Restaurant review: Ramen romance at Buya

This welcome addition to St. Pete's EDGE carries splendid Japanese dishes and drinks.

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click to enlarge The ramen-driven Buya's mushroom ramen is one of its many comforting menu offerings. - Nicole Abbett
Nicole Abbett
The ramen-driven Buya's mushroom ramen is one of its many comforting menu offerings.

Buya Ramen

4 out of 5 stars

911 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. Izakaya plates: $8-$12; ramen: $14-$18; dessert: $8; sake, beer and wine: $6-$22. 727-202-7010; buyaramen.com.


Buya Ramen announces its presence on St. Petersburg's Central Avenue not by its exterior laser-cut metal sign, but by a huge wall-sized mural. To your right as you enter looms artist Michael Vahl's tribute to the vivid ukiyo-e style woodblock prints from the 19th century. It pictures naked Bacchanalian revelry in a Japanese bath with a flying ramen food fight right out of Animal House. Suffice it to say, this is not ramen in a Styro cup.

Actually, ramen is a lot like pizza. It's a much-loved comfort food that runs the gamut from cheap and microwaveable to sublime artisanal creations. For many, their only ramen touchstone is Cup Noodles multipacks with just-add-water broths. Luckily, the Bay area is now sprouting izakaya Japanese gastropubs like mushrooms in a forest. Just as we have handcrafted, wood-fired pizza around the region, we may now add kick-ass ramen to our dining options.

click to enlarge Among the EDGE District restaurant's tapas-style "izakaya plates" are a pair of pork belly buns. - Nicole Abbett
Nicole Abbett
Among the EDGE District restaurant's tapas-style "izakaya plates" are a pair of pork belly buns.

The menu at Buya, which recently started offering lunch, is still expanding. Chef Sean Squires' starters are tapas-style "izakaya plates." Choose between fresh seaweed salad, char-grilled baby bok choy with soy and sesame, or pork belly buns. I confess I'm a sucker for pork belly, and Buya's version is sensational. First of all, the steamed bun (hirata) is extraordinarily cloud-like, while the lush, crisp pork it cradles can make you weak in the knees. The fattiness is balanced by subtle heat of Sriracha aioli and some welcome crunch from crisp cucumber and shredded carrots, plus a shiso leaf. I am in love. There are only two buns per order, so next time I'm not sharing.

One of my diners is so enthusiastic that there's an uncontainable squeal of "I can't remember being this excited about a restaurant." Indeed, this sentiment is well-founded. You can tell the ultra-rich tonkatsu ramen broth is a rare 22-hour labor of love. It's akin to the veal stock pot, which is always bubbling in a classic French kitchen as a base for wonderful sauces or further reduction to a demi glacé. This is a process that can't be hurried, and the result is a hedonistic rush.

The bowl of tonkatsu broth full of springy toothsome noodles, shreds of crispy duck, sliced shiitakes and tiny nameko mushrooms bursts with flavor. It's the ultimate meal-in-a-bowl garnished with fresh sprouts, diced scallion tops, microgreens and a most beautiful boiled egg half. The cool, delicious yolk center is a striking shade of what Van Gogh calls "the highest yellow."

click to enlarge Kim Strasser (left) holds the Shoguns Rickey with peach boba, while Crystal Nyerick (right) presents a classic Mai Tai. - Nicole Abbett
Nicole Abbett
Kim Strasser (left) holds the Shoguns Rickey with peach boba, while Crystal Nyerick (right) presents a classic Mai Tai.

My posse wrinkles their noses as I swoon at the idea of oxtails. But I know from my youth, when my mother used to braise them, that this collagen-filled meat is a carnivore's dream. There's a richness of pure umami overload, and it's not to be missed. When you add the complex tonkatsu broth as well as shiitake mushrooms, the layers of flavor are just wonderful.

Seafood ramen has a miso-based stock fragrant with lemongrass and yuzu. Its aromas are amazing. The intact grilled langoustine tail and perfect, tender sea scallop also make this one a winner. The dish is loaded with the same fresh garnishes, but the piece de resistance is a tempura-fried langoustine head sticking straight up like a breaching whale. I always try to follow the "when in Rome" axiom, so I twist my group's arms to use their chopsticks in conjunction with the lovely wooden soup spoons to slurp away. If you're immersing yourself in a cuisine from another culture, you might as well go all in. Even if you're a novice, give chopsticks a try. Each time you'll get better, and eventually you can proudly demur when offered a fork.

One tablemate likes wine off-dry, so we order a bottle of Banzai Bunny Yuzu Sparkling Sake. The sweet-tart, citrus-flavored bubbles remind me of the world of Hello Kitty. In addition to a range of sake by the glass and bottle, Buya offers Japanese and domestic beer. For spirits fans, there's a selection of 14 Japanese whiskies. They're most similar to either blended or single-malt Scotch, ranging from $12 to $50 for aficionados wondering what a Hibiki 21-year-old premium blended whisky from Osaka tastes like.

click to enlarge As you enter, LA transport Michael Vahl's mural pays tribute to the "Brawl in Women's Bath House" painting with a ramen food fight. - Nicole Abbett
Nicole Abbett
As you enter, LA transport Michael Vahl's mural pays tribute to the "Brawl in Women's Bath House" painting with a ramen food fight.

The lone dessert for now is the chokoreto pâté. It's got a wonderful creamy texture with deep dark chocolate flavor hinting of ginger, which doesn't overpower. The accompanying blackberry and currant gastrique adds fruity acidity that's cut with perfect vanilla whipped cream. With fresh mint, a whole raspberry and blackberry garnish, you've got a happy ending to a lovely meal.

Like the Best of the Bay-winning pies at Pizzeria Gregario, the EDGE District's Buya has a sense of gastronomic grace. The price point may seem a bit high at $18 for a bowl of noodle soup, but it's a meal in itself. And, for me, it's a bargain price to pay for such culinary artistry.

Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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