Real ramen – not the kind on which you subsisted in college – has an obsessive following in Japan and around the world. A good bowl of ramen, if it's made right, transcends the dreariest of days. Making ramen is an art form that takes a lifetime to master. Ramen chefs work as apprentices for years before they are considered qualified enough to open their own ramen-ya, a small restaurant specializing in ramen. You must perfect your broth and noodles, which explains why older chefs generally make the best ramen.
Umaido (2790 Lawrenceville Suwanee Road, Suwanee, 678-318-8568, www.umaido.co.kr) is Georgia's first ramen-ya. Other local Japanese restaurants – such as Yakitori Jinbei, Shoya and Blue Fin Sushi – also serve the delicacy, but Umaido is the only restaurant to specialize in the once elusive comfort food.
In a surprising turn of events, Umaido is Korean-owned. You see Korean influences in little touches – such as the large pitchers of barley tea and airtight stainless steel canisters of housemade kimchi cabbage – that grace the tables. The menu's simplicity is mirrored in the minimalist décor of the loft-ish space, which is more modern than other Japanese restaurants of its ilk in Atlanta. Electronic music pumps through the speakers and most tables are occupied by young Asian teens laughing between slurps from large white bowls.
Some might fault the restaurant for being Korean-owned, but Umaido has an edge: freshly made noodles. The noodles are on the thinner side, straight and less al dente than you find elsewhere, but the freshness they impart to every dish makes up for any real or perceived shortcomings.
Umaido serves three types of ramen: regular, spicy and miso. All of the choices are variations of the most desirable and difficult style of ramen to master, tonkotsu. Tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen is all about the broth, which is slow-cooked for many hours so the collagen in the pork bones breaks down to make the liquid creamy. When it's done right, the broth can do wonders for a weary body and soul. Umaido's broth has enough character and depth to pack a hearty dose of solace on these bitterly cold winter days. A soy-infused soft-boiled egg floats amid a smattering of sliced green onions, crunchy bean sprouts, delightfully chewy tree ear mushrooms and delicate slices of tender pork belly. A slick of black liquid is drizzled into each bowl. When asked what it was, the chef would only say it's a "secret recipe using black garlic." It adds a bitter quality to the soup, but its inclusion seems mostly aesthetic.
One of the best aspects of dining at Umaido is the DIY nature of the meals. Each table has a selection of condiments (bright pink pickled ginger, fresh garlic with a handy press, hot sesame oil and a funky dispenser of white sesame seeds) that you can use to tailor the soup to your tastes.
Each soup is easily made into a mammoth meal with the addition of chasyu rice (a rice bowl topped with pork, green onion and thin ribbons of Japanese mayonnaise), gyoza (delicate homemade pork dumplings), or mentaiko (a rice bowl crowned with a pink scoop of fish eggs) for a few extra bucks. Order extra broth, meat or anything else you desire if your appetite is larger than normal. Anything goes here.