Cincinnati’s Han Lin, the chef behind Montgomery’s traditional Japanese sushi restaurant Mei, is taking his talents to Over-the-Rhine in an effort to captivate the district’s foodies with ramen done the soulful way.
Ramen, a traditional Japanese dish consisting of a meat- or fish-based broth, noodles and a range of vegetables and protein, has grown in popularity in recent years, but Lin believes the balance between authenticity and modernism has yet to be struck. As such, his forthcoming restaurant, Zundo Ramen & Donburi, will serve ramen which he calls “incomparable” to Greater Cincinnati’s current offerings.
“With ramen, the chef’s soul must be captured inside it — there’s so many different kinds you can make with the broth,” he says. “With ramen, the sauce and the broth have to be in a balance. Some restaurants can make a very good broth but the wrong sauce. That’s not going to be good. And their noodles can be done poorly, too.”
Lin will pour his soul into every bowl of Zundo’s ramen at the start, as he plans to run the kitchen as the restaurant’s lead chef for at least the first few months after its opening later this summer. And, in addition to pouring proper Japanese authenticity into each bowl, Lin hopes to introduce locals to authentic eating techniques, as well.
“The thing is with the United States is when people eat ramen, they eat it slowly,” Lin says. “It’s weird to watch. When I eat ramen, it’s like a two-minute or three-minute finish. I eat it while it’s hot. When it gets cold, the noodles soak in too much and it’s not good.”
Tackling a bowl of hot ramen with haste can be a test of willpower for those that can’t stand the heat, but speed is a running theme at Zundo: Donburi, a Japanese stew that consists of various meats and vegetables served over steamed rice, is also considered a “fast” food.
“Donburi takes to young people because it’s really easy and quick,” Lin says. “Here, there are a lot of young people that will like donburi.”
Whether topped with chicken teriyaki, eel or sashimi, donburi is a versatile dish that brings together protein, sauce and rice in a three-part harmony. It is seldom found on local menus, so this is truly a treat.
Still fine-tuning the menu, Lin hasn’t made the specifics of any donburi or ramen dish official, but he promises that “it’s going to be a small, simple menu.”
He has, however, guaranteed OTR’s drinking crowd a seat at the table — or bar.
Sticking to tradition, Lin will have Japanese beers, sake and soju readily available at Zundo. And he promises another cocktail favorite: “Sake bombs? Oh, yes,” he says.
Zundo will tend to the late-night crowd, as Lin plans to keep the doors open until 2:30 a.m. on the weekends. He will also open at 11:30 a.m. throughout the week to give OTR’s nine-to-five clique the option to spend lunch with a bowl of hot ramen or donburi.
Lin sees OTR taking to Zundo quite quickly, citing the area’s fast-paced lifestyle and collective interest in high-quality dining experiences as key factors in his decision to set up shop in the district.
“Here, there are lots of historic buildings, and it was very nice to see that,” Lin says. “Also, I’ve been eating at a lot of restaurants here, and there are very good restaurants. So, it’s mostly because it’s small, has lots of good restaurants and it’s just very different here (compared to Montgomery).”
Lin started renovating the space on 12th St., near Queen City Radio, in September 2017, building a full bar and beautifying the walls with new brick, Japanese décor and paintings by local Cincinnati artists.
Lin is in the process of hiring staff and putting the final touches on the restaurant’s interior. While the long road has pushed Zundo’s original opening date from April to late June or early July, Lin is confident the added attention to detail will make all the difference.
Zundo Ramen & Donburi is located at 220 W. 12th St., Over-the-Rhine. More info: zundootr.com.