Posted On: 07/01/2016
Owner Thom Chantharasy was behind the counter bar when I arrived, steadily serving food and drawing pints of beer while overseeing the frenetic operations of Robata, his combination sushi-ramen-yakitori eatery in Maplewood. Behind him, the cramped, open galley kitchen hummed with activity. Meats charred on a gas grill while broths simmered in giant stockpots, throwing off clouds of fragrant smoke and steam as cooks churned out plates of nigiri and rolls, bowls of ramen, stacks of tempura and skewers of grilled yakitori. Servers wove their way throughout the restaurant, zigzagging around 30 tightly spaced seats inside and several communal picnic tables sectioned off in the parking lot.
In some respects, Robata is a rebranding of Sekisui, the South Grand sushi restaurant Chantharasy closed in 2014. But where Sekisui felt flagging toward the end, Robata is bright and energized. Chantharasy transformed the defunct Churchís Chicken on Manchester Road into a hip, inviting space Ė a remarkable task. Thereís an izakaya vibe going on here, more Japanese gastropub than restaurant. Itís a place to share and stack small appetizer plates and slurp bowls of ramen.
The two oversized menus were extensive and overwhelming, both in size and content (Unwieldy big menus and small tables donít get along.). Itís tempting to just start ordering Ė a practice youíll regret come settling-up time. Fortunately, servers understand every aspect of the menu and are ready to explain how best to build a meal.
Start with some yakitori Ė nothing thrilling, but itís hard to resist bamboo-speared bites. Strictly speaking, yakitori refers to grilled chicken and kushi-yaki refers to everything else grilled on a stick, but both are used interchangeably. All grilled items can be prepared two ways: with salt (shio) or marinated in a thick teriyaki sauce (tare). It makes a difference depending on the meat. Pork belly (butabara) was flavorful enough without the addition of marinade, so go with the simplicity of shio. Chicken Ė breast, thigh or wing Ė was a neutral vehicle for the tare preparation, which added flavor and caramelized the skin to charred crispiness. Scallops, teeny and few, picked up nothing from the shio treatment and arenít worth the expense.
Other selections are more shareable. The Ocean Pyramid may sound gimmicky, but it was hard not to smile at the geometric structure layered with sushi rice, tuna, salmon and yellowtail tartare, capped with green and orange flying fish roe (tobiko) Ė not to mention the fun of tearing it down with chopsticks. Fried octopus dumplings, or takoyaki, are a required order: a handful of golf ball-sized fritters that revealed lumps of tender octopus meat upon first crispy bite. The accompanying katsu sauce and Japanese mayo topping were fine for dipping, but unadorned is really the way to enjoy these fried beauties.
The Bar-B-Que Don bowl incorporated the same pork used in the ramen, but slathered in teriyaki sauce, cooked to a crispy stickiness and served over white rice with scallions. Itís the kind of deeply flavorful dish you want around the house all the time. Add a side of kimchi for a hit of contrasting spicy-sourness to the meatís sweetness. I donít know how much hamachi kama (yellowtail cheek or collar) Robata sells (Itís listed as limited on the menu.), but I found my new favorite cut of tuna. Grilled on the bone, the meat was sweet, tender, rich and especially juicy. A squeeze of lemon and a dunk in the soy dipping sauce was all that was needed for this simple treat.
As long as the fish is clean-tasting and the rice properly seasoned, Iím happy with any sushi. Both were the case here, and it was nice to have the option when putting together a full meal of small plates. Same for rolls. Nothing remarkable, but my STL Roll was nice and simple, with optional real lump crab, asparagus and cream cheese topped with seared salmon and drizzled with sweet soy and spicy mayo.
Of course, there was ramen. St. Louis is in the midst of a ramen storm, a tsunami of broth and raining noodles. If chef-restaurateur-writer David Changís claim earlier this year is true, that ďramen is dead,Ē that itís lost all originality, the people milling outside Robata like extras in The Walking Dead didnít seem to care. Nor did those sitting inside, happily slurping noodles at the tall counters lining the floor-to-ceiling windows. All this over noodles and broth?
The classic pork tonkotsu ramen may be played out according to Chang, but itís the first dish I ordered. No, itís not the same youíd get at Changís renowned Momofuko Noodle Bar in New York City (He still serves it.), but weíre not in New York City. Let ramen scholars debate the nuances while I enjoy Robataís version: fragrant, milky, opaque pork broth chockablock with shaved wood-ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots, scallions, bean sprouts, strands of red ginger, half a soft-boiled egg and a couple slices of char-sui roast pork. Choose from regular noodles, rice noodles or ďfat cut,Ē referring to the slightly thicker, springier noodles made locally by Midwest Pasta. Chicken broth, glistening with rendered fat, provided a lighter base for several soup styles like the miso corn, which added corn to the same ingredients with the optional substitution of pulled chicken for pork.
The busy drive-thru Ė a remnant from Churchís used for carryout orders Ė is another reminder that ramen lives.
AT A GLANCE
7260 Manchester Road, Maplewood, 314.899.9595, robatamaplewood.com
Donít Miss Dishes
Any ramen, Bar-B-Que Don with kimchi, Hamachi Kama
An appealing renovation of a fast-food joint that keeps customers surprisingly comfortable elbow to elbow
$8 to $18
Mon. to Thu. Ė 5 to 11 p.m.; Fri. and Sat. Ė 5 p.m. to midnight
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