Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Mappen out a path

Following a foodie movie for this year’s Japanese Film Festival late last month (not quite as good as last year’s foodie movie), we were headed towards a path to food, ideally with a Shanghainese or Japanese slant.

It’s now options galore around the cinema area on George Street, and as tempting as the KFC smells, we head the other direction to the few blocks that almost seem transported straight out of Asia.

Mappen, George Street, Sydney
Mappen is the relative newcomer around here, from the people at Menya Noodle Bar. This little restaurant, inside the Skyview Plaza, looks like a little piece straight out of Japan. It’s all communal tables with customers slurping noodles next to each other amid old school movie posters and decorations that take me right back to the earlier Japanese movie.

The concept is self-serve udon, soba and tempura as well as a couple of rice options. The cafeteria style, shifting along with a tray, is pure novelty to me, but when faced with a full queue, it’s not a particularly speedy way of getting to the register to pay. The line is also held up when tempura sauce or miso soup spillages happen.

Cooking noodles to order
Menu options are straightforward: pick a noodle or rice base, along with soup and a size from the first service area; then move along to the tempura station. Imagine, rows and piles of perfectly golden tempura items: vegetable bales, prawns, fish cakes, sausages and more – all self-serve to your heart’s and tummy’s content.

While the base prices for noodles and such are very reasonable, I can see how one can get quickly carried away at the tempura station: one of these, a couple of those and one more of that, and you could be looking at a $15+ bowl of noodles – which still isn’t too bad.

There’s also a cold cabinet of vegetable sides such as seaweed, grated radish, pickled vegetables and even natto, the fermented soybeans of acquired taste. Following that, there are soft boiled eggs on offer, miso soup dispensed from the push of a button and tempura sauce at self service too.

At the end of the line are condiments of tempura flakes and sliced shallots (one spoonful per person) and the register where someone tallies up the items on your tray. In a matter of minutes, I have helped myself to an appetising, fresh noodle meal for less than $10.

Order and get your noodles before taking a seat
There is limited seating in Mappen, with signs explicitly saying get your noodles first, then your seats. I don’t know what happens at peak hour if there are hoards of people standing about with trays of noodles waiting for a seat, but we have no problems this late weeknight dinner.

Bukkake udon
I’ve gone for the egg-less bukkake udon noodles, the warm rather than cold option in a small size. It’s served with the tsukedashi soup which is made of fish stock and dried kelp; supposedly thicker, richer and more sauce-like than the kakedashi soup of the kake noodles.

The soup/sauce is indeed rich with an impressive depth of flavour capped off with sweetly tart notes, an ideal partner to the thick, slippery, somewhat al dente udon noodles. I don’t know what magical powers tempura flakes possess (oil or crunch perhaps), but they make the noodles and soup sensational as does the lemon wedge served with the bukkake.

Ontama bukkake udon
A companion’s ontama bukkake is the same as mine with the addition of a lightly boiled egg, which is cracked from the shell when the noodles are ordered, looking like a barely poached egg. Mixed through the soup/sauce and noodles, it adds flavour as well as body to the bowl.

Kake soba
The soba buckwheat noodles are a great alternative for anyone who finds udon a bit too heavy and gluggy. These thin, brown noodles are perfectly soft and delicate in the less flavour-intense kakedashi soup which boasts premium soy sauce mixed with a stock of fish and dried kelp.

Beef udon
On the other end of the scale, for something heavy and quite substantial, there's also lots of options. Like this large beef udon with a extra egg. The thin sliced beef adds seasoning to the dish as well as a hearty hit of protein for those thatcan't do without it.

Tempura selection: prawn, sweet potato and vegetable kakiage
The self-served tempura bar is a childish delight, though restraint is best exercised by the hungry. Struggling to keep up with demand a little, we snapped up the one and only vegetable stack, fresh out of the oil - a combination of carrot, onion and other julienned vegetables, fried into a cylindrical bale of oily goodness (vegetables are good, yes?).

The prawn is also exceptionally fresh, hot and crisp on the outside and inside, as nice, fresh prawns should be. The sweet potato is a touch on the soggy and seeping oil side, but perfectly cooked for sweetly creamy, starchy insides.

Chikuwa - fish cake
I found the chikuwa, fish cake tempura way too similar to crab stick, or seafood extender as I think it’s officially called; a floury, bouncy, flat stick of white that was more sweet than fish.

Sansai vegetable side
My vegetable side choice is better: the sansai is an array of rather unfamiliar vegetables, brined or pickled to salty softness. There was one vegetable that looked like thin snake beans, or garlic shootsm and another I think I recognise from packet miso soups.

Wakame seaweed
This side of wakame seaweed is the standard variety seen in most sushi places. There’s a chilli spice mix on all the tables to share and help yourself to, and the constantly refilled tempura station provides me with endless entertainment. There’s also a slot direct to the kitchen sink for self-returning trays too – which ends up being quite efficient.

We were in, got noodles, ate and had returned trays within 30 minutes. Being such a rare quick and easy meal that could be had everyday, I’m much looking forward to when my path again veers towards Mappen.

Menya Mappen on Urbanspoon


chocolatesuze said...

teehee i always rage when people don't follow the signs at mappen and hog the tables before getting their food! and lol no egg for you??

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

Hehe self serve tempura bar? Sweeter words were never spoken! :P

Tina said...

Hi suze - I'm not a big egg eater, unlike some others I know... :)

Hi Lorraine - Sweet and crispy words!

Trisha said...

I'm such a regular at this place! I always get the egg and mixed vegetable tempura thingie... and I know the times to go there when there's no queue hahaha! I love this place!!!

Tina said...

Hi Trisha - Yeah , it'd be a great place as a regular - quick, cheap and lots of variety!


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