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Canary Wharf: Marugame Udon brings a wealth of fresh noodles to Cabot Place

Brand’s European CEO Keith Bird on rolling out the Japanese super brand’s ‘amazing’ value and quality

A chef nets freshly cooked udon noodles in the open kitchen
A chef nets freshly cooked udon noodles in the open kitchen – image Matt Grayson

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Marugame Udon is the latest restaurant to open its doors among a clutch of new arrivals around the rotunda at the top of Cabot Place’s escalators.

It’s located opposite Gallio, German Doner Kebab and what’s soon to be Neat Burger – so there’s certainly plenty of choice in the area Canary Wharf Group has decided to dub Atrium Kitchen.

But a few things make the massively successful Japanese brand stand out.

It’s not the smiling welcome (somehow communicated despite the face mask), it’s not the fancy strip lights hung to look like drying strands of noodles, it’s the sheer attention to detail being paid second-by-second, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour by those running the place and producing the food. 

Embarking on its 22nd year, the business has grown from one restaurant to around 800 in its native Japan with 1,250 now trading worldwide.

Canary Wharf is its third branch in the UK – following launches at Liverpool Street and The O2 – with St Christopher’s Place already in the pipeline and many more to follow.

Marugame Udon European CEO Keith Bird
Marugame Udon European CEO Keith Bird – image Matt Grayson

Away from the inevitable talk of roll-outs and bottom lines, however, the key ingredient for the brand’s European CEO, Keith Bird, is fun.

“You could stand and watch this kitchen all day – I feel like I’m Willy Wonka in the udon factory,” he said.

“I love hospitality, it’s in my blood. When I was doing an MBA, a guy called Tony Hughes came in and did a talk about retail, restaurants and leisure.

“I’d spent my time in telecoms and banking and from what he said, hospitality sounded like the area I wanted to work in.

“The principle he was talking about was very simple – that if you look after your team, they are going to look after the guests.

“If the guests are happy, they’ll come back more frequently, and then the business flourishes, it grows, and you keep investing in that virtuous circle.

“Sometimes businesses that struggle lose sight of that.

“You need to make sure that your team live the values, understand the business, really want to be here, so recruit them well, train them well and treat them well.

“Even with our delivery drivers we make sure we have a place they can fill up their bottles because they’re carrying our precious cargo.

“In the restaurant it adds up to a special element you can’t really codify. It’s something about the energy – if people are happy in a great environment, guests want to be a part of that.

“So when customers go down our line with a tray it’s show time – you get the theatre of seeing everything being made and served in front of you.

“We want people to have lots of fun – that’s why you’ll hear the shouts as ingredients are prepared, but it’s something that can’t be forced, the staff have to want to do it and that’s what great hospitality is all about.

“That’s fundamental for Marugame – we want to serve delicious food, but also want to lift people’s lives a bit.”

Noodle-like lights at the Canary Wharf venue
Noodle-like lights at the Canary Wharf venue – image Matt Grayson

With calls of “Fresh Udon” peppering the air in the kitchen, the theatre of cracking sous vide poached eggs into bowls and pints of Asahi beer that miraculously fill from beneath via a Bottoms Up machine, there are plenty of acts to observe.

But that’s not to say things aren’t taken seriously.

“We’ve got our Udon master, who has come over on a one-way ticket from Japan – he’s here for at least five years and probably longer,” said Keith, who has worked with brands including Wasabi, Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Flight Club.

“The point is to make sure that the udon is absolutely perfect. We take it to the point of obsession that the ratio of flour, salt and water is correct.

“We go through a real process of making sure it matures, so you get the full flavour.

“Even the hardness of the water is measured on the Clark Scale. We have a really sophisticated water quality system to make sure every portion of noodles is absolutely perfect.”

An egg delicately cooked in its shell
An egg delicately cooked in its shell – image Matt Grayson

That level obsession has resulted in a special vacuum machine that sucks a very specific amount of moisture off the noodles after cooking – aimed at helping them to pick up the flavour of the broth or sauces they’re put with.

“You can have the noodles in their purest form – Kamaage, which are served straight from the pot with either a sweet smoky dashi dipping sauce or a vegan version for £3.45,” said Keith.

“Or you can have them in a light fish or vegan broth for £4.45.

“Then we’ve got loads of exciting dishes including a Chicken Katsu Curry Udon for £6.95 and a Chicken Paitan also for £6.95, which is sliced pieces of chicken thigh in a rich chicken soup with a poached egg that’s cooked sous vide in its shell and cracked into the bowl.

“Then we have a big Beef Nikutama with caramelisd onions in a sweet smoky broth and an egg for £8.45.

“That’s probably my favourite – it’s really satisfying and the ingredients balance really well with the udon.Seeing the shell crack open and a cooked egg drop out is sensational.

“Then there’s our range of tempura – deep fried in front of the customers.

“We offer loads of different pieces including prawn and chicken and it’s great for people on a vegetarian or vegan diet because we have sweet potato, pumpkin, red pepper, asparagus and courgette.”

Tempura ready for diners to serve themselves with
Tempura ready for diners to serve themselves with – image Matt Grayson

Tempura dishes range from 85p-£2.25, with customers able to serve themselves as they make their way to the till.

Keith said: “I’ve helped loads of amazing businesses in my career but the difference with this one is you have an offer that is for everyone.

“Udon is for the rich, the poor, the young and old – it’s healthy, amazing value, and we have a team here that want to make your experience with us the very best it can be.

“This is one of Japan’s super brands for a reason and to make it accessible to people here is really exciting.

“There was a survey in the country ranking all the top brands and Marugame came in at number 14 – one above the iPhone. 

“We chose to open in Canary Wharf for our third restaurant because it’s a place where people work, but also where they live – and that’s important for us. 

“There’s a solid population and a good Asian community as well and many know the brand already.

“Like any restaurant serving food from a particular country, you know it’s going to be good if there are people of that nationality there.

“That makes a good foundation for us, but it’s also about the people who will discover Marugame – Europeans who haven’t been to Japan.

“The Wharf is fantastic, it’s growing and ever-changing with housing going up on the estate and around it.

“We did this deal during the darkest times of Covid, but we believed that if you go to a great place that has always done well, with a great reputation and great shopping it will work.

“Workers are important, of course, but it’s the resident population that’s the key.”

Chicken Katsu Curry Udon, served in a reusable bowl
Chicken Katsu Curry Udon, served in a reusable bowl – image Matt Grayson

Visitors to Marugame can also rest assured the brand is doing its bit for the environment.

“In addition to beer filled from the bottom – which is great theatre, we have wine in cans which is better for the environment,” said Keith. 

“We’ve got good green credentials. One of our key values is doing the right thing.

“All our packaging for takeaway and delivery is recyclable, so there’s no plastic in there, and we’re trying to minimise everything we possibly can.

“We practise the fundamentals of reduce, re-use, recycle – a simple but very effective message.

“You come in and there’s a bowl that gets used and then re-washed, and will be used hundreds and hundreds of times, and that helps as well.

“It’s important for our team as well, because they want to work for a place they believe in – the faith we put in them and they put in us, to do the right thing, keeps this journey going.

“We want to make Canary Wharf proud of us. We want to do something really special here and we think the brand can go in many other locations in the UK.

“It’s on the money and we’re delivering for customers.”

Read more: Shutters opens its doors in Canary Wharf

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Canary Wharf: How Urban Greens salads are all about depth, flavour and taste

Recently opened in the West Wintergarden, the brand believes it’s found a gap in the market

Urban Greens co-founder Houman Ashrafzadeh
Urban Greens co-founder Houman Ashrafzadeh – image Matt Grayson

While alone in offering frisbees, Kaleido isn’t the only new salad game in town. It’s also not the only company to bill itself as delivering something fresh.

Following the success of its first branch in St James’ Park, Urban Greens has opened a second in Canary Wharf, filling space opposite Obica in the West Wintergarden with leafy plants and plenty of pickled and blanched ingredients.  

The brand is the brainchild of co-founders Houman Ashrafzadeh, Rushil Ramjee and Ioannis Divas. The three met while studying and remained friends as their separate careers flourished. 

“We weren’t business partners to begin with,” said Houman. “But we’d always explore food places together – we’ve always had a big interest in it.

“I grew up in Sweden, Rushil in South Africa, although he’d also lived in London for a long time, and Ioannis in Greece. We would travel to South Africa and other places together and spot these amazing places for food.

“We always had the entrepreneurial spirit in us and, although we had successful careers in the corporate world, we knew that we wanted to do something of our own. A couple of years ago, one thing that came to our minds – London has always been, for us, an amazing place with the best restaurants that you can find on the planet.

“But when it came to the healthy fast food side of things, we always thought it was lagging behind. 

“We discovered that in Scandinavia and the US a lot of food brands were doing things that we couldn’t even find here. 

“So we started looking into different brands to get some inspiration and we spotted that, when it came to salads, there was a huge gap – no-one was doing them properly.

“You could find salads that had been around a long time, but these were plain ingredients in a bowl with a bit of dressing chucked in.

“They were nothing special, just very traditional, boring salads, which didn’t excite us. People would have them because they were considered healthy, but there was something missing.”

Serving up salad at Urban Greens
Serving up salad at Urban Greens – image Matt Grayson

It took the trio about two years to formulate their business plan, working between Athens, London and Stockholm, slowly creating the concept, discussing the menu and eventually negotiating with a landlord to open their first site in 2019.

Rushil and Houman left their jobs to concentrate on running Urban Greens in the UK with Ioannis taking a more passive role.

“It felt scary at first, because we were leaving very steady jobs – very predictable and comfortable lifestyles – doing something that was in a new industry for us,” said Houman.

“Our approach was that, we may not have experience, but we know what good food is, what good service is – we know what we like when we go to a good place. We wanted to try to implement those things in our own business.

“We launched in July 2019 and it started picking up really quickly. People would come in and try it and be very pleasantly surprised from a taste point of view, but also by the whole concept.”

That reaction may very well be down to Urban Greens’ tireless approach to creating a core menu of balanced salads that all offer something out of the ordinary.

“Our salads are not side salads – our portions are quite big,” said Houman. “It’s also impossible to replicate our salads at home because every flavour is elevated – we don’t have any plain ingredients.

“Each salad has a few elements in common – they all have a base such as cabbage marinated in olive oil and salt. 

“They all come with one form of protein. That could be quinoa or red rice, for example. 

“Then you have something pickled but not just a plain pickle – we add flavours to it. Our carrots are pickled with ginger so that enters the salad.

“Not everything can be pickled, as that would be overpowering, so we add other ingredients but again, we don’t just put cauliflower or broccoli in a bowl – we blanch them to take away that harshness. 

“They still add crunch – we don’t boil them – it’s the elevation of taste and flavour that comes with it. There are always vegetarian and vegan options.”

Urban Greens' Canary Wharf branch
Urban Greens’ Canary Wharf branch – image Matt Grayson

Core dishes include the Jakarta with tempeh, seasame marinated glass noodles, pickled carrots, edamame, bean sprouts, coriander, toasted peanuts and seasame seeds and the Beef Saigon with Irish pulled brisket, glass noodles, blanched broccoli, pickled cabbage, edamame, bean sprouts, fresh mint and toasted peanuts.

“The funny thing is I never get tired of the Beef Saigon or the Seoul Chicken because they both come with a really nice spicy dressing,” said Houman. 

“But we always try to encourage our customers to get out of their comfort zones and to try something new.

“The prices vary – the vegan ones start from £7.85, the ones in the middle are £8.85, and the premium ones are £9.95.

“When you visit Urban Greens, everything you see is the result of decisions we have been taking consciously – we are in control of it, involved in every little part of the business.

“After we opened our first store we were approached by quite a few landlords and Canary Wharf approached us.

“We took a look into it and, although neither of us had worked in Canary Wharf – we had worked in the City – we definitely thought that it was one place we wanted to move to as an expansion, but it came much sooner than we had anticipated when we were starting up in the beginning.”

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Canary Wharf: Why Kaleido is putting all kinds of salads in rice paper rolls

Co-founder Laura Mimoun explains how she and husband Denis Dahan came up with the brand

Kaleido co-founder Laura Mimoun
Kaleido co-founder Laura Mimoun – image by Matt Grayson

Kaleido sets itself a little bit apart. First of all, its Canary Wharf branch – the latest location to open and the third in a growing chain – is tucked away off the main stretch of mall that joins Canada Place to Cabot Place, round the corner and into the lower floor of One Canada Square. 

When Crossrail opens (although we’ve given up betting on when that will be), the shop will be on one of the main routes into the estate proper. But those days are in the future and Kaleido is slowly building by word of mouth and tempting visitors to nearby Santander.

It’s also an outlier in terms of design – arranged into an angular unit that used to house ATM machines, it doesn’t so much invite passers-by in as push out into the space in front of it with its wares proudly displayed on a bright island unit. 

Bright circular murals depicting some of the ingredients used in its products adorn the walls – bright, playful colours and graphics are the thing here. And that’s a choice too because it communicates something about the brand – that it’s approach to salad stands out from the crowd.

Salad rolls by Kaleido
Salad rolls by Kaleido – image by Matt Grayson

Kaleido was created by wife and husband team Laura Mimoun and Denis Dahan.

“I wasn’t working in hospitality at all,” said Laura. “I was working in marketing for chocolate brand Green & Black’s. One night, with my husband, we were making Vietnamese rice paper salad rolls – some people know then as summer rolls.

“We’re both French and these rolls are very well known in France. We don’t like to waste food and we had some rice paper.

“We just started putting other ingredients in the rolls and found that it worked very well as a salad sandwich.

“That was how we got the idea for Kaleido. We thought that this is something you can eat with your hands, much like you’d eat a burrito. You can dip it in sauces and have all sorts of different flavours inside. It’s mix and match and this is something we really like.”

From that initial spark of an idea sprung Kaleido, a shop that offers a range of 10 different salads wrapped in transparent rice paper.

Customers can order between one and 10 ranging in price from £2.75 to £19.95 respectively. The cost is the same regardless of the salads chosen The selection currently includes Falafel And Hummus, Tuna And Cucumber, Sweet Potato And Tahini and Chicken Caesar.

“The first part of starting the business was a lot of thinking – evaluating the risk and the opportunities, looking at market trends, and then making the jump,” said Laura. “We wanted to create a fun, healthy brand, so this is why you have the name Kaleido, from kaleidoscope, and it looks a bit different because it’s fun.

“We began by making the recipes at home, and created five flavours that we were happy with and liked cooking. The great thing about rice paper is it’s only 30 calories and what you see through it is what you get. First we did food markets and grew from there. 

“In 2018 we did what was supposed to be a pop-up at Selfridge’s but has since become permanent. Then we opened up in Kingly Street  and now Canary Wharf. 

“More and more people are eating our rolls at our existing units so we are growing, which is great because it’s been a tough year. 

“We were originally due to open in Canary Wharf in 2020, but then the pandemic hit – it may not have been the best idea to put ‘coming soon’ on the hoarding. But we launched on Freedom Day in July and we’re very happy with business growing week-on-week.”

Kaleido's Canary Wharf branch
Kaleido’s Canary Wharf branch – image by Matt Grayson

Part of that growth could well be down to the sheer numerical variety Kaleido’s model offers. Eating two rolls a day, it would take a working week to try everything available at lunchtime. The combinations multiply further when you factor in the optional dipping sauces available.

“When people come here they will find 10 flavours each day – some changing, some staying the same and all prepared at our Rainbow Kitchen in Bermondsey,” said Laura.

“The product is innovative in the way we execute the salads – we are the only people doing these rolls here and the idea is to reinvent the way people eat healthy food so it’s also convenient and fun. 

“The mix and match is very much about my personality – I’m a Libra and all my life I have wanted this and then that, so here you can have different flavours and sauces.

“My husband and I both come from corporate backgrounds – we’ve worked long hours at desks so we value the benefit of variety, of rotating flavours.

“No-one wants to eat the same sandwich everyday – if they do, then bring them to me and I’ll have a chat with them.”

In addition to the extra attractions of Little Moons Mochi ice cream for dessert, a range of drinks and pre-packed boxes of rice paper rolls – for those who just don’t have time to choose their lunch – Kaleido is responsible for another first.

As far as we know, the shop is the first in Canary Wharf to lend out frisbees to its customers, with six displayed on a wall below an invitation to borrow.

“So far, one person has played with a frisbee,” said Laura. “This idea comes from the fact that we want people to eat healthy and live healthy – coming here and having a few throws with your colleagues outside is what we want to promote – embracing health.

“Our Kaleido rolls are not a diet food product and we would never position ourselves like that. But we believe they are healthy – they’re made only with ingredients you would find in a normal kitchen.

“They’re fresh, they’re simple and this is our vision of healthy food – the frisbee is a bit of fun to go alongside that. The rolls are also very filling – when you see the box, you don’t realise.

“People often don’t know how packed they are with the salad, so we’re going to do more imagery of what is inside in the future.”

Laura, who is originally from Paris said she and her husband wanted to grow the brand in London and then continue to expand.

“First we want to have more of our cabinets so that people can experience this iconic Kaleido way of serving food,” she said.

“Then we would like to branch out to other cities in the UK and across Europe. I’d love to, one day, open a shop in Paris.” 

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