One ordinary Thursday, a bowl of ramen in a waistcoat dashed past me, fretting about the time. “I’m late, I’m late!” it shouted, a little broth slopping over the rim. “Genius Hour is nigh!” The bowl sped on down the street, one long noodle trailing in its wake.
I tracked the ramen through the burnished afternoon, past gas stations and laundromats, tiny storefronts and construction. Suddenly, the street widened into an eclectic, upscale enclave. I had reached UNION SQUARE. Decades-old monuments mix with modernist concept restaurants, with art wedged between the walls.
The artist used a Greek mu (μ) instead of a u in “Museum.” Shall I pronounce this “Mew-mew-see-um?”
Down a narrow alley, an unmarked door in the wall opened onto a flight of downwards stairs and a pitch-black hallway, at the end of which was yet another door. In the darkness, I saw only the glow from a single word carved into the door: backbar.
I eased this last door open to reveal a slate-lined cavern, with chalk drawings of strange creatures and drink specials in bewitching font. The servers turned to me as one. “Welcome,” said a tattooed bald man in a vest and tie. “You’re right on time.”
Backbar is the funky, laid-back sister bar to fine-dining restaurant Journeyman. And on Wednesdays through Mondays from 4-6pm, they hold Genius Hour, with free wi-fi, and just TEN bowls of ramen per day ($12). First come, first serve. And what d’ya know? I was first.
After taking my order, the server handed me a complimentary taste of the house Spicy Caramel Popcorn. The flavor balance seemed off, a little aggressive and bitter from chili powder. It improved with the aftertaste, but I think I’d rather have regular caramel popcorn. Still, a free snack is a free snack!
I also ordered a “mocktail” of pomegranate ginger beer ($6). Star of the visit. House-made ginger beer, sweet-tart-fizzy-fiery with lime juice and a lovely pomegranate color. I don’t drink alcohol, but based on this concoction, I bet their many creative-sounding cocktails are great.
I sipped my drink, read my readings, and listened to top-notch music. Here’s a partial track list of backbar’s jams du jour, aka “A Singalong Album from my Childhood.”
Manfred Mann – There She Goes
The Eagles – Hotel California
Buffalo Springfield – For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey, What’s That Sound?)
Marvin Gaye – Heard it through the Grapevine
Don McLean – American Pie
The Foundations – Baby, Now That I’ve Found You
Maxine Nightingale – Right Back Where We Started From
Neil Diamond – Sweet Caroline
The Monkees – Daydream Believers
The Beatles – Help!
My ramen arrived. Described as “toripaitan style, which is a heavy chicken stock broth, with soy sauce tare,” it came with two slices of pork belly, scallions, nori (seaweed), sesame seeds, bamboo shoots, and a poached egg.
THE GOOD: Backbar has a house noodle recipe, but outsources the actual noodle-craft to nearby Italian gourmet market Capone Foods. They were chewy, slightly sweet – delightful. The pork belly melted in my mouth, and the egg was expertly poached with a tender white and a velvety, rich yolk. The bamboo tasted almost pickled, a welcome bright flavor.
THE LESS-GOOD: The broth was earthy and sweet, and so fell flat when paired with the noodles. I would have liked more soy sauce and/or acid (vinegar, lemon, etc.) to offset the heaviness of noodles, pork, and egg. Also, why stick in two huge sheets of nori when you know it’s gonna be like eating sodden quilt squares? I wish they’d shredded it, is what I’m saying.
As I made my way back up the ramen tunnel, I passed the last vestige of the underworld: this tweaky pop culture joke on the bathroom door.
A Star Wars joke gone even more bizarre.
7 Sanborn Ct
Somerville, MA 02143