If Ramen Gaijin left things the way they were, it would still be a great place. The ramen is superb, as is the menu of salads and starters. Friendly folks and cool vibes add to the appeal.
But owners Matthew Williams and Moishe Hahn-Schuman didn't leave well enough alone. They closed for three months late last year and gutted the place. They demolished the woodburning oven (it didn't really fit in a Japanese restaurant). They ripped out the redwood-slab bar top and moved it to an adjacent counter space and built a new concrete bar. The addition of beautiful reclaimed barn-wood paneling, and new tables and chairs in the lounge area make the place look downright sexy.
But the restaurant got more than a makeover. Gaijin added an exciting
izakaya (Japanese tapas) menu and a cocktail program created by spirit wizard Scott Beattie, one of the prime movers behind the craft-cocktail movement. The menu he created runs with the Japanese theme, and the bar is now a destination in its own right.
The Japanese tea highballs, made with tea-infused Japanese whiskies, are great with a bowl of ramen; the bubbles in the seltzer cut through the rich broth of the soup. Gillian Tyrnauer, late of the Healdsburg Shed, now manages the bar at Ramen Gaijin and brought her shrub-making skills. The sweet and sour fermented creations appear in the changing list of seasonal "tonics" like the Winter Ball ($11)—Spirit Works gin, grapefruit-juniper shrub, lime and pickled juniper. Shrubs also appear in the ginger beer–based bucks and mules served in copper mugs like the eminently refreshing Mujina Mule (vodka, ginger-turmeric shrub, lime and nutmeg).
The list of Spirited Away drinks is a treat—lighter, stirred cocktails made with Japanese plum wines, Japanese spirits and aromatic bitters and essential oils. The drinks' names are taken from Japanese pop culture and mythology, and refer to various phantoms and avenging ghosts.
The Teke Teke (El Dorado eight-year-old rum, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, Alessio Vermouth Chinato and honey umeshu; $11) is named after the ghost of a girl severed at the waist by a train who spends her days dragging her upper torso around looking to slice others in half.
I loved the refreshing Ashimagari ($11), a pale purple cocktail made with Torikai shochu, shiso/plum liqueur and an ethereal, floating sheet of purple nori seaweed. Ashimagari is a ghostly phenomenon said to feel like a kitten wrapping around your feet at night, impeding your ability to walk—a sensation akin to drinking too many of these.
In addition to the Japanese-inspired drinks there's a list of a dozen classic cocktails.
Like Forchetta Bastoni, the restaurant that came before it, Ramen Gaijin is two restaurants in one, but this one is much more cohesive. There's the ramen side of the restaurant, and the izakaya and bar side. The full izakaya menu is not available on the ramen side. And you can't order ramen at the bar or in the lounge. The idea was to create two distinct dining experiences. That it is, with great drinks to boot.
Ramen Gaijin, 6948 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol. 707.827.3609.