Asian Recalibration 

Two chefs could equal great things at Ejay Rin in Manchester.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST

The buzz around Ejay Rin has been building for months, ever since news broke that chef Andy Howell was leaving his popular downtown post at Cafe Rustica. Add in a hip but gritty urban location in Manchester, the well-loved Richmond chef Bill Foster of Acacia and Zed Cafe as partner, and inspiration from New York City’s restaurant phenomenon Momofuku, and you have a recipe for anticipation.

Ejay Rin’s Asian fusion menu offered to fill a hole in Richmond’s dining scene, which has seen a proliferation of decent Thai and Vietnamese restaurants, but few that are taking Asian cuisine to a new level. Ejay Rin seemed poised to make a big splash, but it feels like a restaurant struggling to identify and focus on its strengths.

In the Corrugated Box building, Ejay Rin’s decor is minimalist, with art created from recycled materials, augmenting the modern-industrial vibe of the structure. The menu is ambitious, combining Southern and Asian influences. The Asian side clearly dominates, with inspiration coming from Korea, Japan, Vietnam and China. Occasionally these influences blend seamlessly and take ordinary food to new heights, as they do in the shrimp and grits ($14), where the grits are cooked in ramen broth, loaded with bacon and topped with a poached egg. Though the bacon might show up alternately burned or not fully rendered, the smoky flavor perfectly complements the salty ramen broth and creamy grits. The added richness of a poached egg makes this low-country Southern dish taste positively decadent. The mistreatment of a basic ingredient such as bacon, however, indicates execution problems. On two visits, rice is overcooked; another visit produces ginger scallion noodles ($8 and $11) that are so salty my dining companion leaves half the bowl uneaten. Other times, flavors are simply unbalanced; a shiitake, apple and soy yuzu-dressed steam bun ($8) arrives edible but overly salted, while the local tofu bawn me ($7) leaves us reaching for the soy and hot sauce bottles to add flavor at the table.

Certain elements are exquisite. The house-made kimchi ($5) is the best I’ve had since I visited Seoul. The blend of garlic and chilies hits a good balance of spice and flavor, and the short aging process keeps the cabbage crisp, which makes this version excellent for kimchi neophytes. The pork belly appearing in a steam bun ($8) and the pork ramen ($8 and $12) is cooked to tender perfection. The buns, which like the noodles, broths and breads are made in-house daily, are a great complement to the wide range of fillings.

The ramen, which given the chef’s nods to Momofuku should be a star of the menu, is a disappointment. Neither the pork nor the mushroom broth seems noteworthy. Momofuku’s celebrity chef, David Chang, creates a rich and complex broth using multiple meats and bones. Japanese ramen broth, at least the variety I ate in Tokyo noodle bars, is less rich but manages to impart a salty complexity while remaining light on the palate. Ejay Rin’s homemade noodles are not as toothsome as the traditional ramen I’ve sampled elsewhere.

The recent reworking of the menu is a hopeful sign that the owners are continuing to refine and improve their new venture. It could be they’ve simply been too ambitious, trying their hands at too many different styles, each with its own nuances. Perhaps executing perfect bahn mi sandwiches ($7-$8), curried lamb ($12), ramen, Chinese-style steam buns and the many other intriguing dishes on the menu is too much for one kitchen to master at once.

Through their long Richmond history and a few of the excellent dishes on the menu, there’s no doubt these chefs can cook. I’ll be back for the shrimp and grits with a side of kimchi — where else in Richmond can you do that? — and to watch the progress of Ejay Rin as it seeks to become the destination dining spot it deserves to be. S

Ejay Rin Noodle Bar 201 W. Seventh St. in the Corrugated Box building 745-6488 Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m. ejayrin.com

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