It's probably fair to say that the middle-aged woman and her mother who have wandered into Bia Rebel, a ramen shop in Belfast, may have been lured in by the the giant sign in the window, offering a "grab and go soup and salad lunch deal", for £4.50.
"I don't know what ramen is," the elder of the two says, when confronted with a menu. They are definitely not the first customers to admit that to co-owner Jenny Holland. But within minutes the pair are perched on stools, tucking into bowls of "chicken noodle soup", which is how Holland demystifies the Japanese classic for first-timers.
"We are the ambassadors of ramen," says Holland, a former newspaper reporter and speechwriter, who runs the business with her partner Brian Donnelly, a chef who has worked in a variety of top-class kitchens including those run by Kevin Thornton, Gary Rhodes, Gordon Ramsay, Michel Roux jnr, and the late Myrtle Allen. Allen gave him a commis job at Ballymaloe when he was 17, though he started working in hotels in his native Co Tyrone at 13.
In March of this year, the couple opened Bia Rebel on a busy suburban strip on the city's Ormeau Road, having road tested their idea on a market stall and a food truck. "We made our first 20 portions, arrived at St George's Market and sold all of them. People came back and said they loved it. It was such a good feeling," Holland says.
It’s a small shop, geared mainly towards takeaway and delivery, with just 10 stools out front for those who can’t wait to tuck into those deeply savoury bowls of broth, noodles and their accompaniments. The menu lists seven varieties of ramen bowl, as well plain broth options, a poke salmon bowl, and sides including chicken wings and gyoza. Nothing costs more than £8.
Spreading the word about their ramen may be “ a work in progress”, according to Holland, but it is progressing at a rapid pace. This week, they were named winners of the reader-voted Best Cheap Eats category at the prestigious Observer Food Monthly (OFM) awards in London.
It's a significant achievement for a new business in a regional city, in competition with the rest of the United Kingdom, including London. And it all comes down to the extraordinary quality of the product the couple have perfected and are replicating seven days a week from their kitchen and shop, set up with a tiny budget of £17,000 (€19,400).
Bia Rebel ramen is made with wheat flour noodles made in-house every day, slow-cooked broth that is made umami-rich with chicken wings, mushrooms, kombu and ginger, and meat sourced from small-scale, high-quality producers such as Kenny and Jennifer Gracey, whose Forthill Farm heritage breed pigs supply the pork. The shop's slogan is: "32 hours 26 ingredients one awesome soup".
There are five components to ramen, says Donnelly: “noodles, broth, meat [or another protein], toppings and the tare, or seasoning.” Bia Rebel’s bestseller is their original, called Belfast shoyu ramen, which has slow-cooked pork shoulder and a tea-cured egg added, and toppings of spring onion, bamboo and nori.
The tare for this one is a sofrito-like melange of apples, onions, garlic and ginger, slow cooked for 14-16 hours. This goes into the bowl first, followed by soy sauce that has oolong tea, orange blossom and orange oil in it, then the broth, noodles, pork (cooked overnight in a water bath and flash-grilled to order ) and toppings.
There are also less traditional ramens on offer, including Ramenara, a take on carbonara, with fried bacon and a Parmesan topping. For Christmas, they’ll be repeating the tandoori chicken ramen that was a big hit last year.
“We are definitely a hybrid, we don’t claim to be an authentic Japanese restaurant in any way shape or form,” Holland says. But the rigour underpinning the concept is rock solid, and a reflection of Donnelly’s classical training. The tea-smoked egg, for example, is boiled for exactly six minutes and six seconds. “It took us over 200 eggs and six suppliers to get those right,” Donnelly says. The peeled eggs then spend 37 hours macerating in soy sauce, mirin and smoked tea.
Donnelly says he left restaurant kitchens, and a parallel career in the wine trade, behind in search of “something different”, when he went down the ramen road. “My cook books went to the charity shop and my chef’s whites went in the bin.” For Holland, it has been about highlighting Northern Ireland’s small producer raised beef and pork, and finding a high-quality takeaway option at an affordable price.
The OFM award has come at just the right time for the couple, who have expansion in sight. “The last time I was this excited about cooking something, I was working in Kevin Thornton’s. It is the same every morning now, I can’t wait to get in,” Donnelly says.
“We started off on the stall, with £100, and then we were a truck and now we’re a shop. We’re doing it on our own, we don’t have any backers. When we opened this shop I told everybody we employed, ‘I have no money to pay you until we sell something and we should have money at the end of the month to pay you’, and those guys were like, ‘right, okay’.”