I spent a month in Hanoi when I was 19, and on the last day of my trip felt I had finally mastered the art of eating pho; each chopstick pinch/spoon of the steamy Vietnamese noodle soup elegantly made its way to my mouth with minimal splash back. You can imagine my disappointment when a local struck up a conversation with me, opening with "First time using chopsticks? Hold them higher up!". I needn't have been surprised, I've barely mastered a knife and fork, and the words 'unorthodox pen grip' haunted my school career.
My love of long, hand spun noodles hasn't been dampened by this slight handicap, however, which is lucky as ramen seems to be the trendy dish of 2015. Earlier this year, award-winning Japanese fine dining restaurant Kazuya pleasantly surprised admirers (like myself) who would love to experience Kazuya quality more regularly than fine dining prices allow, with the opening of ZOOL ZOOL, a dedicated ramen bar celebrating the comforting, regional traditions of the dish.
Given that noodles are believed to have originated as a food almost 4000 years ago, I doubt my summary of ZOOL ZOOL's subtle formula for the perfect ramen does it cultural and historical justice. There are five different broth bases on offer, from the milky Tonkotsu, to the clear, medicinal-seeming Chicken Sea Salt, all of which are variously served with roasted pork (charshu) or pork mince. Brothless handspun noodles are available too, with five 'Zool Men' alternatives on offer.
One of the best things about ZOOL ZOOL is being able to stay for an equally delicious dessert, with Valhrona Creme Caramels glinting across the room from an unassuming cabinet.
Address: 405 Mt Eden Road
Open: Tuesday - Saturday, 11am – 10pm; Sunday, 11.30am – 2.30pm.
Browns Bay favourite, Ramen Takara, opened a second home on Ponsonby Road this week, in the site previously known as Clear Water Peak café. Like ZOOL ZOOL, all dishes strive to be authentically Japanese; where possible, each element is made from scratch everyday from quality local produce, the delicate ramen broths prepared over three hours each morning.
An understanding of the kind of dedication needed to create beautiful food owes its origins to owner Yuki Yamaguchi, who grew up watching her dad both cook and run a Chinese restaurant at the foot of Mount Fuji.
Ramen Takara is both a ramen house and an Izakaya, with an interesting list of sakes and shōchū that can be drunk in the heated outdoor courtyard, alongside beautifully prepared tempura agedashe tofu with warm tentsuyu broth, grated daikon, nameko wild mushrooms and nori seaweed, or fresh gyoza dumplings.
Address: 272 Ponsonby Road
Open: Tuesday to Saturday midday – late and Sunday 11.30am – 3pm.
Xi'an Food Bar
Xi'an Food Bar also has multiple outlets; the original is on Anzac Avenue, but I recently discovered the Mt Albert store in a happy 'couldn't-find-a-park' accident. Obviously, we're no longer talking ramen but interesting and unusual menu items inspired by the cuisine of ancient Chinese city, Xi'an.
With a lunch room decor consisting of basic tables and chairs on carpet, strip lighting and a television, it's not exactly flash, but that's reflected in excellent prices, and the food is great. The noodles here are my chopstick nemesis as they're incredibly thick, long and chewy, and rustically handmade. Topped with Xi'an style spicy braised pork in a guiltily oily sauce, this is a dish worth staining my white shirt in chilli oil for (true story).
Address: 11/945 New North Road, Mt Albert.
Open: Daily 11.30am – 9.30pm.
Other Auckland favourites:
Vietnamese: Try It Out, 79 Atkinson Avenue, Otahuhu, Auckland 1062. 09-276 9339
Vietnamese: Bolaven, 597 Mount Eden Rd, Mount Eden, Auckland 1024. 09-631 7520
Chinese: Shaolin Kung Fu Noodles, 636 Dominion Rd, Mount Eden, Auckland 1041. 09-623 6298
Japanese: Ramen Do, 167 Symonds Street, Eden Terrace, Auckland 1010. 09-377 1313
Japanese: Tanpopo Ramen, 13 Anzac Ave, Auckland 1010. 09-308 9705
Malaysian: Selera, 487 Khyber Pass Road, Newmarket, Auckland 1023. 09-520 7977