When I lived in Japan (1996-97 in Kanazawa, Ishikawa-ken) a ramen was the equivalent of a kebab, the drunken pit-stop on the Friday night stagger home. Serried ranks of steamed-up salarymen and gaijin hoovering up the good stuff like Noo-Noo with his hose in a bowl of Tubby custard. Never pretty, always good.
In central London this winter ramen has been all the rage, with hipsters and foodies alike queuing round the block to dive into a bowl of hot stock and noodles. Waiting does, I’m afraid, slightly defeat the object. A steaming pool of savoury delights should be under your nose three minutes after ducking under the noren to a rousing ‘Irrashaimase!’ and plonking yourself down onto a stool. Standing around in the cold comparing beards may well whet the appetite, but it is not for me.
This mad ramen rush is a spin-off kodawari, the obsessive pursuit of perfection, which noodle-nuts will know well as the focus of their very own movie, Tampopo (1985). The food scene has become all about doing one thing well – roast chicken, burgers, whatever. So while I appreciate the craze, I avoid the queues, and the reviews below reflect my aversion to waiting – when I am hungry, I am like a bear with a sore head, a gun, and an unexpected tax bill.
There are many types of ramen on offer, the standard bases of shio (salt), tonkotsu (pork bone, from Kyushu in Japan’s south), Shoyu (soy) and Miso (from Hokkaido in the north) with their traditional partnerships of cha-shu (roast pork), menma (marinated bamboo shoots), beansprouts, boiled egg, green onions, kamaboko (fish bits) and nori (seaweed) to brighten your bowl. There are other additions which are either right e.g. sweetcorn, or wrong e.g. chicken.
I haven’t eaten every bowl on offer – I’m greedy, not mental – but I have been to a bunch of outfits that are pretty authentic and a couple that aren’t e.g. Wagamama’s. Final point – a food that is based on a massive greasy boiling cauldron of pig, fish and other bones and is eaten by sticking your face into a huge bowl and inhaling the contents is neither refined nor subtle and probably not suitable for first dates. There needs to be a slightly seedy edge to a good ramen bar – the filth factor. Bowls come in around the £10 mark. The results, in reverse order:
Wagamamas (ubiquitous) – Feeble stock, like the liquid after washing up a roasting pan. Noodles lack bite, too many additions to bowl in the Wagamama ramen e.g. mussels, pork, chicken, prawns and a tea-stained egg! Chilli beef ramen best as actually tastes of something and disguises poor construction of base and noodles. Ramen – 2/10. Filth Factor – 0/10. Boring bowl of bollocks.
Tonkotsu (63 Dean St) – Excellent massive steaming cauldron of piggy stock in window. Queues likely, not much elbow room inside. Ramen good quality, stock a little greasy but rich and flavoursome. All other types of ramen on offer and decent sides – gyoza, salads etc. Ramen 7/10. Filth Factor 5/10. Ma-ma desu.
Shoryu (9 Regent St) – Queues inevitable after 6pm. Gyoza textbook, but minced ginger everywhere. Kimchee and tofu side weird as expected, like chilli jam on ice cream. Shoryu ganso Tonkotsu ramen a mix of tonkotsu and miso broth making for a less fatty and thinner stock but holding good flavour. Pork slices excellent, boiled egg nice and soft. Correct stock/noodle/bits ratio, with added garlic and spinach. But gari (pickled ginger) has no business on a ramen! Draft Kirin always welcome. Ramen 9/10. Filth factor 4/10 (rather ‘nice’ inside). Umai desu, but lay off the ginger!
Bone Daddies (30 Peter St) – Atmosphere deliberately seedy. Bloody noisy. Good pickles, tasty sides of fried chicken, soft shell crab. Bowl was well constructed and noodles just so, stock firm and punchy, but a little too neat and slightly on the small side. Ramen 8/10. Filth factor 6/10. Too cool for school.
Ittenbari (84 Brewer St) – Friendly, small and genuinely scruffy place. Never a queue, cash only. Mini cha-shu don for £3 arrived in 2 minutes. Excellent shoyu ramen arrived in 3 – deep inky stock, perfect noodles with bite, correct placing of seaweed, egg and juicy pork slice. No nonsense, good and tasty – the unwashed cousin of Mitsukoshi. Ramen 7/10. Filth Factor 9/10. Perhaps a bit too filthy.
Mitsukoshi (14 Regent St) – Small, cosy ramen bar with limited menu. All staff Japanese. Gyoza good and savoury, not too big and nicely cooked. Fried karaage chicken mouth-watering and authentic, lots of salt and pepper. Value ramen in soy base did the job. London ramen same, saltier stock and no sweet corn. Egg, pork, beansprouts all good. Ramen 9/10. Filth factor 8/10. The real deal – WINNER!
David Makinson is a man of the world who was once moved to tears by a particularly good dinner and gets visibly angry in the presence of bad food.