Ramen spots in the Northern Quarter are like buses. You wait ages for one to come along, then suddenly two come along at the same time.
We first heard whispers of Cocktail, Beer, Ramen + Bun’s plans to open on Oldham Street early in November, and we’ve been waiting with bated breath. At last – following much anticipation – we made it, over-ordered, and left feeling elated and very full.
The brainchild of co-owners Ben Gretton and Tom De Santis, CBRB is Manchester’s first -and so far only – late-night ramen joint, opening at 12pm and serving right through to 2am.
In putting the concept together, Ben and Tom leant on their combined 34 years in the hospitality industry, taking inspiration from top ramen hangouts in New York, Melbourne, Copenhagen and Paris to create something solid and devoid of gimmicks – except for their amusingly named ‘Hipsterol’, a homemade take on Italian liqueur Aperol.
We’re told that everything is made in-house except the noodles and all their ingredients are from local suppliers, with Cornish crab and mackerel fresh from Arndale market and all meat from Newdale Farm in Cumbria.
As passionate about music as they are food and drink, the pair have worked with local DJs including Jonny Dub, Out of Quiet and Szare to cultivate a cool yet ambient atmosphere that does its Northern Quarter postcode proud.
Ben’s dad also happens to be Rob Gretton, the late, great Joy Division manager, further adding to their hipster stock.
I arrived first, as my date was running characteristically late, and took a seat at the concrete bar, enjoying the underground Manchester hip hop pouring through the sound system (shout out to Berry Blacc and Chris Amor).
The cocktail menu is split into two sections: half-stacked with low ABV cocktails charmingly described as ‘lights’ designed to complement your meal, and half-loaded with boozier signatures. I opted for the latter.
A #7 is CBRB’s twist on the classic Southside. Made with Koval Dry (a small batch gin from Chicago which tastes like it has mint in it, but doesn’t), lime, sugar, and a nettle and white pepper syrup. My first sip was sharp and refreshing.
Wafts of toasted sesame oil drifted across from the pass. At last, just as I was about to reach the bottom of my coupette, my date arrived and we were led to our table.
Before we managed to get a serious look at the food menu, we found ourselves deliberating what drink to order next. Keen to tick all the boxes in the CBRB experience, we decided one of us should sample the beer offering.
Mirroring the thinking behind their cocktail menu, CBRB offers a selection of low ABV table beers, with three on draft which change every other day, plus a selection of bottled craft beers with varying strengths. We were brought a selection and talked through the unique flavour of each one with saintly patience.
Highlights include Brew York’s Goose Willis, (a gooseberry sour with a kick) and Wild Beer’s Tom Yum soup, which is hot and sour just like the soup, but with the salty kick of a Gose.
Beers decided on, we finally got stuck into the food menu. Small menus are typical in many ramen spots, and you can expect the same at CBRB.
Alongside a small but scintillating list of five ramen options – ranging from classic pork bone-based tonkotsu broths to a vegan ‘green’ ramen featuring hispi cabbage – are a select list of six stuffed bao buns (£4.50 for one, or £7.50 for two).
For anyone wanting to go all out, there is also an extensive list of small plates on offer to choose from. Unable to resist, we ordered the pig’s head korokke – a trio fried croquettes rolled in fishy bonito flakes. Soft and creamy inside with a unique, rich flavour provided by the pig’s head, these came accompanied by an earthy miso mayo.
We also had to try the karaage chicken, popcorn-sized pieces marinated in soy, sake and spices and generously coated in starch before hitting the deep fryer. Crunchy on the outside and soft and succulent on the inside, these bite-size pieces came with spicy gochujang mayo – a Korean-American fusion which I’ve since decided has officially replaced siracha mayo as my new favourite sauce.
As well as the small plates, we chose a couple of steamed Chinese buns to share: a crispy artichoke bun with green siracha and coriander (fresh and herby over the artichoke’s own smoky flavour) and a Korean steak bao.
Whilst the crispy artichoke was a hit, the Korean steak bun stood out thanks to CBRB’s quality homemade kimchi. Between the airy squish of the bun, the dense ratio of juicy and pink steak, a thick slather of gochujang mayo and the thick, sour umami of their kimchi, we just couldn’t eat it fast enough.
Already stuffed by this point, and having been advised the bowls are really filling, we decided to split a crab tonkotsu between us.
Built from CBRB’s signature pork bone tonkotsu broth and topped up with spicy crab curry, coriander and bonito oil, it felt a bit like slurping up katsu curry. No bad thing.
The crab itself really impressed, elevating itself above the usual fare with its crunchy little legs and deep sea flavour. A silky smooth ajitsuke timago yolk cut through the broth, and a bevy of textures ensured each mouthful was different – crunchy crustaceans (which we scooped out with immense satisfaction), soft crab meat, padron peppers and spring onions.
Having polished off the crab tonkotsu, we deliberated ordering another round of pig’s head korokke. However, in the end, we decided against it, acknowledging that our eyes were bigger than our bellies.
Instead, we finished on a sweet note with a secret off-menu dessert, compliments of the chef. Still in development, we are sworn to secrecy on this one. But keep your eyes peeled for it as and when CBRB are ready to reveal it.
101-103 Oldham St, Manchester M4 1LW