What a difference a year makes. For about the past decade, "Japanese food" in these parts meant one thing: sushi. For a crack at the hipster izakayas, essentially Japanese gastropubs or taverns, you had to head to California, New York or, well, Japan. Ichicoro debuted in Seminole Heights at the end of 2015, with Dosunco opening its doors in South Tampa around the same time. We've had a bit of ramen crop up on the Pinellas County side, but Buya Ramen (pronounced BOO-yah), opened on Aug. 10, is really this side of the bay's first izakaya.
Owner Mike Sponaugle has partnered with old friends Brian and Kevin Wojtowicz and hired longtime Pinellas County chef Sean Squires. Right now, he says, they have debuted five ramen dishes and a few small plates, "which represents about 40 percent of the menu" — the full menu to be rolled out by Thursday. He says they are still "peeling some of the duct tape and Band-Aids off," and have some kitchen rearranging to do, but based on a couple of recent meals, Buya is ready for prime time.
The 2,500-square-foot space is spare but gorgeous, with old St. Pete hexagonal tile floors from the 1920s, playful murals by artist Michael Vahl (the most arresting of a heated ramen fight in a bathhouse, a kooky but appropriate riff on the 1868 painting Brawl in Women's Bath House by artist Toyohara Kunichika), rustic charred wood walls and handmade wooden tables.
For now they are bringing in noodles from artisanal New York producer Sun Noodle (a straight noodle that's a bit different than what Ichicoro is using in Tampa), but they will be producing noodles in house once their Yamato machine arrives from Japan.
For now, the focus is on tinkering with the broth, the bedrock of good ramen.
Their tonkotsu broth is lush, unctuous and nearly opaque, blanched chicken and pork bones simmered with roasted vegetables for 22 hours before it is strained and married with noodles and toppers like bits of duck confit, fatty-edged pork belly or smoky beef brisket. A soy-based vegetarian broth with apple and brown sugar, used for the mushroom ramen, is not nearly as complex or hearty (and, frankly, it's a little cloying in its current incarnation).
But the fundamentals are coming along nicely. There's a smart little world-beat wine list, a short list of craft beers, cocktails that rely heavily on sophisticated Japanese whiskeys and house-filtered water that is offered in bottles of still or sparkling ($2). The pre-ramen comestibles are fairly limited: a mixed seaweed salad (a jumble of wakame, sea lettuce flakes and nori) that is clearly not the commercial stuff in the tub so common at restaurants, this version paired with tender sprouts and fiery house-pickled ginger ($10); a pair of pork belly buns ($12), gussied with Sriracha aioli and sitting on somewhat irrelevant shiso leaves, that as of now don't quite rival those at Ichicoro; and a really great plate of peppery-crisp char-grilled baby bok choy with a buttery soy-sesame glaze ($8).
But you're here for a bowl of soup, right? In a couple of visits, I was most smitten by the crispy duck ($16), its faintly musky flavor and crisp-edged, plush-centered texture a boon to the tonkotsu broth crowded with bouncy, toothsome noodles, plush cross-sections of shiitake, scallion rounds and a half-boiled egg that was so custardy and perfect I figured it was sous vide (but Sponaugle says nope, just a rigorous six-minute boil then straight in an ice bath).
The chashu pork ($16) was nicely cooked, but its flavor didn't provide a lot of contrast to the broth; smoked wagyu brisket ($18), on the other hand, when steeped for a bit, imparted a deeper smoky savoriness to the broth. (My only quibble was that it was a little tough and thick-cut — I had a hard time lopping it into hunks with a combination of spoon, chopsticks and teeth.)
So far there's a lot of hubbub and enthusiasm about Buya — it's got that new-restaurant sizzle. But I wonder if that $18 brisket ramen is going to rattle cost-conscious folks. Despite obviously good ingredients and a lot of effort in the kitchen, that's a lot for a bowl of soup. In New York ramen averages $15 to $18, so it's in line, but it feels steep for this market — the range at Ichicoro is $11 to $16, at Dosunco it's $10 to $12 and at Mango Tree in St. Petersburg it's $12.95.
Pricing will surely settle out at whatever the market can bear, and I look forward to seeing the full Buya menu. Stock market commentator Jim Cramer made the expression "booyah" something of a catchphrase, an exuberant exclamation of joy you'll find in most urban dictionaries. To the arrival of real ramen in downtown St. Petersburg, I give it a resounding Buya booyah.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.