Ramen City: The Dojo Sake Bar and Izakaya
An ongoing exploration of Austin’s noodle soup of the moment
The Dojo Sake Bar and Izakaya
9070 Research Blvd. No. 305. 512-458-3900, www.dojoatx.com.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 09.09.13
UPDATED 9/17/14: The Dojo has closed. Here's a note from the restaurant's Facebook page.
The Dojo isn’t a ramen shop in its monkish devotion to one dish, but rather an izakaya, a place to drink and counter those drinks with something to eat, or lots of somethings to eat. Like sesame-strong seaweed salad, chewy and crisp with a sliced cucumber foundation, a proper fit with a $13 flight of three cool sakes, one as appled and bracing as Calvados (Am No To), one just as clear but less sharp and more rounded (Bride of the Fox) and one as gauzy and half-sweet as your memories of whatever came next (Dreamy Clouds).
The izakaya concept — eat long, drink long, stay long — might be a hard sell in the middle of our Everybody Against Drunk Driving awakening. But the Japanese and Spanish tapas cultures cultures that embrace the Long Night Out have something we don’t: mass transit, the friendless man’s designated driver. The Dojo has its work cut out for it.
(Photo, from left: Ramen Ninja Mike Elliott, chef Motoharu Seto, general manager Kenneth Macias and operations manager Adeline Bui.)
We’ll get to the ramen. But first, more small plates. No proper izakaya night feels right without something fried, something like chicken kara-age or shrimp with kewpie mayo ($5 each). This building was a Tokyo Steakhouse not too long ago, and a Benihana before that, a heritage that shows up in a dish of stir-fried pork belly and kimchi ($6.50) and grilled mackerel ($7.50). There’s also sashimi, dumplings, grill plates, cold plates, tabletop grill set-ups, steamed dishes and snacks like Japanese pickled radish, most of it for less than $10.
That part of the menu is handled by chef Motoharu Seto. Behind the scenes are operations manager Adeline Bui — who also runs Hanover’s in Pflugerville — and general manager Kenneth Macias, a face you might recognize from Uchi or Sway.
That thing about monkish devotion to ramen? Let’s backtrack. The guy behind ramen at the Dojo is Mike Elliott (at left, on his Ninja motorcycle), who calls himself the Ramen Ninja. His Miso Ramen ($6 small/$8 large) swims with noodles like a ringlet perm in a chicken stock with enough fat to keep your mouth sealed shut in that instant after it dries. The miso lends it a tannic, cottony pull.
Elliott is the first to admit that he’s the greenest citizen in what he calls the “ramen community,” a community from which he’s drawn nothing but encouragement and support, he said. No, the Ninja is an I.T. analyst by trade and picked up a passion for ramen in his travels to his employer’s headquarters in San Francisco. He chased the passion to the Yamato Noodle School in Japan, where they drilled him on philosophy and technique for a week of 12-hour days. Top Gun for ramen jockeys.
His motivation? At the time, there were no dedicated ramen shops in Austin. But more than that, Elliott saw parallels between I.T and ramen. “It sounds really nerdy, but a bowl of ramen, I liken it to a computer,” he said. “You’re analyzing the exact amounts of ingredients, you’re getting tools to make it more efficient, you’re developing processes to make it work better. “ But unlike I.T., ramen gives Elliott room for creativity. The miso he blends for his ramen has 12-13 ingredients, and a finished bowl might have as many as 35 elements.
Elliott’s ramen is a deceptively simple bowl, with a lone sheet of seaweed (nori), a toss of scallions, bean sprouts for show and a slow-boiled egg that’s more than just show, more like a showboat of rich yolky gold. Over the top of this bowl of ramen — and over the top in other ways — is a thin slice of fatty pork with the double benefits of roasting and searing, giving it a dartboard pattern of char with a loose halo of sweet fat.
This isn’t the destination bowl of noodles that Ramen Tatsu-ya is. Not yet. But more like a hearty, alcohol-balancing finish to an izakaya night of small plates and just as many drinks, small or tall.
(TOP: Miso ramen and a flight of three sakes. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)