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There’s a certain energy you get in a restaurant that has an open kitchen—the action behind the line seems to pour out into the seats, amping up the heat, the noise, and the salt of the whole experience. Diners get to be spectators, forcing the staff to keep it together under pressure—but they’re also on display, with chefs carefully eyeing their reaction to the food. At the brick-and-mortar location of Otaku Ramen, which opened in The Gulch in December, that interplay between chef and diner is what makes it both intense and so much fun.
“People get really passionate about this food,” says Otaku founder and co-chef Sarah Gavigan of the combination of wheat noodles and rich bone broth. “They feel like they know it—or they get passionate because they don’t know it.”
Wabi-Sabi cocktail, $11
Hot chicken buns, $8
Tennessee tonkotsu, $12
Kara-age donburi, $12 (when available)
Case in point: During one of my visits, I sat next to a Vanderbilt medical researcher who told me he’d probably visited Otaku two, three, or four times a week since they opened.
“I’ve given them lots of feedback,” he explained, so certain of his understanding of the true essence of ramen that he firmly believed he was teaching them a thing or two. “They’ve listened to some of it. The broth has definitely gotten better,” he added.
That open dialogue between chef and diner is part of ramen culture, Gavigan points out. It’s why she designed the space, which was formerly the wine bar Rumours, with an open kitchen format with blonde woods, white tiled walls, and stools set at just the right height for putting your face over a bowl of noodles. (The L.A.-based firm Design, Bitches helped her craft the look.)
The best seats are at the bar, looking into the kitchen—where you can watch the sometimes awkward, sometimes graceful dance the staff puts on while they maneuver in and out of tight spaces, dropping baskets of noodles into boiling water and seasoning each bowl with a balance of other ingredients, like poached eggs, long strands of pork, and rectangular sheets of nori seaweed. If you’ve ever attended one of Gavigan’s ramen pop-ups, Otaku South, or the ramen meals at her East Nashville space, POP (now Little Octopus), you’ll recognize the menu, which is filled with her greatest hits: hot chicken buns, Japanese pickles, and Tennessee tonkotsu, which is made using pork bones sourced from small regional farms.
That last point is an important one: Gavigan is adamant that commodity pork bones lessen the quality of broth. But it’s already proving to be an issue because, simply put, Otaku is jammed. Instead of the respectable 100 bowls of ramen a day that Gavigan anticipated when they opened, her staff is faced with nonstop lines out the door (wait times have topped two hours) and plating upward of 350 bowls of ramen daily—each of those requires several ladle scoops of broth, made from a massive amount of bones.
“We have about 400 pounds of bones coming through here every single day,” she states. From a sustainability standpoint, something will eventually have to give, she admits, adding, “we’re probably going to have to make some serious menu changes down the road unless we can figure out some other sources for our bones.”
Until then, make that tonkotsu your primary reason to visit. There is also a clear chicken broth (shoyu), a creamy chicken broth (paitan), and a vegetarian miso broth—but the pork broth offers a fatty and satisfying richness that the others just don’t. Each version of the ramen can be added to with extras like a Korean chili paste or miso butter, plus proteins like pork confit or tofu. And don’t overlook the occasional special, like donburi rice bowls—overflowing with sticky rice, these are piled with other ingredients, like the kara-age donburi with its addictive chunks of fried chicken thighs, pickled ginger, and vinegar-laced daikon slaw. (On the original menu, these are now offered as the occasional special.) If you’re looking to share something before the main event, the okonomiyaki, a scallion cabbage pancake topped with nori, kewpie mayonnaise, and pickled ginger, comes out sizzling in its own skillet.
At the back of the restaurant is a whiskey bar, where the shelves are brimming with a selection of hard-to-find Japanese whiskeys, including bottles of Iwai and Akashi white oak whiskey. Here, consulting barman Ben Clemons of Bar 308 has created a strong list of cocktails that complement the ramen but also stand on their own. (Try the Wabi-Sabi, a soothing and potent hot beverage made with that white oak whiskey, barley tea, and lemongrass.)
As the team settles into their new space, Gavigan promises to keep growing. A patio will soon be enclosed to provide more seats and may become the venue for a “street food” menu, she says. Eventually, she’d like to add raw fish offerings as well.
For now, go to Otaku for the ramen—and go back often. Expect it to be a little bit different every time. After all, every bowl is seasoned individually, so even if the broth is made the same way every day, each bowl will get its own personal touch. And eat it quickly: The life span of a bowl of ramen is only about ten minutes, says Gavigan. If you can accept those two factors, she adds, “you’re going to have a more enjoyable experience. Because ramen is fast, and it’s different every day.”
1104 Division St.; 615-942-8281; otakuramen.com