On perhaps the coldest night Durham, North Carolina, has had in years, there was no meal more fitting than a bowl of steaming noodles in broth. That it came in the form of Japanese ramen—specifically tonkotsu, the famed Sun Noodle noodles swimming in a pool of pork dashi with a healthy portion of pork belly perched atop, and black kale, wood ear mushrooms, pickled ginger, and scallions—made the effort to leave the house that night more than worth it. I added a soy-marinated soft-boiled egg, but only some broth and noodles made it home for my husband to taste later that night. I couldn’t finish the hearty helping, not after the artful cocktail and savory small plates I’d tasted earlier in the evening, but I wasn’t about to leave a drip from that bowl behind.
Dashi is Durham’s newest restaurant, and it fills one of the few remaining food gaps in the Bull City. We had a preview in 2013 when Billy and Kelli Cotter, owners of Toast Paninoteca, and their pals Nick Hawthorn-Johnson and Rochelle Johnson, owners of The Cookery, a culinary incubator and event space, joined forces to create Hakanai, as a three-day pop-up experiment. The pop-up was so well received they realized it was worth trying in permanence. Thank goodness.
Dashi is more like two restaurants linked by a dumbwaiter. There are two separate entrances, the ramen joint on the first floor, and a traditional Japanese pub, or izakaya, on the second. Upstairs you will find an astounding array of wine and sake, curated by Craig Heffley at Wine Authorities, as well as sochu, cocktails, and spirits.
They all seem to pair well with the small plates that are only available upstairs. But don’t worry—if you aren’t quite finished with your food, they will send it downstairs so you can finish your sashimi (made with a North Carolina fish of the day, crispy nori rice, Meyer lemon and ponzu) or spicy miso chicken wings alongside your ramen of choice. The ramen menu is simple but comprehensive with six distinct variations, and gluten-free noodles are also available.
It’s not that Chef Billy Cotter doesn’t enjoy making Italian food anymore. But after seven years offering his acclaimed soups and sandwiches made with mortadella, prosciutto, provolone, and mozzarella at Toast, he was ready to get back to his roots. Chef Cotter hails from the Bull City, but his culinary soul is rooted in Asia, most endearingly Japan. Before his days at Magnolia Grill, he worked at Lantern Restaurant in Chapel Hill, long heralded for its Asian fusion focus.
At Dashi he remains true to authentic Japanese fare. And we locals couldn’t be happier about that.