London’s theatre district is; these days ‘chocka block’ with restaurants of all types and sizes, offering the obligatory “pre-theatre” menu for punters looking for a cheap meal in a hurry. A simple google search of west end restaurants will give you page upon page of restaurants in the area, so how do you stand out amongst the crowd?
One way to do this; is to offer decent, healthy, cheap alternatives; and certainly the rise in Japanese and Asian style café culture continues to be a stable alternative for the canny west end punter. As such, remembering my 20’s only too well, the rise of the slurp via the likes of Wagamamma’s and Giraffe into the West End and Soho space, so the opportunity to review a slurp fest was met with a curiosity; as those frequent visits to such chains and memories of tasteless Raman’s ultimately turned the whole affair a shade disappointing as my 20’s turned into my 30’s.
So with my curiosity abated, I headed for MUGA ,a small Japanese restaurant serving up top drawer Ramen’s. It is nestled on Panton Street, literally just round the corner from some notable Theatres such as the Theatre Royal and the Prince of Wales, as well as of course the Haymarket. Its location therefore poised to take in the theatre and shopping crowd albeit with some notable competition on the same street.
Muga is set out like a canteen, with a mixture of high chairs and tables alongside the bar, which allows you very close access to the two chefs working quite literally in front of you. We were shown to a couple seats by the chefs bar, a sparse, slightly crowded and basic set up, which for a Noodle canteen is perfect. The menu is quite limited, I wanted ramen, and I didn’t want the chefs to be districted on other unnecessary dishes. thankfully I got the impression very early on, that you come to Muga when you want a Raman.
When reviewing restaurants I like to go for the waiters tip or something I wouldn’t normally order; and so for starters we ordered the Agedashi Tofu, Tayoyaki (Octopus Balls) and the Renkon Hasami-age (Deep fried Lotus root stuffed with minced Chicken); alongside some Saki rice wine. Unfortunately however, they had run out of the Lotus roots, which considering we had arrived at 6.30 for our sitting was somewhat disappointing. Furthermore the Octopus balls (as delicious as they were) came later on in the meal, which although a little frustrating, this was I had to remind myself, not a conventional restaurant; and certainly as the Tofu and Saki arrived, our minds turned elsewhere with the impressive sight in front of us.
I would not normally order tofu; but for the good of the blog and a chance to stray off the beaten track a little, I thought this a wise choice. Whilst my dining partner was less keen, I really enjoyed the heightened flavour of the Tempura sauce that surrounded the Tofu, and whilst I agreed that although deep fried; the Tofu had a soft as opposed to a crispy texture as I was expecting; the taste was excellent and complimented the saki perfectly.
So with starters done; we waited for our Ramen’s to appear. After consulting the waiter, I plumped for the seafood delight shio, buoyed on by the thought of salt noodles, egg and squid, whilst my partner went for the Charshu max shoyu, an equally impressive porky affair; both recommended as Muga specialities.
Being a canteen style restaurant, with people coming and going constantly; I suppose it is to be expected, that service can be a little hectic at times; we felt that drinks and dishes arrived at odd time intervals; however having a front seat to watch the chefs go about making their ramen’s, made any haphazard service issues secondary. I have to say that these guys work hard and superbly methodical. There is almost a dance to the way they interact within the small kitchen. The great thing about Muga and this type of smaller independent restaurant, is the freshness of the ingredients and the time allowed to prepare these. The noodles are made onsite using an imported Japanese noodle maker, and the broth for the ramen’s are pressure cooked for 12 hours prior to service. It is these small details, which for my money made the ramen’s a much tastier and aesthetic dish than some of the chains, punters may be tempted to choose from. I was also impressed by the attention to detail the chefs took in making each dish. Certainly the pork dish creation had a degree of theatrics in keeping with the local area.
So when our Ramen’s arrived, freshly prepared in front of us, they looked an impressive sight.
Both bowels were big, healthy tasting bowls of soup and for a few minutes re-connected with my 20’s self, put restaurant etiquette to one side, and re-visited the way of the slurp. We were both impressed by the quality of the cooking for the toppings, which complimented the noodles and broth perfectly. The pork served as part of the Charshu Max ramen was meaty and smoky and the inclusion of garlic chips in the soup really held up and enhanced the other flavours. For my part I love squid. I eat a lot of squid, and so I was keen to see how good the squid rings would be, and certainly whilst the squid wasn’t the best I have had, its addition to the soup was all about the contrasting flavours that the salted noodles, fish cakes and most importantly the egg bought out in the dish. It took some time, but with the ramen finished and the freshly prepared noodles slurped down, we decided against dessert, because certainly for me, the taste of smoked garlic was one I was happy to have linger on my tongue for a good while longer.
As a casual dining experience, we really enjoyed Muga. The menu is limited, but that’s the good thing. It does what it does, and it does it well, quickly and relatively cheaply. It was a cold London evening when we visited Muga, and we both left warm and with full bellies. I would certainly recommend, that if you do not mind a “hectic-lite” style of eating and service, and are after a quick and healthy alternative to the other pre-theatre restaurants that litter the Haymarket, then Muga is a worhtwhile choice. It is good to know that the Ramen hasn’t just yet been totally claimed by the chains in and around central London.
Muga Ramen Dinning & Bar
5 Panton Street
020 7930 5088