This was the second time I ate at Pho Mai, the first visit being a good one. Having heard numerous reports from friends that the quality varied drastically from almost sublime, to bath-water, the knot in my stomach tightened with every labored step. I arrived to find the lights off and doors locked, 2.10pm, said they opened at 2 online. I decided to call my sister for a few minutes and lo and behold, during my call the owner came out and opened the door.
Inside I just ordered the Beef Pho, forgetting to even look at the menu. I chose a vantage point that offered my back to the counter, and a view through a window. My bowl arrived after 5 minutes, placed down by the cheery older owner. He mentioned he was from Saigon, and beamed at the bowl before me quietly adding "This one is better than in Vietnam". Tho I won't call him a liar, he was stretching the truth. The Pho in Oslo doesn't hold a candle to most places in Ho Chi Minh, but far be it from me to go down memory lane now.
Soup was almost perfect. Deeply flavoured, nice hints (but not overpowering) spices, tender beef, solid noodles and a plate of accompaniments that you'd hope for. The addition of the small ginger slices was a treat, and after a few splodges of garlic-chilli paste the bowl sung wonderful melodies.
"Try everything twice"- I've been known to scream in brazen euphoria. Putting it into practice throws up more practical obstacles.
Sapporo Ramen was the first official shop-front Ramen place to open in Oslo in the Ramen-rush of 2016. Sure, I was part of starting the pop-up Tanpopo Ramen in Oslo the year before, where we fiddled around with online recipes and no experience at all with mass-broth-making, facing the complete lack of procuring any decent noodles, and mastering the annoying task of soft boiling and peeling hundreds of eggs. That wave came and went, and people went onto other cloaks and other chefs knives.
With the announcement of Sapporo coming to town, my instant thought was "It's going to be shit", followed closely by: "But I have to try it". The lack of a neighbourhood ramen spot to quell the aching hearts of downpours and ennui had burrowed deep in dark souls like never-ending roundabouts. Sadness is tempered by umami, grief by the motion of slurping, hope restored by the ladling out of glistening, fatty broth.
I went, faced with the dilemma of wishing for it to be good, but hoping it would be bad so we could continue our pop-up. In short, it was a dire love-extinguishing journey into the very root of inane trespass. The flame of anticipation dealt a murderous plunge. I decided there and then, never to return, and further more, to knock on door and gate with evangelical zeal warning people of the charlatans in white robes.
Just shy of 4 years later, on a befittingly miserable, rainy day, I walked down Telthusbakken to drop off some bottles at the Rema 1000. On the escalators up, I saw a virtually empty restaurant, and decided to tempt fate one more time, and see if improvements had been made. They had.
The spicy bowl was sufficiently red, potentially because the Thai woman was working and they love to kick up the spice a notch. I still needed to add a good few shakes of Togarashi to pep up the pleasantries. Sadly, they use the same noodles as their incomparably disastrous sister-branch at Ezo; the curly noodles that lack pleasing texture. The egg was eons better than Ezo, but still bang on average. This time around the pork had been taken further in its cuisson, and shone a golder brown. Parts of it were dry, parts of it were tasty. Menma was menma-ish, spring onions don't need more than a mention, the most important thing in ramen is the broth. Ultimately, the broth had some umami, balance and depth to it. It was far, far better than the first visit when literally everything was unworthy of digestion.
This ramen would get lost around half-way up to the summit of Broth Mountain, but taking into account we are in a nation raised on taco-fredag, this was a pleasing attribute to the Asian food proliferation in Oslo. As is the case here, not one place does it perfectly, but if you combine the strongest elements of each you could come up with a pretty damn good bowl.
(P.s. Just look at the MISERABLE bowl I had last time and tell me why any sane person would return?
With trepidation colouring my optimism, I stood outside Hrimnir Ramen waiting for my friends to turn up. Bicycles dismounted, we stood in line, placed our weary bodies at an outdoor table, perused the menu, ordered and sat waiting for the hype-ship to approach, dock, and spill it's wares.
My main sticking point with previously avoiding Hrimnir was the notion of "Nordic Ramen". Whilst not adverse to evolution, ramen is something I tend to prefer in traditional constructs. However, after the overall disappointment of Oslo's other noodle-shelters, I decided it time to brave the waters. On recommendation from a few people I trusted, I opted for the Spicy Miso Ramen and a side of Chilli-oil. The service was polite and observant, the outside seating soaked up the dying rays of Oslo's translucent summer, the prices a little on the steep side considering Ezo (in all it's diabolical atrophy) was a full 60 Kr cheaper.
Thoughts of the budget conscious were cast aside upon closer inspection of the arrived bowl. It shone with care and contemplation. No short cuts here, no fooling the customer. What we ate was a bowl of Nordic Ramen which if slightly edited could be on the way to glory. To fully explain this I would have to wade into the waters of personal preferences, and honestly nobody cares to hear that. I shall therefore just critique what was in my vessel.
The soup (with the addition of the chilli oil) was rich, flavoursome and had a mild hit of heat. The pork neck, tho not my favourite cut since it tends to resemble boiled ham as opposed to the luxurious texture of pork belly, delivered on flavour and was sufficiently tender. The noodles were the straight, wheat variety, still retaining some bite. The only slight diversion was the egg, which, tho perfectly cooked, was aggressively salty even for a salt-fornicater. The addition of the charred cabbage neither added nor subtracted anything from the meal, but was highly preferred to tinned sweetcorn (satan). The "famous" Jerusalem Artichokes, tho not my personal OMG moment, served their purpose in cutting through the richness of the soup with pops of acidity. I just feel they could have used half the amount.
Overall, a much better experience than I (needlessly) feared, and most definitely the best bowl of "Ramen" you can hope to find in Oslo. At least this place is staying true to their philosophy, and making a bowl that they are proud of, and whether you think Ramen can be bastardised is your own moral dilemma, i'll happily eat this over anything else in town for the time being.
In most situations I will try to not slaughter a restaurant due to the fact that tastes are subjective, and more often than not the driving force behind it is a person who's trying. Well, in this case I have to open the gates of wrath.
I have tried Inage's food before. His other branch of ramen at Sapporo, was a gargantuan fuck-chamber of mediocrity when they opened up a few years ago. I remember it so distinctly that I never went back. The poor fuckers couldn't get ANYTHING right... Well, now he has branched off due to his "success" in feeding noodle soups to a loyal customer base who I stress to venture have never had a good bowl in their lives, or smoke too many cigarettes, He pushes the thread of authenticity under a blanket of jumping on a bandwagon and actually having no natural ability to re-create Ramen in an edible form.
Ezo, his new flagship spot next to the dazzlingly vomitous facade of beard oil merchants next door, shines with a brave announcement of intent. Come here for hipster, fashionable ramen. One positive, he doesn't hike up the price towards the 200 NOK mark like so many other places in town, cough cough. At 140 Kr for the Shoyu Bowl, you can't at least argue with the cost. However, after completion of said bargain, you realise you'd happily pay more for something edible.
The noodles had this magic power of tasting over-cooked and under-cooked at the same time. The pork was not trimmed properly or rendered so the fat had that awful raw-white-fat taste that would make you send a lamb rack hurtling back to the kitchen, the soup was devoid of any depth and sweet like christmas pudding, the sprinkling of spring onion the only thing that tasted as it should, because it hadn't been barbarised by the chefs hand. To add final insult to the frostiest of injuries, the crown of golden yolked redemption (the egg) was bitten into and subsequently discarded. How they manage to almost hard boil it and then dunk it in vinegar so that it soaks up all of the astringency but no flavours of mirin, soy, that it's supposed to have. Wonders never cease in the realm of cluelessness.
I am starting to have severe suspicions of this man's intentions, because by my experience the Japanese are very studious in their approaches to food and do nothing half-assed. Well, this my friends is the epitome of half-assed. It was downright embarassing.
If you've read any of my articles on Oslo food, you'll know that I pine for the old days of Hai Cafe. Since they shut, there have been rumours of a re-opening, but nothing reached fruition. Dalat was visited once almost a decade ago, and I remember not being overly impressed, and honestly quite put off by the over-riding smell of wet dog and dried fish. Times have changed, and without Hai to tempt my hardly earned Kroners, and others more recently tested, I made it a point to give them a second chance and see if things had improved.
In short, they had.
The smell was rather more pleasant. The service was friendlier than I remembered (tho i'd take a grumpy asshole and retching odours if the soup was up to par). I ordered their Beef Pho and sat watching the ice cubes in my water glass melt quicker than was reasonable. It was a scorching day.
Bowl came a'balancing, and I sipped the broth clean before pouring and tearing in condiments and improvements. It was better than I remembered, but also had that over-sweet taste that I wasn't the biggest fan of. Too much cinnamon or star anise tilting the balance. The beef was rather dry and chewy, the meatball standard and the noodles were as expected. Garnishes aside, since they generally are raw ingredients bought in, the chili garlic paste had a pleasant kick, and added much needed tempering of the sweetness.
Ultimately, the bowl was a good substitution for the vacuum left by Hai, and probably ranked as the best bowl of Pho i've tried so far in Oslo, since Pho Mai swings so wildly in consistency.
I purposely chose the bowl without canned sweetcorn due to my pedantic avoidance of such vagaries. The location was agreeable to dine & depart, although the acoustics were treacherous. The Nagoya bowl arrived at my table from the friendly server, and my accomplices Tonkotsu bowls. I noticed the pool of oil floating on mine, and was slightly hesitant about the repercussions of such excess.
Half way down the bowl, the verdict was in. A totally acceptable bowl of noodle soup, but nothing more than that. The noodles had a slight chew to them, the egg was standard, the addition of crisp bean sprouts is always a plus, and there was an underlying trace of chilli, but it didn't do enough to counter-act the sweetness of the broth. I know some ramen styles are supposed to be oily, but this pushed the envelope onto the fringes. I had a sip of my friends Tonkotsu and if it had been toned down for the local palate i'd understand, because it lacked the deep richness and body that real Tonkotsu possesses. However, for what it was, it was.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. If the intention was to make authentic, grandma style Pho, then this was an abject failure. If the proposition was to create a hip, nu-viet style restaurant pandering to the locals who's couldn't even point out HCMC on a map, and serve them some strange distant cousin of Pho Bo, then they marginally succeded. In theory at least.
It was delightful to be able to sit outside on this bright and cheerful day, the server was exceptionally friendly and professional, the menu was cut down due to "pandemic limitations" and therefore the only bowl on offer was their signature Pho.
To cut to the chase. The broth was overly sweet, and unduly aggressive on the black pepper. The meatball had a very firm, tough texture. The noodles were not great. The actual beef slice was fairly prepared, and the tiny smattering of accompaniments took the entire joy out of having a heaped plate full of culantro, cilantro, basil, lime, chilis, etc with which to conjure magic.
At 189 kr for a bowl that wasn't even half-filled up, i'd say the price point was also disappointing.
I really hope they get their act together and start taking more care with the details, otherwise I think the people seeking out Oslo's best pho will be forced to look elsewhere.
Short blog posts about my daily bowls.