Sometimes “new” can be jarring…or even disappointing.

Marugame Seimen, specializing in serving udon and tempura for reasonable prices, is a staple among Japanese noodle chains, but the restaurant also made its European debut in the U.K. last year under the name “Marugame Udon”. Our Japanese-language reporter, world traveler, and Japanese-food-overseas taster Ikuna Kamezawa gave their special “Two-pork Tonkotsu Udon” a taste the other day and decided it wasn’t exactly to her liking, but it was still good enough to merit going back a second time during her recent trip to London.

This time, though, she went in with a mission: to test out their vegan offerings. Since opening last year, the restaurant has become somewhat famous for incorporating vegan options into their more traditional Japanese-style menu, and Ikuna was keen to try some of them out.

She also decided to change it up and visit the Liverpool Street branch this time, which is located at a unique intersection in a cool-looking building right in the heart of London.

The interior was long and narrow, but was very stylishly outfitted.

The seating felt very Japanese, which Ikuna found to be very tastefully done.

Since it was evening, the Liverpool Street branch was much busier than the Saint Christopher’s branch she visited previously.

There was an array of fried foods available to accompany her udon, and one of the most popular items appeared to be deep fried gyoza (0.85 pounds [US$0.94]).

While tempura, a popular accompaniment to udon, is technically deep-fried, it isn’t really thought of as a “fried food” or agemono in Japanese, so this deep-fried gyoza was entirely un-Marugame-like. Still, Ikuna had to admit that they looked insanely delicious with their super crispy looking skins.

What Marugame Seimen is famous for is its udon broth made from seafood like bonito and sardines, which you can of course get at Marugame Udon in London.

However, they also offer the option of switching to a vegetable broth for many of the menu items, and it doesn’t cost anything extra! Intrigued, Ikuna decided to order the Kake Udon (Vegetable Broth version) for 4.75 pounds, topped with asparagus and zucchini tempura (both 1.25 pounds each).

At first glance it didn’t look like a vegan dish, but one sip of the broth and Ikuna knew. The flavor was completely different!

Unfortunately, to Ikuna it was very, very clear that this vegetable broth was not only different but far inferior to the seafood broth typically used with udon. It just felt like it didn’t have enough flavor, and that lack of flavor ended up leaving “saltiness” as the only taste it offered. Sadly, it was also lukewarm, not piping hot like Ikuna is used to, and just like the other branch, the noodles were a bit too soft for Ikuna’s tastes.

So this dish had not one but three things counted against it. Even though Ikuna knew she wasn’t going to get a standard udon dish when she ordered the vegan option, she still couldn’t help feeling surprised at the “otherness” she got from it.

Sadly, she didn’t like the toppings, either. The zucchini tempura, which Ikuna was looking forward to trying, was mushy and soft, obviously overcooked.

And the asparagus tempura…well…since we’re being honest…it really was not good. It was also squishy, watery, and smelled like grass. Asparagus is supposed to be a vegetable that grows well in Europe, so Ikuna had expected it to be good…but this was not to her liking.

But when she really took time to think about it, she remembered that she’d heard that Europeans don’t like their vegetables crispy and crunchy like Japanese do. A vegetable that may seem overcooked to Ikuna may be perfect for a Londoner.

Also, she mused, maybe in England they don’t serve soup piping hot like in Japan, and maybe they like their noodles soft. In other words, Ikuna, who is Japanese, may not have been qualified to judge English udon at all. 

And of course, Ikuna is not vegan eithershe definitely loves meat–so she could only compare the lighter vegetable broth to the richness of a seafood broth, which would obviously be very jarring. For all she knows, the vegetable broth could be delicious to a vegan!

So was Marugame Udon’s vegan udon delicious? Ikuna’s conclusion is: “I’m not vegan or English, so I don’t know!”

She wouldn’t really recommend it if you’re coming from Japan and you’re not vegan, but it is something you would never find in Japan, so it might be worth trying at least once if you find yourself in London. And if you are vegan, give it a taste and let Ikuna know if it’s good to you…she’s dying to know!!

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