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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: Six By Nico opens Canary Wharf restaurant at Chancellor Passage

Brand owner Nico Simeone brings his six-course tasting menu concept to diners in east London

Six By Nico head chef Nico Simeone outside the Canary Wharf restaurant
Six By Nico head chef Nico Simeone outside the Canary Wharf restaurant

There’s something new in Canary Wharf. The estate has played host to many different kinds of cuisine served at everything from fine-dining establishments to street food kiosks. There was even a place that only served steak frites.

Six By Nico is different. Housed in a long, single-storey space in Chancellor Passage, opposite the Wharf’s Post Office, the venue is all dark finishes, dramatic lighting, plants in pots and banquettes decorated with antique maps of Docklands.

But it’s the food that’s the contrast. All guests are served a six-course tasting menu, the content of which changes every six weeks. There’s a vegetarian variant, a few extra dishes to bulk things out if wanted and an optional wine flight, but that’s the bare bones of it.

And it’s a model that works. Honed by Scottish head chef Nico Simeone in Glasgow, Canary Wharf is his eighth site in the UK as his brand expands.

“It was all kind of an evolution,” said the softly spoken cook. “I left school and then just stumbled into kitchens. I’ve been really fortunate that I found my passion.

“I just fell in love with it – that was bit of luck. From there I wanted to keep learning, work my way up in kitchens. I did that and then I was in the fortunate position where I was able to open a wee restaurant in Cleveden Road in Glasgow.

“It was called La Famiglia – an Italian family-run restaurant and then I re-branded it as Simply Fish.

“It probably spent about four years failing, to be honest – breaking even or losing money.

“I’ve made so many mistakes over the years. It’s cost us lots of money in some cases, but nobody should be scared to do that – you’re always going to take hits and bumps along the road and you just have to keep moving forward in the hardest times.

Filo canneloni with taramasalata – part of the extras bundle
Filo Canneloni With Taramasalata – part of the extras bundle

“I had one last roll of the dice and re-branded the restaurant as 111 By Nico. That was really the first time I’d put my personality in the food and we made tasting menus work. Then another site came up in Glasgow in the Finneston area of the city and I grabbed it with both hands – spending a wee bit of money from the year we’d been trading, which was the first time I’d made a profit. 

“Then I came up with the idea – I asked the question: ‘Why can’t we just change what we cook every six weeks?’. It started with Italian, then French and just evolved into Six By Nico.

“We serve a six-course tasting menu with the inspiration for it taken from a theme.

“For example, we may want our dishes to evoke memory or a destination. Right now, for the first six weeks in Canary Wharf – until September 20 – we’re doing a menu called The Chippie.

“My parents ran a fish and chip shop, so that’s a memory for me and all the flavours and courses through that menu are things I’d associate with that environment.

“What we say is it’s a new story every six weeks. That’s something to look forward to. The downside is you can get something that’s so successful and popular and then you throw it in the bin, so we’re always trying to create and improve on the last theme.

“We change the dishes eight times a year and, about four times a year, all the restaurants sync up, but London’s never done the New York menu, for example, which we know is good so it would be silly not to bring it here – we mix it up across the country.

“As far as working on new menus goes, I’ve been so fortunate – as the company’s grown we’ve been able to get talented people in, we have an amazing creative team.

“We all sit down and come up with ideas constantly, we do tastings to tweak and improve things and that’s how we do it.

Chips And Cheese - the first course at Six By Nico
Chips And Cheese – the first course at Six By Nico

“The Chippie starts off with chips and cheese – Parmesan, curry oil and a pressed potato terrine. It all finishes off with our take on a deep-fried Mars bar.

“The main course is smoked sausage with a trio of pork smoked under a cloche with the flavours of celeriac and apple.”

Nico said opening on the estate was simply down to visiting and getting a feel for the area.

“We work with agents to find sites and somebody said there was an opportunity in Canary Wharf,” he said. “I see a lot of places, but sometimes you go somewhere and you get that feeling – a gut instinct.

“I loved the spot and spent some time going around the area. I thought it was perfect for the restaurant. 

“I don’t even know what’s coming after The Chippie on the Wharf yet – we don’t necessarily plan that far ahead. 

“The big thing about Six By Nico is that we try to work seasonally – we’d never do the Amalfi Coast that’s in the other venues in winter, for example.

“I want people who come here to enjoy themselves, to have a good experience and be happy. 

“When I go to a restaurant I enjoy everything – the atmosphere, the staff, the team and the setting.

“The vibes of a place are a big thing for me. With the team here we’re really customer-focused – everything is about that.

“We don’t look at other businesses, we try to compete with ourselves to make us better.”

Trying The Chippie

So, what’s eating at Six By Nico actually like? The first thing to be aware of is the price. The six courses are priced at £37 per head. Add the wine flight – for £33 – and aperitif for £7.50 and a snack to go with it for £5 and you’re looking at £82.50 plus service. 

The dishes arrive as perfect little morsels – Six is the sort of place that errs on the side of quality rather than quantity, so the ravenous will need the add-ons, one of which comes in the form of delicious hunks of sourdough. 

As for the main attractions, they’re well presented, with artful dabs of sauce here and a sprig of greenery there. 

It’s very much dining as theatre – each arrival preceded by a discussion of what might appear and then the excitement of hunting around the plates for the promised flavours. 

The Chippie turns out to be a complex homage to the flavours of Nico’s youth, refined well away from their genesis but nevertheless amusing.

The scampi is crisp and rich, while the smoked sausage is more pork three ways than an improbably red saveloy and the chips and cheese, a gentle nod in the direction of the deep fat fryer rather than a full-on takeaway delight.

But the restaurant is beautifully kitted out, dressed in golds and rich coppers that lift the whole experience – an engaging venue to tempt back the audience for the next performance. 

And a special mention should go to the steak pie – a smart, meaty delight of a course.

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