Ramen; the next big thing (although it's taken me so long to actually get around and finish this post we've probably all moved on to horse burgers, or something....)
It isn't an exaggeration to say the Japanese are fairly obsessed by bowlfuls of the slippery things. For the uninitiated who haven't yet managed to hang around Tokyo's Shomben Yokocho while slurping soup, or make a visit to the ramen museum in Yokahama, there are, broadly, four types of ramen noodle soup base: Shio (salt), Tonkotsu (pork bone), Shōyu (soy sauce) and, relative newcomer, Miso (fermented soybeans).
There are countless different permutations of both noodle, toppings and soup available, but the main player shaking up these shores is Tonkotsu; forget your refined French consommes, this bad boy is made by boiling pork bones, fat, and collagen over high heat for many hours, and which creates a milky and unctuous broth of great depth and piggy flavour. Many restaurants may blend the pork broth with vegetable or chicken stock, or soy sauce for a lighter finish.
Taking all my new found ramen knowledge - mainly from watching the Ramen Girl and browsing Wikipedia - I set out to trawl London Town, and beyond, to try the finest ramen (or not) available.
Our first visit was to Shoryu on Picadilly. I had planned an early lunch stop as we were in town for steak at Mash later that evening. It also mean we could take advantage of their 50% opening discount. Clearly several others had had the same idea and there was already a queue snaking up the road when we arrived. No matter, we were well wrapped up from the autumn chill and had the sobering entertainment of the Remembrance Day parade passing up Piccadilly to distract us while we waited.
Very soon we made it through the double curtain and were butting up with our neighbours (all of the venues can kindly best be described as 'bijou'). As they were still waiting for their alcohol licence, beers were BYO (from the Japan Centre across the road). I enjoyed a pot of barley tea, while the Ewing had a matcha green tea.
There were no sides yet available on our visit - they have since added a section to the menu, including fried chicken; sashimi; yuzu wasabi and tomato; and seasoned pollock roe - which was no bad thing thing as the Ewing was already having enough trouble deciding what noodles to order.
I had no such problems, chosing a bowl of the wasabi tonkotsu; This, I must say, was a mini revolution. The broth was good (porky, a little funky) the wasabi provided some poke and there was plenty of fragrant toasted nori, crunchy beansprouts and slippery wood ear mushrooms, but the real winner was the noodles.
This wasn't a Proustian moment (who would want to recall the claggy Super Noodles and the watery disappointment of the favourite pot snacks of my youth), but more the realisation that ramen could be this good. I always find it rather lovely when something quietly exceeds your expectations. Maybe it's because I wasn't expecting to enjoy them so much, maybe they really were an exceptional batch of perfectly cooked noodles, maybe I just have an unsophisticated palate that would be happy to chow down any thing that isn't stuck together and covered in MSG spiked gloop.
Whatever the reason I very much enjoyed my ramen at Shoryu, although I can't attest for those around me who had to bear witness to the napkin stuck in shirt and red-faced slurping as I hoovered up my lunch.
The Ewing chose the Sapporo Miso, a miso broth base topped with bbq pork, beansprouts and corn. This is a traditional Sapporo style soup with a deep, slightly sweet, sesame-scented broth that was very rich and perfect for the frigid weather outside.
From looking at the website there have been several menu tweaks since our early visit - as well as the selection of sides, each bowl of noodles now comes with nitamago (boiled egg) as standard. There is also a decent list of cocktails (wasabi martini, anyone?), shochu and sake available, and the addition of some new noodle choices; including an intriguing 'Fire and Ice' Salmon Tsukemen with cold noodlesand hot broth.
The next stop on the ramen tour was Tonkotsu, a dark little noodle den on Dean Street where you can watch the chefs working their wares in the window. I dragged along my forlorn friend Stealth for lunch, figuring if I was going to dispense some sage relationship advice then I might as well be enjoying a bowlful of noodles while doing so.
As Stealth was off the wagon again, we celebrated with pints of Asahi and bottles of 8 Ball, a bold and hoppy rye IPA from the Beavertown Brewery in Hackney that went rather nicely with all the fat and spice.
To start we tried some decent, if unmemorable, pork gyoza, crisply fried until they stuck together as one, and requiring some deft chopstick action to prise apart. Five is always seems an awkward number for sharing, but Stealth's talkativeness, combined with my nodding sympathetically at the right moments, meant I did rather well when they came to be divided. (I am a caring friend, really.)
My tonkotsu; pork stock, pork belly and thin noodles, was good. The broth may have been even deeper and funkier than Shoyru, but I wasn't quite as impressed by the noodles (maybe I was already becoming blasé to their simple charms). Where they certainly topped my first bowl, however, was with the pork belly, whose magnificent fatty depth and richness stayed in my mind, and on my lips, long after the last few slurps of stock had been dispatched.
The Tokyo Spicy (not really very spicy at all), was sampled by Stealth (they only offer three types of ramen at Tonkotsu, with a veggie option completing the trilogy). Here pulled chilli pork joined medium thick noodles in a clear pork and chicken broth. I found this a little lacklustre after my bowl of artery-clogging magnificence, but it had a lovely clean freshness that probably made it more suitable as a lunchtime repast if you still had to stagger back to the office for the afternoon.
Bone Daddies was our final London ramen stop; we finally managed to get there for lunch on New Year's Eve. Prising the Ewing out of bed (reasonably) early on our day off turned out to be a good call, as we arrived to find no queue outside and managed to bag a table with a little extra leeway for our assorted coats, bags and scarves.
The Ewing's cocktail and my pint of Ashai Super Creamy, the only place this stuff is available in the UK. Yes, even the beer is hip in this place. I'm not sure I really noticed the difference, but a cold, crisp lager, condensation beading the glass, is never going to be a bad thing.
The house made pickle selection made the perfect pre-noodle snack, and were great value at three quid for the lot. I particularly enjoyed the sweet and sour pop from the mango and the fermented funk of the kimchi.
Their soft shell crab is already becoming the stuff of legend, and based on this example it's not hard to see why. Crisp and greaseless crustacean with a green chilli ginger dip (which I found a little fierce with the delicate meat). My only complaint would be that, with three pieces per portion, I had to relinquish the extra morsel to the crab loving Ewing.
I think I liked the look of the Bone Daddies tonkotsu the best of all. Generous pieces of pork belly strewn crispy garlic, black garlic oil and a whole Cotswold Legbar egg with a yolk of such fluorescence I almost felt compelled to sample it (in the end the Ewing managed to eat three of the halves, leaving a very lonely piece rolling about on a side plate). Overall it was lovely, although I didn't quite have the epiphany I had experienced with elements of the previous two bowls
The Ewing's T22 with extra fat pipette. I have to confess I don't actually remember trying any of this at all (apart from some stray cock scratchings, which were great). What I can tell you is that was all slurped up without too much trouble. There's even a bit of greenery thrown in, to reinforce the feeling that great bowls of steaming noodles are actually doing your body, and not just your soul, some good. (Conveniently ignoring the the fact it's been doused in a slick of extra fat.)
The final 'litmus' ramen was sampled at my local Yo Sushi! Many moons ago, when I was attempting to court the Ewing, we would come here for their cheap sushi Blue Mondays, spending the money we had saved on raw fish on sake. Truth be told, I can't remember much about the food, but I do know it was hard to stay upright on your stool after the second bottle.
When I saw that Yo! was doing their own version of the Chinese/Japanese hybrid - complete with the strapline 'Ramen vs Hunger: Ramen wins! - I thought it would be only fair to try them, hoping it would offer a passable urban alternative to the soups of Central Soho. So, with both Stealth and the Ewing by my side for support, we visited to make our comparisons.
My bowl of pork ramen; I don't really want to dwell on the noodles here too much, other than to say that, in our case, hunger definitely won. The stock was strangely sweet and insipid the yolk of the egg (hidden behind the spoon) was ringed with grey and rock hard and the huge pile seaweed tasted and smelt like the rotting detritus that washes up on the beach after a storm. As a plus point my pork was vaguely, edible, although the Stealth's star anise beef was like chewing a mouthful of Liquorice Allsort-scented sawdust.
Everything in the bowl was faintly comical in its ineptitude and in-edibility. To be fair they seemed very keen to hear our opinions, and we were asked if everything was OK several times (including at one point when I was trying to discretely spit a mouthful of the green gunge into a napkin.) Of course, being British, we smiled and said yes. Maybe we should have said something, but, honestly it seemed about as pointless as complaining the sun sets in the West. This bowl of ramen was so far removed from the other efforts that it was DOA, and there was nothing the waiters or chefs could have done to salvage things.
Although I wasn't remotely surprised that this effort bore no resemblance to the previous three bowls, I was slightly sad it was so awful. Ten or eleven quid may seem a lot for a bowl of soup, but at least you can appreciate the the time, care, and animals that gave their lives to provide such deep and quivering stock, finished off with delicate and well balanced toppings. These bowls cost a cynical £7/8 each for a watery mulch that was only seasoned by my silent tears as I tried to force it down.
So, what can we surmise? I really like the noodles at Shoryu, the pork belly at Tonkotsu and the cock scratchings at Bone Daddies, and would prefer to feast on the congealed remnants of a Bombay Bad Boy than anything ramen-based originating in Yo Sushi's kitchens.
Overall, I was surprised by the subtle variations with each bowl of tonkotsu I tried, and also by how much I enjoyed eating them all. A visit to any of the first three restaurants would result in deep soup satisfaction for small amounts of cash. And as for the efforts of the fourth, to me it felt more like an impasta*.
(*Apologies, there are no excuses for that last 'joke', terrible noodles or not.)