“Do not repeat after me words that you do not understand. Do not merely put on a mask of my ideas, for it will be an illusion and you will thereby deceive yourself.”
We all know of the popular cliché, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery” and some people take the advice a little too literally with the result winding up creating more of a hollow carbon copy of the original idea come to life. Throughout history, many original ideas developed in the same way that Catholicism developed into Various forms of Protestantism (no this isn’t a religious stance or bias, all facts), Jeet Kune Do (a foundational form of MMA from Bruce Lee) and now many UFC MMA Fighters and their hybrid styles and approaches we see today.
As for the culinary wind of things, you can even take the slightest tweaks and elevate cuisine to a higher level. Escoffier with his idea of ‘Cuisine Classique’ (Classic French Cuisine), then taken up and reinterpreted by Paul Bocuse (the godfather of Nouvelle French Cuisine and the creator of the Bocuse D’ or competition) who now had another evolution and interpretation from a man named Ferran Adria who entitled his approach as ‘Nueva Nouvelle Cuisine’ (New Nouvelle Cuisine aka Molecular Gastronomy).
120 years have past since Escoffier’s first successful dish. Our modern day interpretative eats have rode the waves of some serious food trends, youthful color in yogurt (a la pink berry vs. yogurt land, guess who won?), food truck frenzies and now primitive gastronomy hybrids like the cronut. In today’s issue, we take a glance at So Oishii, a newly opened spot in the heart of Downtown Berkeley which imitates the classic ‘the ramen burger.’
Like Bourdain, Newspaper editors and local blogger/foodie connoisseurs probably saw this possibility as if it was coming a mile away especially when they first introduced the Luther Burger eight years ago. Therefore, when I first saw this pop up on my Lobese’s Instagram feed, I was finally ecstatic to try this elusive Keizo creation. Admittedly it probably wasn’t the best idea seeing as I was still recovering from stomach flu and the whole nine but I figured, “What the hell could go wrong?”
Having to shell out parking was bad enough on the impacted block of Telegraph (pincered by Channing and Haste), this little unpretentious shop gave me some hope. We sat down and the place was barely filled, at most being able to fit about 30 folks. We grazed the menu and sadly I couldn’t provide pictures (being on medication really knocks you out).
They had a fair offering of items ranging from the traditional Ramen, appetizers like Japanese Fries, and of course, the highlighted offering, their interpretation of the Ramen Burger. Now, what could have been a better (more logical) approach was to try the in-house ramen before diving into the ramen burger. However, like all food trends, some people like to strike while the iron is hot (and relevant) so I had to get my hands on this bad boy ASAP.
The customer service was a bit of a let down, considering there weren’t that many customers in the restaurant upon seating us. We waited for about 20 minutes until we finally had attention to get our orders (we made our minds in less than five) and another 10-15 minutes until the waitress decided to drop off our glasses of water. Again, I wouldn’t be this critical under normal circumstances (full house, understaffed, long lines, etc.) and I’ve made it very clear in previous posts (and restaurants leading by example) that customer service can make the difference when you offer mediocre product in the experience.
Within that time period, only five people came in (two couples and one guy) and again a lot of the tables didn’t receive their food nor did they order large quantities of it for their groups. You could also say the staffing was the polar opposite of my Cosecha experience. Within S.O. we saw two in the back, so it’s a 2-1 ratio but for a slow service it seemed manageable enough.
Now typically, I would have had the menu up but you can acquire a good look at it from this helpful Yelper: Menu Side 1 and Menu Side 2* and here’s our view of things after another half an hour of waiting elapsed:
*Important note: Our menu changed between the pre-grand opening listed on Yelp and the post-grand opening (the time we visited). These pictures are taken on Nov. 3, 2013 while the uploaded menu is from Sept. and they included a beef Ramen Burger after their Grand Opening menu became available on Yelp.
Starting with the fries, they were a major down. According to the menu, the freshly cut russet potatoes were supposed to be married with bonito flakes and house sauce on top. I don’t know about you guys but all I received were wilted fries, a miniature drizzle of this “house sauce,” and no bonito to be found on both plates which had the fries.
My ramen burger looked pretty close to the original; however, looks are deceiving. While eating this dish in a conventional burger fashion, it fell apart on me (my beef ramen burger). I’m pretty sure before and after pictures would have also been more sufficient. Best believe eating this plate food was reminiscent to the way I treated chow mien noodles in Kindergarten. Chaotic, a puddle full of nonsense. The ramen bun fell apart while the beef charred to the max, cheese and avocado served no purpose and the in-house sauce supposedly inside the burger was also non-existent. The chicken version was slightly (and I say this graciously) better but not by much. The bun stayed intact, the red onions added a bit of texture and again their sauce (in this case ginger miso) got lost in the entire flavor profile. Chicken needed a bit more seasoning and the fries were an afterthought as mentioned earlier. The wallet damage was a little more than what I could swallow for an imitation to a recent food trend. You can bet my tip was nowhere near the suggested range (or amounts) by any means after such a lackluster experience. In a majority of my writings (alluding to earlier restaurants), I try my best to look towards the positive of a restaurant. I understand it’s only two months and they have another 22 months (2 years max) to determine whether or not this place is a potential success.
A few suggestions, I would like to make to the cook(s) and investor(s) of this concept:
1) Maximize the flavor and quality of your Ramen. I get a burger is different both in conception and logistics to execute on the line. Your premiere reviews show no substance for even your in-house ramen. Work on that first before creating the next step into trendy foods (e.g. your ramen burger).
2) If you are still inclined to go with food trends (e.g. offering food challenges: Big Shosha and Ramen Burger). Utilize ingredients, flavor combinations and techniques never seen or brought together under the concept of the ramen burgers.
- Utilize Dried Seaweed to hold together the ramen buns as a wrapper
- Flavor your ramen buns with a mix of furikake seasoning or japanese pepper infused seasonings to give it greater flavor
- After you master creating the ramen buns, drive inspiration from the endless amounts of sushi roll flavor combinations that are successful or build your own, etc.
I really dislike seeing small businesses fail, measuring their results of success from superficial strategies and overpriced products/services only geared to the short-term instead of the long-term. Within the restaurant setting, what allows an establishment to reach success isn’t so much pioneering an original concept. Rather, command and execution over the very basic foundational recipes makes a restaurant exceptional in its theme and overall experience.
In the case of a ramen restaurant, the primary goal is to execute close to flawless streamline from service to service an excellent ramen recipe to base their ramen from. The choice of noodle, types of oils, seasoning, vegetables, and proteins all wrapped up in a nice rustic package for the customer’s enjoyment. Afterwards it’s the owner/executive chef’s responsibility to create an easy enough tutorial for all the cooks to learn from. Finally, you can begin to worry about the special appetizers, market segmentation (your local community demographics, likes/dislikes, specialties), seasonal offerings and more.
Once a restaurant leaps effortlessly beyond these hurdles, a majority become successful in offering beyond the original menu. A classic case study is Genkiyaki, started serving only their version of Korean Tacos (pre-Kogi stardom) and Ninja Fries (their original version of Carne Asada and Chicken Fries goodness, before serving up their notorious Death Tacos (and every iteration of evolution soon after).
All the more reason why even with all my experience in this industry, I’m definitely not ready to run my own restaurant. There is much to learn and from personal testimonies, this business is cruel and volatile. Darwinism through diners and dishes, service after service. One wrong move and your establishment will be spat out faster than Gordon Ramsay blurting out the word, ‘Raw’.
To end this diatribe on a more positive note, I do commend So Oishii for taking the risk and forging their own path within the chaotic restaurant industry. I could understand as an insider, blogger and much more what they’re attempting to do. Perhaps my criticisms may sound like I’m jumping the gun a bit; however, when you’re known for a gimmick more than a traditional recipe, something’s amiss and needs be fixed pronto. I hope your restaurant will be more ‘sugoi’ as opposed ‘oishii’ in the long run.
2428 Telegraph Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94704
“Young Lee Found Guilty of Beating Homeless Man”: (http://www.businessinsider.com/young-lee-found-guilty-of-beating-homeless-man-2013-11); last viewed 22 November 2013; last updated 8 November 2013
“Wikipedia source article: Auguste Escoffier”: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auguste_Escoffier); last viewed 22 November 2013; last updated 18 November 2013
“Wikipedia source article: Ferran Adrià”: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferran_Adrià); last viewed 22 November 2013; last updated 19 October 2013
“Wikipedia source article: Luther Burger”: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luther_Burger); last viewed 22 November 2013; last updated 21 November 2013
“Wikipedia source article: Paul Bocuse”: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Bocuse); last viewed 22 November 2013; last updated 29 October 2013
“Wikipedia source article: Kogi Korean BBQ” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kogi_Korean_BBQ): last viewed 22 November 2013; last updated 12 November 2013
“Ramen Burger ™Debut…” (http://www.goramen.com/2013/08/ramen-burger-debut.html); last viewed 22 November 2013; last updated 3 August 2013