As Vienna’s culinary horizons expand, local foodies have engaged in endless arguments over the best spots for the latest trendy snack – who makes the best burger in town, or taco, or bagel… and for the last few years, the humble ramen – that hearty noodle soup that went from a Japanese fast food staple to a culinary export to rival sushi. One name that keeps popping up in the running is the Mochi Ramen Bar, a spinoff of the popular pan-Japanese eatery on Vorgartenmarkt.
Since first opening in 2017, it has been a resounding hit, and it’s easy to see why – taking its cues from traditional ramen shops, it adapts the concept to contemporary Vienna: hip without being pretentious. Centered on the traditional open kitchen skirted by a bar, its black metal furnishings are offset with lots of natural wood to lighten the mood and ample plexiglass screens to aid in distancing. But it’s the Schanigärten – one on each side of the smallish establishment – where the real action is, both usually full of 20-somethings happily chatting away. Thanks to new COVID-19 regulations and recently installed heat lamps, that should carry on into the dead of winter.
Just like its Japanese progenitors, the menu is short, with just five soups and a handful of ever-popular starters like edamame or ikapiri (sweet and spicy sepia), rounded out by craft beers, a handful of decent wines, a selection of Japanese sakes and whiskeys as well as some clever mixed drinks like yuzu spritz or a mule made with shochu.
This simplicity makes for exemplary service: Despite being at capacity around 18:30, the courteous staff was as quick as you could eat – I went through three courses within 45 minutes, including signing up for contact tracing. It seems the Mochi Ramen Bar has taken the “bar” quite literally – I’ve waited longer on cocktails.
However, it all comes down to the food, and here, Mochi Ramen scored a series of near misses – all the more maddening for how close they got. Their tori karaage (Japanese-style fried chicken) served with chili mayo and a slice of lime was juicy and tender, expertly marinated and seasoned with black sesame seeds – but it was also dripping with hot grease, ruining the overall impression. Just half a minute more to dry off would have transformed this from an also-ran to a major contender.
Likewise, their Shoyu Deluxe Ramen: T he slices of pork filet were a revelation, so pillowy they were actually softer than the menma (fermented bamboo shoots); the noodles were chewy but firm with a pleasantly gritty texture, the soft-boiled egg all you could ask for. But the secret to great ramen lies in a broth that ties everything together, creating some- thing greater than the sum of its toppings. Japanese ramen chefs guard their soup stocks like state secrets, sometimes honing them over decades. But in Mochi’s case, it’s impossible to tell, thanks to the large fistful of bonito flakes heaped on top of the bowl. The dried and fermented bits of skipjack tuna are well- known for providing umami (savoury-ness), the fashionable “fifth flavor” first described in Japan, and it certainly delivers: Within seconds, the thin shavings had dissolved, overpowering the entire bowl with salty, fishy heartiness. A cursory look at other tables showed that this was a feature, not an accident – but like all seasonings, less is often more. I strongly recommend scooping the bonito out and re-adding to taste – or asking the chef to hold it entirely.
Still, Mochi Ramen’s charm is undeniable and reaches far beyond the Stuwerviertel – plus, its lightning-quick service makes it ideal for lunch breaks. The debate over the best ramen in town is likely to rage for years to come; if Mochi wants to remain included in the conversation though, it needs a little push.