Queuing for Ramen in Audubon Park.
There’s no denying it. Domu is very good. It has a clever menu and capable kitchen. It also has a no-bookings policy and well-deserved reputation for unbearable wait times. I’ve done long stints in big-city food scenes and understand the animal. But even with the benefit of perspective, I’m not quite buying what Domu is selling. Is the wait partially orchestrated? Not prepared to go there. But I will say we had a few eyebrow-raising moments while twiddling thumbs and killing brain cells.
This was our second visit to Domu but the first where we bothered to stick around. On the first occasion (when there were just two of us) it was a quick ‘no’ when we were told we would be waiting over an hour for bowl of ramen. We could be slurping noodles at Seito in under 15 minutes. Raincheck, puh-lease.
On our most recent visit we arrived at 5:45PM (the horror) in the hope we might beat those attempting to eat at a more sensible hour. No such luck. We were told that our party of four would be sentenced to an hour and 15-minute wait. Gotcha. Fully anticipated and prepared for. But while processing the bad news, we spotted several empty tables in the dining room. Mental note taken. Off to the bar where our well-placed perch allowed us to watch as the empty tables remained conspicuously empty. While imbibing, we were linked to a neato-bandito web app (kudos, Domu) that lets diners-in-waiting track time-to-table and view the parties queued ahead of them. Great idea. Reduces diner anxiety and its resulting burden on staff. It was also fantastic digifuel for our various hyper-analytic hang-ups. While obsessively monitoring the app we noticed that many of the parties ahead of us were two tops. The empty tables? Two tops.
Yes, you’ve just endured three full intro paragraphs of hate-to-wait. Strap in. There’s more. In case you aren’t pickin’ up what we’re puttin’ down, Orlando Eats is no fan of no-bookings. Restaurants with zero rezzies should be counter-order or located in cities with high density and public transportation. Vent complete. Exhale.
During our stay at Domu (and it did feel like a stay) our interactions with staff felt a bit like watching The Three Faces of Eve. Upon arrival, an unsmiling host couldn’t be bothered to look at us and we’re fairly certain our bartender was attached to a valium drip. On the flipside, our primary bartender’s partner in crime was brimming with enthusiasm and our server was friendly and engaging; knowledgeably answering our snarky questions about ingredients and preparation. Surprises at every turn. We’re not saying put on a happy face but put on a happy face! Business is booming – no need for schizoid service.
By the time our table was ready, which seemed to coincide exactly with the estimated time we’d been given (this rarely happens in my experience), we’d rolled up the type of bar damage restaurants really like to see. Our liquid time killers? A middling negroni (we’ve had far better far often), a respectable gimlet, an homage to Alice in Wonderland fueled by sherry and orgeat, and a smoked old fashioned that was good enough to prompt reorders. Unlike my dining companions, I quickly weened myself off the hard stuff, switching to beer. Funky Buddha was the only thing standing between my bar stool and oblivion.
So – a long wait, some tables left empty, and a big bar tab. It would make for a pretty strong circumstantial case in the court of opinion. But why go through the headache of filing it when Andrew Zimmer’s favorite Orlando ramen was so close at hand? Off to the table. Hooray.
Octopus, chicken wings, and truffled burrata read like a holy trinity of starters. I think I’ve eaten more chicken wings in the first year of living in Orlando than I have during the rest of my life, and none quite as good as the Domu ‘Domu Wings’ coated in kimchee butter. They are excellent. Delicious. Preposterously CRISPY. Capital ‘C.’ Capital ‘RISPY.’ The juxtaposition of unexpectedly sharp crunch and burn-the-roof-of-your-mouth succulence is straight-up textural heaven. Nothing left to be said. Just order them and send us a bouquet of flowers.
Orlando Eats is home to the biggest pulpo weirdos in all of Pulpodom. We go crazy odd over the octopods. In our experience, the best preparations combine a crisped exterior char with tender meat. It’s a balance that’s far more difficult to achieve than it sounds and often requires finishing the tenderized, marinated flesh on an open flame. We’ve found few versions in Orlando that pass muster. Domu’s octopus starter was plated prettily with watermelon radish, the tentacles sitting atop a neatly arranged row of roasted fingerlings. It was tender (octopus) on tender (potato) and tasty enough, but the similarity of texture and lack of any distinctive flavor left it a tad wanting overall. Well-conceived, nice to look at, but forgettably executed.
Black truffle burrata with yuzu gelee, torched tomato, and Thai basil suffered from poor pairing on our part. It’s an inventive combo we haven’t seen elsewhere and one that would have benefited from us not gobbling it down between bites of chicken wings and octopus. There was too much going on in our mouths for its delicate subtlety to shine, and there was no way we were going to stop eating those damn fine wings to give it the breathing room it deserved. Regardless, a strong dish we would order again, but likely as a center-of-focus, palate-prepping, pre-starter starter: A nosh while looking over the menu.
The star attraction at Domu is ramen, so our beloved Munch ordered the Lobster Bun. We’re happy she did. It took a bit of lobbying, but she eventually sacrificed bites to the table. Loaded with fresh lobster meat and mixed with roasted nori, bonito flakes and drawn butter, it’s the type of sammy you go back for. The whole mess o’ meat is brightened by a bit of lemon and bound together by kewpie mayo – Japan’s second love after tentacled porno.
Go-Kart Romeo and I did the noodle bowl dance. He had visited once before and ordered the Richie Rich ramen. As a testament to its goodie goodie goodness, he ordered it again. True to its name, it features pork belly in an impossibly rich miso/shoyu pork bone broth, with soft boiled egg, wood ear mushroom, fried garlic and black garlic oil. Satisfying in a way satisfying should be.
I opted for the spicy version of traditional tonkotsu; a cauldron of pork bone broth, menma (fermented bamboo shoots), the ubiquitous soft-boiled egg and pork belly, and something called a “house made spicy bomb” which never quite exploded.
The ramen at Domu is as good as advertised, with bottomless depth of flavor diversified on the palate by thoughtfully sourced, combined, and prepared ingredients. For what it’s worth, the ramen is good enough to have scored Domu a mention in USA Today’s “50 States: 50 Ramen Destinations.” We’re still trying to get our collective heads around the formula for how USA Today – the fried mozzarella stick of journalism – determines its favorite state-by-state noodle haunts, but what the hey. Go Domu.
Is Domu good? Yessiree. Is Domu worth the wait? A disclaimered no. The food is tight and the vibe is right, but if you arrive when humans prefer to eat the wait is smidge over the top for highly glorified street food. I’ve waited less for more. Can you make Domu work for you? Absofuckinglutely. With a bit of foresight, flexibility, and effort you can skip the queue and get to eatin’. Non-ramen menu items (for instance, the finger lickin’ chicken appendages and Lobster Roll) are available at the bar with zero wait. You can also be better than we were at timing your arrival. Domu’s bar opens at 5PM (even though the kitchen only opens at 5:30). Show up just before 5, drop your name at the door, and you’re wait will be minimized. If you’re forced to loiter and arrive early enough, you can also browse around East End Market (closes at 7PM on weekdays, 9PM on weekends) which, of course, all Orlandoans are obliged to revere.