Three years ago, Water & Bone opened just as Halifax was developing a taste for good ramen.
“The people here, the culture is huge and the people enjoy it,” says owner Jamie MacAulay.
MacAulay and his wife Shannon McMullin opened the Charles Street ramen shop with the goal of creating one of the city’s first ramen-specific restaurants.
Although an option or two were usually available at sushi joints, high-quality ramen broth takes at least a dozen hours to cook.
“There was lots of ramen being served in sushi restaurants but none of it made from scratch or made properly, with proper tare, proper style broth – either chintan or paitan, cloudy or clear,” MacAulay explains.
The chef-turned-owner had long been interested in ramen, putting it on the menu at FID Resto as a sous chef in 2007. And MacAulay continues to perfect it today.
“I’m still fine-tuning it and working on it. After I left, just making ramen for myself and researching and studying and eating.,” says MacAulay. “I really became infatuated with North American ramen.”
North American ramen, he clarifies, is made with ingredients found locally.
“Why would you make Tokyo-style ramen in Halifax? You have all the ingredients in Halifax to make ramen here,” he says. “We have seaweed, we have all the same dried fish.”
MacAulay says that even in Japan, regional ramen styles vary based on what was traditionally available.
“There’s places that put corn in ramen and it was influenced because American soldiers brought corn over so when they were around American bases,” he says. “Districts in Japan that had pork farms, that’s where tonkatsu comes from.”
At Water & Bone, MacAulay signs for an order of pork belly on a Tuesday morning when the store is closed. The pork is locally sourced from Getaway Farm. Their chicken comes from Oulton's. Their nori comes from wild seaweed forager Fred Dardenne.
“In food anyway, things are culturally adopted all the time,” MacAulay says.
The 40-seat restaurant (a 60-seat patio is open in warmer months) is open Wednesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner.
In the past three years, the menu has expanded to include not just more types of ramen, but a range of dishes like bao and fried cauliflower, MacAuley says.
“We have a pretty strong appetizer menu. We wanted to sort of feel like izakaya, where you come in and it’s table service but has a full bar,“ he explains.
MacAulay says he has a long list of friends in the industry across North America who he shares cooking tips, tricks and hacks with.
“Through social media, everybody just shares ideas,” says the chef.
From recipes like the fried cauliflower to how to cook noodles properly when you can’t afford to buy equipment from overseas.
“Importing things, equipment to make ramen can be extremely expensive, specialized noodle boilers and things like that,” he explains. “And not always does it translate to even power wattage in North America, or food standard codes.”
Another “North American” twist on the ramen was introducing a vegan option, which MacAulay says he put a lot of work into perfecting.
“We have our meat-eater friends that come in and eat that ramen cause it has the body and depth and character that you would expect from meat ramen,” says MacAulay.
The co-owner and chef says he doesn’t like the word “restauranteur,” but that he wears many hats.
“Being a small business owner and trying to be a chef at the same time, and cook, and be online, and taste everything, it’s got to be one of the biggest jobs anyone could ever do,” he says.
But MacAulay says it’s all worth it to hear from repeat customers and those Haligonians who truly appreciate a good bowl of noodles.
“Establishing the clientele has been the best part of it, the guests that come to us over and over. That’s one of the most amazing parts,” he says. “We’ve had people that have come in since day one and they’ve had every iteration, every bowl, things like that. Those are the people that we cook for.”