The soup is an onsen for the soul, says reviewer Kim Knight.
633 Dominion Rd
09 623 0336
WE THOUGHT: 15.5 - good
WE SPENT: $76.20 for two
In Japan, soup is serious business - even the stuff you are (maybe) not supposed to drink.
I say "maybe" because despite hours of reading, I'm no closer to untangling the should-you-or-shouldn't you question of whether to swallow ramen broth.
Some people say yes, because it's the heart of the meal and in its consumption you honour the chef. Others say no, because it's your own heart you should be worried about and that broth can be remarkably high in salt and fat.
In New Zealand, soup is meant to be drunk. And so it is at Udon Works, a newish Japanese restaurant in that part of Auckland more famous for its Chinese cuisine.
A full page menu explainer advises "our boasted soup stock is made to be finished off" and goes on to provide information about the bonito flakes, kombu kelp and dried niboshi sardines that this lovely little restaurant has blended and simmered for maximum compatibility with its handmade udon noodles.
Udon soup, I am about to learn, is an entirely different beast to ramen. Let's start with the noodles. Thicker and whiter (though not in the least bit like the shrink-wrapped ones you buy in the supermarket). They contain none of the alkaline, anti-caking agents that give ramen their yellowish tint (and distinctive texture) but they are no less comforting. The kitchen at Udon Works is too small to make them on site, explains our waitperson, but these are a bespoke product. According to the menu, the wheat flour is imported from Australia and the noodle "specially designed with our own ratio by artisans to suit New Zealand's climate".
Auckland's climate has, recently, sucked. Wet, cold and entirely soup-appropriate. I order the kake udon with chikuwa isobe age because the chikuwa bit of that descriptor is a kind of surimi and surimi has been my guilty pleasure food since forever. It gets a bad rap (too many doughy, deep-fried crab sticks) but, made properly, it is a gorgeously springy, low fat and delicately flavoured protein. Slightly firmer than a good noodle, slightly softer than cooked squid, in Japan it is a highly regarded product that I could eat by the bucket-load. Also, as it turns out, by the ceramic side plate.
My noodles ($13.80) arrive in an enormous steaming bowl. An unruffled lake of calm; an onsen for the soul. The seaweed-flecked tempura-battered fish cake was served separately. It was slightly stodgy even before I dipped it into that pool of soft, fishy stock. Take a moment to calibrate your tastebuds because that broth is subtle. Warming, not weighing - I was not an immediate convert, but I used not to like brussels sprouts or persimmon either. Good taste takes time.
There was a far more immediate punch in James' bowl. He'd gone the katsu curry udon route and it was an excellent example of old-school powdered-curry gravy and super-crunchy, juicy pork ($19.80). Buy this next time it snows.
Udon Works is at the southern end of Dominion Rd's Balmoral strip. With the city behind you, keep walking past New Flavour, Barilla, et al (if you haven't been to Banzai, put it on your list - their "melting salmon" is divine) until you get to this unassuming shop front with its dark, warm wood and (surely this is not real?) seaweed-draped feature wall.
We had hoped to start with the grilled kingfish. Our waitperson returned with dismay on her face. The oven was broken, and they couldn't grill the fish. Cucumber salad? She came back further chagrined. Apparently, they were out of cucumber. Moments later, a grassy, vinegary apology from the chef - a tiny plate of sea grape algae with cubes of piquant vinegar. We were starting to feel a million miles from Auckland.
Much of the Udon Works menu is in Japanese. We asked a million questions, and staff were really happy to explain. Tako wasabi? Steel yourself for the slick and glassy rawness of tiny pieces of uncooked octopus with a sinus-clearing heat, but don't miss this made-to-go-with-a-drink $6 starter. We also loved the pork "kakuni" ($12) because the latter means, simply, braised. Melty fat, yielding meat, happy customers.
Udon Works doesn't do dessert, the drinks list is limited, and their wooden soup ladles (which you are - I checked - supposed to use like a spoon) are so badly designed you should bring your own actual spoon. But there is a sweet warmth to this place. I know I will be back before winter is out. And I also know I will be back in summer. Because there is a whole other section of the menu dedicated to cold udon noodles and I'm fairly certain no ladle will be required.