What: The first European restaurant for Marugame Udon, the world’s largest udon noodle chain. Launched in 2000, the group has more than 800 fast casual restaurants in Japan and a further 250 across the rest of Asia, the US and Russia. Marugame Udon specialises in Sanuki-style udon from Japan’s Kagawa prefecture - now the dominant style of udon in Japan - and tempura. Located close to Liverpool Street Station in a site that was home to a Wahaca, the restaurant has a notably low price point that’s more QSR than fast casual, offering freshly-made bowls of noodles for as little as £3.45.
Who: Marugame Udon arrives in Europe by way of a joint venture between Toridoll Holdings Corporation and Capdesia Group. Sector veteran Keith Bird - who is best known for a long stint running Gourmet Burger Kitchen - is leading the brand’s European push. While Marugame Udon (Europe) won’t be drawn on the total number of sites it plans to open in the UK or Europe more widely, it clearly has big plans. Before the Middlesex Street even opened its doors a further four London sites were lined up, including a location in The O2 (see Analysis section).
The vibe: The triangle-shaped corner site has an entrance on Middlesex Street for eat-in customers and a further entrance on Widegate Street for delivery drivers and those ordering via click and collect. Diners are greeted by an open kitchen in which the noodles can be seen being prepared and cooked, a very specific and visually engaging process. The kitchen is surrounded by a staffed service area, with diners directed to pick up a tray alla Ikea café and move through various stations. The 100-cover venue has a similar look and feel to the Marugame Udon restaurants in Japan, with design features including stacks of Japanese roof tiles, a backlit likeness of Japan’s famed Mount Fuji and a lighting feature than resembles a tangle of udon noodles.
The food: The first thing eat-in guests come to are the noodles and other ‘main’ dishes. Udon dishes start at £3.45 for plain kamaage (noodles served straight from the pot with a sweet and smoky fish dashi) with meat-based udon dishes such as chicken katsu curry udon and two pork tonkotsu udon costing around £7, which is still very competitive. Those that don’t fancy noodles can opt for rice bowls, which include salmon teriyaki (£7.95), katsu curry (£6.45) and vegetable curry (£5.45). The next station is dedicated to tempura. Options include nori (75p), egg (£1.75), red pepper (£0.95) and chicken (£1.95). Marugame Udon also offers omusubi rice balls with fillings including pork and tofu and a handful of extras including kimchi, Japanese pickles and onsen eggs (eggs lightly poached in their shells). Once the meal is paid for customers are directed to a condiment station, where dishes can be customised with ingredients including chillies, spring onions, grated ginger and tempura batter scraps.
And another thing: The kitchen staff were originally going to be flown over to Japan for training but, due to Covid-19, had to settle for Blackpool (the location of Marugame Udon’s kitchen fabricator).
It’s rare for new brands to expand at such pace, especially when they’re working with a core product that’s not especially well-known on these shores. Bird and team have their work cut out educating customers about udon, a somewhat austere and not immediately accessible branch of Japanese cooking that could become lost in translation if the messaging isn’t spot on.
That said, the presence of more familiar menu items – such as tonkotsu-inspired broths and katsu curry – will help in that regard. The relatively healthy nature of udon is a big tick too, but the real ace up Bird's sleeve is a price point that won't dissuade people from taking a punt on something a bit different. The London market in particularly seems ready for udon given the recent boom in other noodle focused-concepts - not least ramen - and the success of homegrown udon-specialist Koya, which recently announced its third London site as well as a nationwide delivery service.
And encouragingly Marugame Udon is not the only Japan-founded udon brand to be eying up the UK. With 500 sites across Japan, Hong Kong and the US, Kineya Mugimaru recently made its London debut in King’s Cross with a second site expected to open in Cambridge soon (it’s being brought to these shores by Wasabi and Kimchee founder Dong Hyun Kim). Credible competition like this is good for Marugame Udon, at least in the short term to medium term.
One wonders if Marugame Udon would be expanding so rapidly were it not for the high availability of prime restaurant real estate and comparatively low property costs brought about by the pandemic. Though somewhat awkwardly shaped, this first site is ideally located on the eastern edge of The City close to major transport links. While The City proper remains quiet, the Liverpool Street area pulls people in from further afield and is busy through the week thanks to Spitalfields and Brick Lane.
If Bird can achieve the volumes this site has been designed for - it will eventually be able to handle a dizzying 400 transactions per hour - he will be breaking new ground in that such throughput is unheard of for restaurants preparing fresh food from scratch on site. This coupled with its daringly low price point and aggressive expansion plans make Marugame Udon a brand the likes of Wagamama will be watching very closely indeed.