First Look: Hajime

Umaido's new Cheshire Bridge sister restaurant Hajime

The vigor with which enthusiasts seek out authentic ramen in this town is intense. To get their fix, many fans willingly make the 30-mile trek to Suwanee for bowls at Umaido, the ramen shop whose name suitably means "great tasting house." So, the question remains: How will Umaido owner/chef Rick Kim's six-week-old restaurant measure up?

Tucked away in the Cheshire Bridge Shopping Center near Tara Theater, Hajime Japanese Ramen Bar feels industrial. It's 2,600 square feet of wood and steel. There are several seating options: individual tables, high-top bar areas, and a communal table with a rock garden feature in its center. Mellow music, like the Best of Bob Marley on one visit, plays softly in the background. Hajime makes its own noodles in-house. Just inside the door is a glassed-in room where water, wheat flour, and salt are mixed, rolled out, and cut into thin ribbons.

The view into open kitchen delivers its own entertainment. Wisps of steam rise from large, gleaming stainless steel pots. Chefs wielding giant chopsticks expertly pick accoutrements out of square containers and squeeze bottles of assorted sauces over dishes.

The menu, similar to Umaido, is not merely ramen. It also incorporates Japanese side dishes and appetizers as well as small rice bowls. The difference between "side dish" and appetizer seems negligible. Both types run $3-$8. Six bronzed, crescent-shaped gyoza dumplings ($7) filled with a mixture of pork, onion, and mushrooms are a great way to begin. Flash-fried shishito peppers ($6) are served on a bamboo sushi roller with a pile of yuzu salt. Chunks of crisp Japanese fried chicken (karaage), lightly coated in potato starch and served with lemon salt, are so addictive, you may find yourself plotting ways to smuggle them into the theater next door. And kids dig them.

There are plenty of light choices to make a meal, as well. The kani salad ($5) of crab is fresh and simple, lightly dressed with a slight touch of spicy mayo. Mantaki don ($5) is a tiny bowl of buttery steamed rice showered with scallions, sesame seeds, and seaweed strips, and topped with spicy cod roe. The contrasting flavors mesh perfectly with the funky roe. A mound of tangled squid legs arrives when ordering gesoyaki ($7). Not super tender, but the squid has good char flavor from grilling and comes with a seasoned mayo for dipping.

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Hirata steamed buns ($3) are stuffed with a slightly chewy wedge of pork and a leaf of iceberg lettuce and topped with "spicy buns sauce," which is flavorful in a five spice kind of way — messy, but not spicy.

There are 10 ramen choices ($10-$13), but endless possibilities with the slew of toppings offered. Add an egg, shrimp, fried chicken, squid, scallops, or bamboo shoot for an additional $2-$3. Order "kae dama" and minutes after slurping through your bowl, extra noodles (regular or spicy) are placed on top for an extra $1.50. Soymilk base ($11) is the only vegetarian option (omitting the slices of pork). It's on the sweeter side but is chock-full of colorful veggies.

Hajime serves authentic Hakata-style ramen with tonkotsu broth derived from a prefecture on Japan's southern island. Tonkotsu's flavor comes from the rich body of emulsified fats from pork bones that have been simmering for dozens of hours. Hajime's tonkotsu ($10) is rich and opaque, pleasantly salty with a slight gelatinous sheen. The thinner, curvy Kyushu-style noodles get well slicked by the broth. On top are wood ear mushrooms, a few thick slices of tender roasted pork, droplets of garlic oil, threads of bean sprouts, and a sprinkle of scallions and sesame seeds. Many ramen joints add a half soy-seasoned egg but Hajime adds an entire nitamago, hard boiled on the outside and oozy on the inside. For more concentrated flavor, order "rich body soup" for $1 extra. Tonkotsu also has an ultra spicy version ($11) with levels "1,2,3,?." Level two is pretty darn spicy, just so you know.

Tori ramen ($11) is a golden and opaque, combining tonkotsu with chicken broth. Nestled with the snappy noodles are bean sprouts, spinach leaves, crispy fried onions, a nitamago, and a cherry tomato on top (for color, perhaps?). We added kakuni (braised pork belly) to trick out the bowl. You can really taste the extra punch of flavor that ordering "rich body soup" makes with this one. Honey miso ($10) adds a honey-mixed-with-soybean paste to tonkotsu. Roast pork with seared edges, sweet corn, a soy egg, seaweed, scallions, bean sprouts, and sesame seeds mingle in the bowl with droplets of peanut oil.

Something that sets Hajime apart from most ramenyas is the bowl of seafood ramen ($13). Tonkotsu and seafood broth are ladled into the bowl with a large shrimp, squid legs, and creamy scallops along with onion, seaweed, scallions, sesame seeds, and beads of shrimp oil. Adding additional shrimp (three for $3) turns a bowl into an eye-catching yet delicious spectacle.

As of presstime, Hajime's alcohol license is forthcoming. Service here is hit or miss with timing but conscientious. You may get your appetizer after your ramen or vice versa, but your drink will be refilled and your status checked.

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