A few weeks ago, The Ramen Bar opened its doors alongside Pabu, swelling Michael Mina’s ever-growing empire. The former is a casual, Tokyo-style ramen joint, and the latter, a glossier izakaya.
Mina opened the project in partnership with Ken Tominaga, the owner of Hana Japanese Restaurant. This time around, Tominaga is forsaking the rich and milky pork bone ramen (tonkotsu) that has gripped San Francisco’s heart these past few years in favor of something more delicate and truer to his Tokyo upbringing.
The result: a melange of chicken, pork and fish broths, augmented by miso butter or clams, and decked with traditional toppings, like soy-cured egg, bamboo shoots, sweet corn and nori.
To begin, the entrance was baffling, because the line for takeout blends with the entry to the sit-down area of the restaurant. Diners randomly tried to seat themselves, only to be redirected with a flustered yet polite waitstaff still trying to find their rhythm.
The vibe was denim-friendly and barlike, and the noise a muffled din. People seated at the bar got a view of line cooks shuffling trays along steel ramps, dishing tasty-looking concoctions into takeout bowls from shiny pans.”
The large, thick-walled, bowls — cobalt lined with cream — were beautiful.
The menu featured ramen, donburi and salads.
Of the ramen, the richest variety was better than most. The buttery miso broth with braised pork was hearty and true to its provenance in Hokkaido, Japan’s chilly, northernmost region. The Tokyo-style Kurobata pork — cooked in soy and dashi, with wakame and egg — was more monotoned. Craving variety, texture and intrigue, I felt bored. Despite the abundance of meat in the bowl, I missed depth and complexity.
Yet the noodles were beautiful. Though not made in-house (they’re shipped from Los Angeles), they were cooked perfectly — robust but tender, and faintly nutty.
Of the rice bowls, the short rib curry rendition was sludgy and gamey, as if it had been scraped from the bottom of a pan kept warm for too long. The sesame salmon was less than the sum of its parts.
Wakame salad was a delightful balance of sweetness and brine, with a slick, textured refreshing crunch, but the pork buns were chalky and dry.
A few less than memorable pre-packaged desserts — matcha madeleines, chili and sesame-inflected chocolate chip cookies — awaited near the registers.
Attentive diners often hope that when highbrow chefs take the fast, casual route, the concept and quality of their brands translate into an affordable experience reminiscent of the chef’s unreachable menus. Although we expect to make concessions — to give up the finesse and tempo, the obscurity and refined experimentation characteristic of a fine-dining environment — we also expect excellence, along with bigger plates and cheaper beer.
This time, at the Ramen Bar, my hopes were dashed. But with some tweaks, it may redeem itself. And in the meantime, there’s always the $3 PBR.
The Ramen Bar
Location: 101 California St. S.F.
Contact: (415) 684-1570, www.michaelmina.net
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays-Fridays
Price range: $4 to $14
Recommended dishes: Hokkaido Miso-Butter Chashu ($14) Wakame Salad ($4)
Reservations: Not accepted