We're really lucky that the past year has seen a renaissance in Japanese food. I'm eating more good sushi and ramen than ever before. And it's now being served izakaya (tavern)-style. In this ever more casual world of dining, the rise of the Japanese gastropub should come as no surprise. Hyde Park's Noble Rice is a tribute to the 15 years chef/owner Eric Fralick spent in Japan. "Across cultures the one element that remains constant is that food holds a powerful nostalgia for all of us. This is what I [want] Noble Rice to be."
That sense of comfort food nostalgia, called natsukashii, is everywhere on Chef Fralick's wonderfully diverse menu, which reflects his love for sushi, ramen, steam buns, small plates and yakitori skewers. And the intimate interior's rustic feel with exposed brick, dark wood, and industrial Edison bulb chandeliers creates a welcoming American izakaya showcase. But the proof is on the plate.
We start with a few of the small specialty plates. The house-made sake and dry rub ribs are surprisingly meaty, and bright flavors from Asian pear and ginger barbecue sauce make the table buzz. The seared tuna is also tasty, but less surprising. Avocado is a common pairing that works well with black sesame and garlic ponzu but lets the fish still remain the star.
The lone disappointment is takoyaki, a huge, deep-brown octopus hush puppy. The exterior is just a bit too hard to crack and seems light on the octopus. However, the tonkatsu Japanese barbecue sauce has plenty of flavor. Still, the other starters have a wow factor this one lacks.
The steamed hirata buns are like puffy tacos filled with sake-laced pulled pork, tangy pear slaw, microgreens and the bite of red onion. I tend to think of Vietnamese bao, but a quick online glance reveals that steamed hirata have become a firm favorite in Japanese ramen shops.
Fralick also offers a distinctly southern American fusion version, NFC buns, with spicy fried chicken, country cream and redeye gravy.
The yakitori skewers have two crisp chunks of lush pork belly glazed with blood orange and maple, and topped with some candied orange peel. The sweet citrus has real punch that balances the lush fat from the pork. I could eat these by the ill-advised-for-your-cholesterol dozen. If you like skewers, there are also four chicken and two veggie options available.
The signature Noble ramen starts with their triple stock, which includes prominent smoke from the juice of pork belly at the core of the broth, Noble tara (sauce), huge round slices of tasty chashu pork, crunchy bamboo shoots (menma), and mayu (black garlic oil). The half boiled egg garnish is cooked to a bright, cool yellow center as it swims alongside sesame seeds and a mound of shredded scallions. Just lovely.
We can't resist the colorful nigiri platter with eight slices of glistening fish resting luxuriously like Manet's Olympia on a chaise of acidulated rice. The salmon, tuna, yellowtail, shrimp, eel, escolar, and a double of surprising monchong from Hawaii deliciously complement the spicy tuna roll, which juxtaposes soft fish with crisp cucumber and the balanced kick of togarashi peppers and sriracha. The heat doesn't overwhelm the tuna, but definitely lingers on the finish.
They offer a nice, selective range of drinks, with beer on tap plus high-end bottles including Duchesse de Bourgogne, a Flanders red ale, and Nest Red Rice Ale from Japan. There's also shōchū and sake by the glass, plus both 300ml and 720ml bottles. In addition to some affordable wine, they even cater to soda aficionados by serving Coke and Sprite in classic bottles from Mexico that are made with natural cane sugar rather than high-fructose corn syrup.
Lastly, if you've never had a chance to try the Ramune strawberry soda, it's a fun option. There's a special top that you use to dislodge a candy covered sphere that remains in the neck of the bottle so that the soda washes over it as you sip. It tastes, well, like sweet and fizzy strawberry. It will bring out the inner kid in you.
Unlike the ubiquitous ice cream mochi that shows up for dessert at many Japanese restaurants, Fralick presents a small bowl with jellied squares of local Buddy Brew cold brewed coffee in a sweet coconut cream sauce with crunchy toasted coconut garnish. Surprisingly, the bitter coffee notes are dominated by the sweet coconut. When I do an experiment and try to remove all the sauce with my tongue before bearing down on the jelly, the coffee shows well. But just eating it together by the spoonful, it seems like a coconut dessert with the squares providing only a contrasting texture. Still, it's an original and tasty option.
Tampa Bay is lucky that Chef Fralick acted on his spirit of adventure and bounced around the izakayas of Japan long enough to fall in love with the cuisine. And now, with Noble Rice, to share his version of natsukashii and Japanese-inspired comfort food that we may now all enjoy.
Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.