ふぁーめん fa-men: robot cookin'
Yes, I did it. I went. All the way from Tokyo to Nagoya by Hikari bullet train, just to stop off for an afternoon and sample the latest in wacky Japanese innovation as revealed through the lens of any number of websites hawking 21st century transpacific hipsterism. I’m looking at you, Tokyo Mango. Or was it in the more traditional news media, outlets like the Daily Yomiuri or the Mainichi Shinbun, whence I first heard the phrase ramen robot? I can’t recall. Maybe it was always there, lurking in my brain like some time-release subroutine of zeroes and ones embedded deep beneath the neural cortex.
Most likely, it was eighteen friends twittering, emailing, and instant messaging me all at once like some great event. And as with any true post-millenial happening these days, one can scant recall the details, except that Fa-Men, when I first arrived, was closed. Closed. On a Wednesday. Never mind that robots shouldn’t ever need to take a damn day off, but that I would likely have to spend the night in Nagoya, something I had totally not planned for, if I truly wanted to hit this place up. These nuts and bolts had better be worth it.
And so I revsited the restaurant the following morning, unsure of what to expect. Would there be a line worthy of the hype? Japanese ramen fans, like Shibuya fashionistas, will descend upon the latest, greatest bowl with the purpose of programmed androids.
Fa-Men sits on the second floor of a nondescript, slightly aging shopping arcade (“Ameyoko 2!”) approximately 15 minutes and a one subway transfer out from JR Nagoya Station (in case anyone is primed for a visit). Adjacent to a vintage hip hop clothing store, the most futuristic things about its location are the presence of a pair of vending machines and a flat panel TV out front. At 11:30 in the morning, there was nary a customer in sight . “Hmm,” I thought. Maybe the salarymen were still at work.
I entered the restaurant. The robot chefs, lovingly dubbed R2B1 and R2B2, occupy a stage-like setup along the restaurant’s main wall. Behind them, a diorama-style curtain hides Fa-Men’s real nuts and bolts operation, the fellows who brew the soup and prepare the noodles and toppings, which are then loaded for the machines to assemble. I placed an order, and the waitress pushed a few buttons on a control panel. Then, the machines began to execute, whirring and dipping with mechanical grace and precision as they ladled soup and dispatched chashu. The waitresses stood at attention against the far wall, at times seeming more robotic than the artificial chefs at the fore. Within minutes, one of them delivered to my table a rather cosmic-looking bowl of tonkotsu ramen, drizzled with fried garlic kuro ma yu oil. Or were those leaky globes of machine grease, orbiting the chopped green onions?
I took a sip of the tonkotsu soup; it was as smooth and nondescript as the restaurant’s stark white walls, exuded a generic tang of sodium in place of anything resembling wholesome, deep pork bone flavor. The brown oil drops did have a Kumamoto-esque sensibility about them, but that was probably the most distinct thing about the entire bowl.
Fa-Men’s noodles were inoffensive, yet they bore more than a passing resemblance to the strands of quasi-nama, gift-boxed Kyushu ramen you can buy in train stations across southern Japan. Al dente firm but lacking in significant character, they were a notch in freshness above the packaged stuff, yet subpar for a full-fledged restaurant. The chashu, inartfully deposited by machine, was tender and well marinated, yet nothing about it or the rest of the toppings - the kikurage wood-ear mushroom and the chopped negi (which still had to be arranged by human hand), exactly screamed for a robot revolution in the kitchen.
Somewhere along the assembly line, the brains behind Fa-Men must have got it in their head to pillage an automotive plant and recommission a couple of manufacturing arms for the purpose of dishing out noodles. It’s a novel gimmick, one perhaps best sold to gaijin gawkers and otaku with a romantic fascination for the anime Akira and Japan’s place in a post-Apocalyptic, neo-futuristic world. But it’s clear the restaurant’s business investment and forethought went into these expensive gadgets, when more money should have been spent on developing a recipe worth serving. Old school curmudgeons like me really care only about one thing: whether or not the food is actually any good. As far as that goes, Fa-Men could use a little soul to back up its synthetic chefs.
|a weirdly synthetic-tasting tonkotsu soup enlivened momentarily by a fragrant, Kumamoto-style kuro ma-yu garlic oil. i doubt these machines spend their off hours secretly nursing a huge vat of pork bones; maybe the wizard behind the curtain does but i really can't say for sure either.||6|
|thin, white strands of al dente hakata-style ramen noodles are typically a good thing, but at fa-men, they were neither here nor there, lacking in soul. but perhaps that's the point.||6.5|
|machine-laid kikurage, negi, and chashu are all fine and well when they aren't simply plucked pre-made out of a plastic container. the relatively tender chashu did have a hint of sweetness to it, but... where's the love? everything falls within a range of generic acceptability. the robots, not the ramen, are the stars of the show.||7|
|i asked the waitress if the robots prepare the gyoza as well. they don't. but they do perform plate-spinning and manzai comedy in their downtime.||NA|
|cold and functional, the robots give the impression one is dining in the cafeteria of an automotive assembly plant. still, it's a bit of a kick.||5|
|ramen shops like this really need to focus more on the quality of their fare, rather than the cleverness of the gimmick. nice try, but it could be a good while before fa-men manages to breach the uncanny valley... of delicious noodling.||4|