soup with bits in.  How very British.  I know people back in UK that would have joined the back of it for fun.  Me, I hate queuing.  Its wasted time that I could be spending doing more important things.  Like drinking.  Or being obnoxious.  But the original offering from the Momofuku group was high on the NYC hit list, partially due to it being a block away from our accommodation, though mostly down to it being a David Chang restaurant.  I like what I read about Chang; in every printed interview he embodies the ‘fuck ’em’ attitude that I love about his adopted city.  He is a sweary, belligerent man, with an apparent dislike for vegetarians and food bloggers alike.  Two dislikes which I happily share in the majority.

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We eventually sit on a communal table in the brightly lit but narrow, canteen-esque space of pale wood.  We would have liked to have sat at the long counter and watch the open kitchen in action, though this is the kind of place where you don’t ask questions and take what you are given.  The menu is concise; some stuff in buns, other stuff in bowls.  There is a smattering of other stuff from which we order a moreish soft boiled egg, marinated in soy sauce and topped with crisp onions and chives.  We cannot resist going back for seconds whilst waiting for the hot stuff to arrive.

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It was the steamed buns which started the hysteria here many years ago.  Today we take the beef brisket that requires minimal jaw work, sandwiched between a thin spread of horseradish and pickled onions which still retain some bite.  The buns themselves are a delight; little pillows of rice flour which offer a beguiling textural contrast from the braised meat.

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From ‘bowls’ we order two riffs on ramen.  A pork one has tangles of shoulder meat and a wedge of gelatinous belly, the comforting stock which is central to the dish owed to a long simmering of discarded piggy bits.  The triumphant noodles, full of bounce and restraint, are even better when the runny egg yolk finally reaches them.  Another with morsels of smoked chicken thigh meat has a stock enriched with miso.  Its an addictive mix of umami, salt, and heat.  As far as ramen goes its about as authentic as a drag queen in a kimono, but Oh does it taste good.

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Incredibly, a glass of wine here costs the same price as a main dish, so I’ll leave it to you to decide if the food is excellent value or the booze overpriced.  For me, Momofuku Noodle Bar takes the best of the flavours and textures from Asia and transports them to the western palate.  I just wish that we had somewhere in the UK with similar panache and without the piss-taking prices we are so used to.  Earlier, whilst stood in the warm autumnal evening waiting in line, I ask generic bearded bloke in front if the queues were always so bad.  His response; “yeah, its fucking good”.  David Chang couldn’t have worded it better his sweary, belligerent self.

8/10

Momofuku Noodle Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

MinMin Noodle Bar, Birmingham

Soon I am off to Vietnam for a well earned holiday. For three weeks we plan to do a whistle-stop tour of Hanoi down to Phu Quoc, with stops in all of the usual places and a seventeen hour train ride thrown in for good measure, just because her-indoors knows how much I despise train journeys. With any luck I will return bronzed ready for our one week of Summer, with a cheap suit barely holding its shape and two stone lighter due to the inevitable food poisoning. I will throw myself into the local cuisine and let it do its worst. Onwards and upwards. Inward then probably quickly outward.

And yet, despite the holiday rapidly approaching, I am still to try authentic Vietnamese food. I read up the staples and familiarised myself with a few recipes online: Pho mostly, which is in the most basic form noodles in a broth made from pork stock. I appealed on social media for a good Pho; one friend offered his mothers services whilst another suggested MinMin, a lucid coloured cafe at the back of Birmingham’s Arcadian. If you’ve read this from the top you will know which option I took; after all the post isn’t titled The Home of Trung’s Mother.

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MinMin is a canteen-esque expanse of lime green and white glossy plastic. It is deceptively simple, which is more than can be said of the menu; a vast bounty of dishes with pictures for the more usual offerings and just words for the less enticing pigs ears and chickens feet. We started with chicken spring rolls that avoided both greasiness and any real flavour. It was a subdued start that needed the sticky chilli dipping sauce to some add punch and heat. Mixed skewers came coated in panko breadcrumbs and deep fried, the pick being a large juicy prawn, opaque in the centre. There was another of a white fish that neither we nor the waitress could recognise and some veg that included a clumpy slice of red onion.

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Crispy squid was well executed with the batter offering a little yield and the cephalopod still tender, the dish benefitting from the extra seasoning from the noodles dressed lightly in soy. A giant bowl of spicy broth was filled with noodles, pork belly and roast duck. The broth was key; the lingering heat eventually giving way to a delicate meatiness which found its way onto every strand of noodle. The cubes of pork belly were tender with crispy shards of skin; a treat, which is more than can be said about the duck.  I feel bad for leaving any animal unconsumed, especially duck, but I am not going to put my dental plan at risk by chowing down on a mixture of gristle and bone.

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Twenty minutes into the soupy noodles I gave in, leaving enough in the bowl for at least another person and meaning that dessert was well out of the question.  In my pre-conceived mind I wanted to love MinMin; it came recommended by people I trust to offer a style of food I am not massively au-fait with.  Shamefully I have used Wagamama as a reference point, with the food here being no better than there. Let’s hope that Vietnam fares a lot better.

6/10

Minmin Noodle Bar on Urbanspoon