A decent lunch for less than a fiver, as offered at global mega-chain Marugame Udon, is not something that often crosses my radar. In London, especially, there has been a recent post-lockdown glut of new openings with dizzyingly steep prices. Just as Tom Kerridge’s £32.50 fish and chips became normal (they’ve since gone up to £36.50), Jason Atherton’s all-new bistro, Harrods Social, swung into view with £19 asparagus starters, mac’n’cheese with braised beef at £29 and a mango smoothie at a quite hysterical £12.50. Yes, yes, I know this is Harrods, where the tourist clientele are considered fair game, but every day I read menus that make me envisage the management cackling like Smash advert aliens while they set the prices. The Harrods Social “English garden salad” for £17.50 is peak “We saw you coming”, but many fancy restaurants take the attitude that if you quibble about the pricing, it’s not really your type of place.
Meanwhile, at Marugame Udon, the most stripped-back udon dish starts at £3.45. Kamaage is served straight from a kama pot with a smoky fish dashi to dip your plump noodles in. From there, the udon dishes range from about £5-8, and for the price of that garden salad, you could also throw in some freshly made beef nikutama udon or chicken katsu curry udon, as well as a tempura boiled egg, limitless soft-serve ice-cream and bottomless peach ice tea, which you’ll find by the complimentary, build-your-own condiment station. This is a magical land where you can sprinkle spring onion, chilli and pickled ginger with jubilant abandon; it is also where the tenkasu live – that is, tempura batter scrapings, or scraps, as we call them in the north. It’s much like Pizza Hut’s Ice Cream Factory, but for spicy umami things.
In fact, Marugame Udon reminds me of two other huge chains – it’s a bit Wagamama with a nod towards an Ikea cafe. Imagine a canteen where you grab a tray, choose a freshly made udon dish, then move past piles of serve-yourself warm, battered and breadcrumbed things – pumpkin korroke and nori tofu tempura are especially good – before tackling the omusubi section (seasoned rice with a topping and wrapped in seaweed), before paying up by the tills near the pickles, kimchi, kombucha and a white wine called Nice that’s sold cold by the can.
Marugame Udon already has about 800 sites in Japan and a further 250 around the world, and in the opening week of this, its first British branch – a 100-seater restaurant in Spitalfields, east London – they had people queuing up at 11am. Within days of opening, they announced a second venue, a 150-seater at the O2 Arena on the Greenwich Peninsula. If this billion-dollar rollout goes to plan, there is a Marugame Udon coming to near you.
I take most multinationals that vow to make an impact on our eating habits with a pinch of salt, but I think this lot are in with a fighting chance. True, Britain doesn’t have a shortage of places to slurp fat, slippery udon, and some will argue that Marugame’s chewy sanuki udon, made in-house, are just fine, but in fact they prefer Koya Soho, which has table service and a sense of 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’, which make spending a penny an actual pleasure? (They play Japanese language lessons in there, too.)
What Marugame Udon has in buckets is a sense of fun, low prices, space for larger groups to dine together (and pay separately), plus many nooks and window seats for solo diners to nip in for 20 minutes’ respite and a bowl of two-pork tonkotsu with charsu and spicy miso pork mince in a rich broth and topped off with a wobbly onsen egg, then a dorayaki pancake for afters.
On my last lunch at Marugame Udon, I had the chicken paitan udon featuring marinated thigh topped with ginger and a side of pickles. The tempura egg has become one of my feelgood hits of 2021. Yes, it’s a battered boiled egg, but how did I live without this for so long? The kakiage in the tempura section resembles a gigantic onion bhaji that has mated with a hay bale, but is, in fact, potato, carrot and other veg all sliced matchstick-thin, then battered and fried. The website advises me it’s 434 calories a pop, which may make me think twice about piling one on top of my next bowl of kimchi yaki udon.
That said, the soda machine also offers the option of a sugar-free, old-school cloudy lemonade that I’m also a little in love with. I did not know that I needed another bad habit – having only recently tackled my fixation with Tonkotsu’s chilli chicken ramen – but then Muragame Udon turned up, put on the stoves and the soda machine, and reeled me right in.