A decent lunch for less than five pounds, like the one offered at the global mega-chain Marugame Udon, isn’t something that often crosses my radar. In London especially, there has been a recent glut of new openings after lockdown with skyrocketing prices. Just as Tom Kerridge’s £32.50 fish and chips became normal (it’s since gone up to £36.50), Jason Atherton’s new bistro, Harrods Social, popped up with entrees of £19 asparagus, braised beef macaroni and cheese . at £29 and a mango smoothie at £12.50 pretty hysterical. Yes, yes, I know this is Harrods, where the tourist clientele is considered easy prey, but every day I read menus that make me imagine management laughing like the aliens in Smash ads as they set the prices. Harrods Social’s “English Garden Salad” for £17.50 is the “We saw you coming” peak, but many fine dining restaurants take the attitude that if you quibble about price, it’s not really your kind of place.
Meanwhile, at Marugame Udon, the simpler bowl of udon starts at £3.45. Kamaage is served straight from a kama pot with a dashi of smoked fish to dip the filled noodles. beef nikutama udon or chicken katsu udon curry, as well as a tempura boiled egg, unlimited soft serve ice cream and bottomless peach iced tea, which you’ll find next to the complimentary make-your-own condiment station. This is a magical land where you can sprinkle on spring onion, chili and pickled ginger with gleeful abandon; It is also where the tenkasu live, that is, tempura scrapings, or leftovers, as we call them in the north. It’s a lot like Pizza Hut’s Ice Cream Factory, but for the umami-spicy stuff.
The tempura egg at Marugame Udon, London E1: ‘Yes, it’s a battered boiled egg, but how did I live without it for so long?’
In fact, Marugame Udon reminds me of two other big chains: it’s a bit of a Wagamama with a nod to an Ikea coffee shop. Imagine a canteen where you grab a tray, pick up a plate of freshly made udon, then wade through piles of hot, battered, and breaded serve-yourself stuff (the pumpkin korroke and nori tofu tempura are especially good) before tackling the omusubi section (rice seasoned with a topping and wrapped in seaweed), before paying for the boxes near the pickles, kimchi, kombucha and a white wine called Nice that is sold chilled by the can.
Marugame Udon already has around 800 locations in Japan and another 250 around the world, and in the opening week of this, its first British branch, a 100-seat restaurant in Spitalfields, east London, had people lining up to 11 a.m. Within days of opening, they announced a second venue, seating 150 at the O2 Arena on the Greenwich peninsula. If this billion-dollar launch goes according to plan, there’s a Marugame Udon near you.
Chicken paitan udon at Marugame Udon, London E1 – optional pickle garnish.
I take most of the multinationals that promise to impact our eating habits with a pinch of salt, but I think this group has a fighting chance. True, Britain has no shortage of places to slurp fat, slippery udon, and some will argue that Marugame’s chewy, in-house made sanuki udon is fine, but in fact they prefer Koya Soho, which has table service and a sense of the elegance. But did I tell you about the space-age Asahi machine that pours a pint in four seconds? Or the fabulous heated Japanese toilet seats in the ladies’ room, which make spending a penny a real treat? (They also play Japanese lessons there.)
What Marugame Udon has in cubes is a fun feel, low prices, space for larger groups to dine together (and pay separately), plus plenty of nooks and window seats for solo diners to enjoy a 20 minute breather and a plate of two. -pork tonkotsu with charsu and spicy miso minced meat in a rich broth and topped off with a wobbly onsen egg, then a dorayaki pancake for afterwards.
Marugame Udon serves unlimited soft serve ice cream.
For my last lunch at Marugame Udon, I had chicken paitan udon with marinated thigh topped with ginger and a side of pickles. Egg tempura has become one of my feel-good hits in 2021. Yes, it’s a battered hard-boiled egg, but how did I live without it for so long? The kakiage in the tempura section looks like a gigantic onion bhaji that’s been mated to a bale of hay, but it’s actually potato, carrot, and other vegetables, all sliced stick-thin, then battered and deep-fried. The website informs me that it has 434 calories per pop, which may make me think twice about piling one on top of my next bowl of kimchi yaki udon.
That being said, the soda machine also offers the option of a sugar free old school cloudy lemonade which I am also a little in love with. I didn’t know I needed another bad habit, having recently tackled my fixation with Tonkotsu’s chili chicken ramen, but then Muragame Udon showed up, turned on the stoves and soda machine, and got me.
marugame udon 114 Middlesex Street, London E1 (no phone). Open all week, from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. (no reservations). About £12 a head plus drinks.