Behind the glassed-in kitchen at Marugame Monzo, a chef pulls and pounds a 3-foot-wide round of dough. With a long stick, he rolls out the dough, sprinkles it with flour, rolls it around the stick, pounds it and repeats. After working the dough for a long time, he winds it around the stick one last time before setting it aside with other dough-wrapped sticks and starting fresh on a new round.
The product he's laboring over? Udon noodles. Monzo serves more than 20 variations of udon, which are among America's least fetishized Japanese noodles. We tend to swoon and rhapsodize about ramen here, and sometimes soba; the comfort of udon's fat, hearty noodles is less of a fixation. But at Monzo, udon is the star of the show, handmade by chefs in an open kitchen, then carefully cut and batched as diners happily slurp the finished product a few feet away, from a bar facing the action.
The udon here is Sanuki-style, which is most popular in Shikoku, the smallest island of Japan. Chiefly famous as an important stop for Buddhist pilgrims, the island also is where Monzo's namesake city, Marugame, is located. Sanuki-style noodles are slightly denser and chewier than some softer varieties, thanks to all that pounding as they are rolled and labored over.
House-made udon is difficult to find these days. Kotohira, in Gardena, used to be known for the stuff, but "it was too hard," a waitress there sighs. "The chef is tired. We buy it now." Close to Monzo, on the third floor of the Little Tokyo shopping center, Tsurumaru Udon, which opened recently, serves house-made noodles as well.
But Monzo, which opened in March in Little Tokyo in the space that used to be Fat Spoon, is aiming a little higher, both with its style of udon and the level of service. It's sit-down and upscale, at least for a noodle joint, with black, lacquered tables and a feel that's downright sleek. In this way, Monzo bridges the gap between L.A.'s high-end Japanese restaurants and the low-rent ramen shops that were here even before the current noodle craze (such as Daikokuya, the legendary Little Tokyo ramen shack, which for many years was the only game in town and is located right next door to Monzo).
Here is all the care, effort and comfort of a sushi restaurant, only instead of pristine fish, it's the noodle diners come to revere.
A good part of the menu is dedicated to itameshi, which is the mash-up of Italian and Japanese food currently enjoying huge popularity in Japan. The story of Japan's obsession with Italian food is partially an economic story: In the early '90s, when the Asian economy turned downward, Japanese diners turned away from high-end (typically French) dining. They wanted something cheap and cheerful, food the Japanese call kigaru de yasui. This translated to a fascination with Italian food, which has only grown over the last 20 years.
So at Monzo there is traditional hot and cold udon, and then there's udon with miso carbonara, an intensely rich, oddly smoky bowl of Monzo's fantastic, fat, chewy noodles in a creamy, egg-based sauce with slivers of pork belly. The early days of Japan's interest in Italian food featured a lot of red sauce (it's thought that Italian-American GIs brought Southern Italian food with them during the occupation), but Monzo's fusion sauces tend to be creamy. You can get udon vongole, or udon gratin, or a creamy tomato version with chunks of seafood floating in the sauce.
The dish that has very quickly gained cult status is the uni cream udon, which is printed only on the dinner menu but usually is available at lunch if requested. It is exactly what it sounds like: udon tossed with a thick cream heavily infused with the flavor of sea urchin. Some of the almost metallic tang and funk of pure uni is lost in translation, and yet the dish does capture the sweet, mellow, oceanic magic of the stuff.
These Italian-edged udons are tasty and fun, and the uni cream version is certainly one of L.A.'s bucket-list dishes. Yet I'd give them all up for a chance to sit quietly by myself at the bar in front of the udon-making chef and slurp quietly on Monzo's cold udon, ordered with a poached Jidori egg.
It's this preparation that most fully allowed me to appreciate the texture of the noodle, the extra firmness in the bite, the exact right heft to support its garnishes of grated daikon, chopped scallion and the wispy magic of bonito. A small dish of grated ginger adds a gentle sting. The intense dashi, intended to be poured over the noodles, is a perfect expression of umami, and the tempura-fried egg adds just the right amount of fat to make the entire bowl downright luxurious.
Hot udon is almost as gratifying. Get it with crackly, light tempura, or with rich slices of duck. The heat adds a certain level of comfort but also lacks some of the subtle complexities of the cold udon. Maybe it's just the season: In winter, the hot version likely will call to me just as irresistibly.
At lunch, you can add a small rice bowl topped with the meat of your choice for $3. The best is the pork belly don, thinly sliced and layered on top of the rice with a shower of scallions. Here, too, the attention to basic technique is evident: The real star of the bowl is the rice itself, each grain slightly slippery, al dente and distinct.
In the evening, the menu expands to include a long list of appetizers, as well as bargain-priced skewers holding one or two bites of lightly fried single ingredients. The eggplant is particularly good, as is the baby octopus.
Scallop carpaccio topped with tobiko is also a little bit Japanese, a little bit Italian. It's served over tomatoes, with a mild, creamy sauce. Beef tataki, cooked rare and tender, comes with olive oil, pink peppercorns and dashi. These are fusions that work exceedingly well.
Like the menu, the wait for a table expands at dinner. Anytime after 6 p.m., be prepared to put your name on a list and stand outside on the pavement for up to an hour. It will seem interminable while you stand there, but it feels instantly worth it the minute you slide into a seat at one of Monzo's tables and see the chef in the back, carefully picking up a serving of freshly cut noodles and placing them aside, ready to be whisked out to you.
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Kigaru de yasui: food that is cheap and cheerful. It's easy to see why Japan has embraced such a notion. Marugame Monzo embodies that frugality and cheer beautifully, in its fusions, in its feel and, especially, in those gorgeous chewy handmade noodles.
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MARUGAME MONZO | 3 stars | 329 E. First St., Little Tokyo | (213) 346-9762 | Daily, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-10 p.m. | Beer and sake | Udon, $6.95-$15.95 | Street and paid lot parking nearby