Among the salads at Hajime are the cucumber with octopus, seasoned seaweed and seasoned crab. (BECKY STEIN PHOTOGRAPHY)
Photo: Becky Stein
Photo: Becky Stein

Searching for the right bowl at Hajime

Tucked into a plaza at the corner of Cheshire Bridge and LaVista Roads, between an art house cinema and a grocery store, behind a pancake house and camera store, is Hajime, the new restaurant from the owners of Umaido in Doraville.

The location was formerly occupied by a nightclub called BJ Roosters, a place where the lights were low and the drinks were loose, to put it lightly. (Roosters since has moved to a larger location down Cheshire Bridge.)

You wouldn’t know that Hajime was ever a nightclub, though. The lights are notably bright and, despite what a row of unopened sake bottles and a couple flashing Sapporo signs might suggest, Hajime has yet to acquire a liquor license. Thus, on any given night at Hajime, you can look around this brightly lit room and see exactly why people are here. They aren’t here to drink. They aren’t here to party. They’re here for one reason: ramen.

There are other dishes on the menu. In the course of eating there, I’ve ordered just about every appetizer, and a few of the other dishes sprinkled throughout the menu. There’s a house salad, composed of discs of octopus and cucumber tossed in a sweet vinegar sauce. It’s fine.

There are the griddled shishito peppers, a familiar Japanese snack that can be a little like Russian roulette. Most of the peppers are mildly spicy, though the occasional one will light your mouth on fire.

There’s a seaweed salad and a cold cucumber sliced up and doused with sesame oil and salt, both of which make for fine palette cleansers. Oh, there are dumplings and a few forgettable rice dishes. There are some fried balls studded with chunks of octopus — takoyaki — dressed with a combo of salty and creamy sauces and bonito flakes. They’re delightful.

But, really, all of these dishes are more or less beside the point at Hajime. You can order a couple to kill time until your ramen gets to the table, but the whole reason to come is ramen.

So, let’s get to the point: When Hajime is at its best, the ramen is very good, some of the best in Atlanta. When Hajime is not at its best, well, the ramen is still pretty good.

I’ve brought as dining partners both ramen connoisseurs and novices, so I’ve gotten used to hearing the conversation that happens when someone unfamiliar with the traditions of Japanese ramen wonders what the fuss is about this dish — the thing they may know better as a block of dried noodles on the budget rack of the grocery store.

The appeal of ramen, at least to my palate, is a careful balance of elements, each prepared for varying lengths of time, brought together at the right moment. Which is to say, it has a lot in common with most fine traditions of cooking, Eastern or Western.

There are myriad regional variations throughout Japan, but the central elements are a long-simmered broth, a ball of noodles and a few toppings to add complexity of flavor, say, pickled bamboo for acid, a soft-boiled egg for creamy richness, a sheet of seaweed for a salty kick.

Hajime serves ramen in the Hakata tradition, where pork bones are simmered for hours upon hours to create a rich, almost creamy broth called tonkotsu. In recent years, tonkotsu ramen has been at the center of the American ramen craze, for good reason. Few flavors are as rich and satisfying as a good pork broth. I’ve found Hajime’s tonkotsu broth to be consistently satisfying, not too fatty or lean.

That richness needs a balance. The noodles served at Hajime are made in-house. They’re thin, straight and — packed together as they are — help carry a slurp of broth with each bite.

Unfortunately, that dense ball of noodles sometimes can be too packed together. On a couple of occasions, I’ve found threads of noodle mashed together into an undercooked clump. On the whole, they’re fine and do the trick, but they could use closer attention to detail in the kitchen.

The toppings that Hajime adds are where things can start getting very good. If you order its traditional tonkotsu ramen, it’ll come topped with chashu, roasted pork cooked into meltingly tender slices. It is a classic porky combination, hard not to love.

But, that combo can go in different directions, depending on the toppings. The menma, pickled bamboo shoots, have a nice balance of crunch and tender, and I love the jolt of acid they add. The nitmago, a soy-seasoned boiled egg, is a creamy, salty delight, but too often is cooked past creaminess into dry, boiled egg territory.

Other variations give a pleasant spread of variety. I was afraid the honey miso ramen would be too sweet, but it was a pleasantly mild note of honey that paired well with the tender kernels of corn floating atop.

On the other hand, I thought I was ready for the ultra spicy, ordered at the top level, but found that it tastes exactly as it sounds, a punishing, bracing level of chile heat. I’m certain some chile-heat addict out there is looking for that kind of pain, but it was too much for me.

A wasabi shoyu ramen, though, was pleasantly balanced, almost more aromatic of wasabi than possessed with nasal-clearing heat. That bowl comes with a lovely little pile of nearly-caramelized onions that round out the flavor, though the seafood broth served with it can be somewhat salty and thin.

There are so many variations, so many of those elements, that getting it all right can feel a little like a Goldilocks quest. Hajime rarely gets everything right all at the same time, but it gets enough right enough of the time, that I find myself continuing to go back.

One night, as a friend fretted over how exactly to order, a waitress helpfully suggested her preference: a combination of tonkotsu and seafood broth, so that it would be both a little salty and a little rich. It wasn’t traditional, by any means, but, when the bowl arrived, my friend took a sip and smiled. At least on that night, it was just right.