Kokuban, the Gaijin kitchen
The marketing team and I went out again for lunch last week, this time to celebrate a special occasion: the departure of our favorite intern. She wanted to eat ramen and suggested that we try Kokuban Louise.
We didn't book a table as you need to be at least 6 people to be able to make a reservation, so we arrived early enough. Around noon, we showed up and Kokuban was more or less empty. We choose to sat in a rather quiet spot and studied the menu once we received it. The waiter was nice and my first question was "Do you have Japanese staff?", you know me I always check this. Proposing a foreign cuisine and not having the foreign staff in the kitchen often leads to weird menus and faux pas. I was told that the chef was Japanese and that a few waiters were actually Japanese but not all the staff, there were a few Belgians and Vietnamese.
It didn't take too long for the 4 of us to decide on what to eat: we would start by sharing a portion of gyozas (8 pieces) and some edamame. The main course was mostly ramen: 2 menus of the day (kaarage ramen), one shoyu ramen and a tonkotsu ramen. We ordered (in Japanese) and started to chat about Kokuban and how it was surprising that it was almost empty. The restaurant is quite big with 2 floors and a few seats around the counter with a sober and quite Japanese vibe (lots of wood, grey colors, kanjis here and there).
The drinks arrived fast and I expected the food to be prepared quickly since a ramen bowl is supposedly just a question of assembling all the elements together (the broth and toppings should already be prepared, only the noodles need to be cooked). And indeed, the gyozas and the edamame were served and we dug in hungrily. The cooking was perfect, the gyozas had a crispy bottom and were tender, the filling was tasty but something bothered me...I knew that taste from somewhere... From the frozen packages I buy at Kam Yuen in fact but I wasn't sure. I ate anyway my share and the edamame while sipping on my Coca-Cola.
We then received our bowls and that's when I knew Kokuban was a concept for gaijin and nothing else... Every bowl was set up in a similar way: ramen noodles soaked in a watery broth (0 texture, 0 creaminess, it tasted like water with a broth cube) with some sparse toppings. The broth didn't look like anything I ate in Tokyo or real Japanese restaurants... It just looked like a noodle soup but not a broth made from bones/marrow/skin/onions simmered for hours and hours. There was nothing special about it and as mentioned the toppings were not great: 2-3 pieces of meat (sometimes not well cooked!) and some soy sprouts.
Note the look of the chicken pieces...Not very appealing and looking a bit pink for my colleague's taste. Honestly what we received was disappointing and very different from any real Japanese restaurant I've visited. When we were done, a waiter came to check if everything went well and that's when I questioned him... I told him that what I had in front of me wasn't a real ramen, not even close, and that I doubt a Japanese person would eat this...His answer actually inspired this post's title, he said "the owner wanted to launch a concept for gaijins". That says it all. I then added that the gyozas didn't seem homemade, the answer was again striking "they're frozen, if we had to make them we would need to hire one person full time". He kept a smile and chatted casually, adding at some point "you don't see a Japanese person here, besides the staff, it's a concept for foreigners". And yes, when I looked over my shoulder at the now full restaurant, there were only Belgian workers, no Asian faces.
He proposed us a free ice-cream but we declined, we were not really in the mood after this experience. All in all, the restaurant looks nice, the menu is interesting but the food is disappointing for anyone that's tried actual Japanese food or is in search of the real thing. If you just want to have a quick lunch and are not looking for something more elaborate than a basic noodle soup then Kokuban is the place for you.
Price wise, the costs of a "ramen" bowl is similar to other addresses in Brussels and even in London. We all paid about 18,5€ because we split the bill and that includes our 4 ramen, our drinks (2 coca cola, 1 water and 1 coca-cola zero), the edamame and the gyozas. It's not expensive but I must admit I would not pay more for what I received.
It was quite a weird visit considering the 414 review Kokuban has on Google and all the great things I've heard about this restaurant.... I guess it lost its drive a while ago, sad it had a lot of potential...
Have you tried Kokuban in the past? Have you seen a change lately?