2012 is the year of ramen in London, it seems.
Tonkotsu and Ittenbari both opened this summer. Bone Daddies and Shoryu opened last month. All four are in or at the edges of Soho and you could do a ramen crawl with just a half mile wander, should such noodle soup excess appeal to you! If you want to add a fifth, Nagomi in Mayfair is only another half mile away and offers two ramen dishes.
Ramen, for those of you who aren’t familiar with it, is a Japanese noodle soup of Chinese origins. It’s a dish the Japanese have truly taken to heart and is ubiquitous across the country. At its core, ramen is simply a bowl of noodles served in a meat or fish broth with toppings such as sliced barbeque pork, nori (dried seaweed) and spring onions. Often an egg is added too.
There are many regional variations covering each element.
Sapporo is known for it’s miso ramen topped with sweetcorn, butter, beansprouts, garlic and chopped pork. Hakodate prefers a salty ramen. In Asahikawa, soy flavoured ramen is popular. Kitikata, as I wrote about recently, goes for thick and curly noodles in a pork and niboshi (dried fish) broth. In Tokyo, noodles are curly but thinner and commonly served in a chicken and soy broth. Dashi is often added and typical toppings include spring onion, menma (fermented bamboo shoot), pork, kamaboko (processed fish products), egg, nori and spinach. Hakata ramen has a rich tonkotsu pork bone broth and thin, straight noodles.
Shoryu, launched by Tak Tokumine, the founder and owner of the wonderful Japan Centre, offers a menu centred on Hakata ramen, coming as it does from the region where Tak grew up.
Inside, the space is modern and clean with only a few design touches that reference Japan. An enormous paper lantern hangs at the back of the room; the same logo adorns a large wall near the front. On entering, staff bang a traditional drum to welcome each customer in. I thought I’d find it annoying but didn’t even notice it after a while and it’s nice to have a little tradition, even in a modern place. However, one aspect of design does set it apart from Japanese counterparts, and that is the lack of any counter style seating, which is so well suited to solo diners. At Shoryu, so I hear from other diners, you may be doubled up on a table facing a complete stranger. Given the messy slurping that ramen necessitates, this may not be the ideal time to make new friends!
My visit is an invitation from Tak and he is on hand to talk me through the menu and explain a little about his philosophy.
“My concept is simple – healthy food and nothing else. I treat you like my own children.”
As he talks further about his ingredients, I come to realise the lengths he has gone to in order secure only the very best. Of his green tea, he explains that he flies it in on a regular basis because even when it’s packed in vacuum-sealed bags, the small volume of air that remains inside will still have an impact and change the flavour. I assume this is a slight exaggeration until I try some of his matcha (which he grinds himself from the leaves) and gawp like a fish in surprise at the incredible strength and freshness of its flavour.
He invites me to try a premium sake. Horin is made by Gekkeikan, sake brewers to the Imperial Household. It’s classed as junmai daiginjo – the highest grade of sake. I had long assumed I was not a fan of sake until relatively recently but having tried some top quality examples, I realise that I’m simply not a fan of cheap sake! Ridiculously smooth and cool, it has a subtle hint of sweetness, though it’s actually quite dry, and a complete lack of that raw alcohol taste that much cheap sake seems to have. The flavour is fresh and fruity and it slips down disarmingly quickly. (£8 / 150 ml)
The drinks menu also offers umeshu plum wines, including a yuzu (citrus) flavour, shochu alcohol made from sweet potatoes and rice and a selection of Japanese and London beers as well as a couple of red and white table wines.
To start, we share some Edamame beans (£3.50). These are lifted hugely by a sprinkling of pungent yuzu powder and sea salt.
Most of the ramen options are based on tonkotsu, the pork bone broth that is popular in Tak’s home town.
I opt for the plain Hakata Tonkotsu (£9) which comes with pork, nitamago (a marinated soft boiled egg), kikurage mushrooms (also known as the cloud ear or tree jellyfish mushroom), red ginger, nori, bean sprouts, spring onion and sesame seeds. The broth is delicious – rich and full of flavour but light in texture. The texture and tastes of the various toppings work well together, and I’m a particular fan of the kikurage mushrooms and red ginger. Tak switched to thin noodles following feedback from early customers and I’d guess the thinner ones are more authentic to this style of ramen. I’d actually like thicker ones, but that’s just a personal preference. I am disappointed by the pork and egg; the pork is simply too lean a cut and is therefore dry and lacking in flavour and the egg is overcooked and similarly bland. I think back to Tak’s comments about health and wonder if flavour has been sacrificed to reduce fat content?
As is normal in Japanese ramen restaurants, you can order additional portions to add to your bowl – extra noodles, pork, menma, kimchi, nitamago and takana (pickled mustard leaves), (£1.50 to £2.50 each).
My fellow guests order the Piri Piri Tonkotsu (£9.90), similar to mine but with a spicier broth, the Tokyo Shoyu (£8), with a clear soy broth and naruto kamaboko fish cakes and the Natural (£8), a vegetarian option with a shiitake mushroom and konbu (kelp) soy broth with delicious cubes of tofu.
Everyone is happy with their choices, but I like mine best of the four.
Sides are good. I love Kimchi on Kinugoshi Tofu (£4.50) – a generous portion of London-made tofu topped with pungent kimchi. The Chuka Wakame (£2.50) seaweed salad is such a winner I’d happily eat a larger portion on its own for lunch. Pork and vegetable Gyoza Dumplings (£5) are decent, though don’t match the best I’ve encountered.
We share two desserts between us. Dorayaki (£4) azuki (red bean) pancakes would be better were they not still frozen solid inside. Matcha Ice Cream (£3.90 / 2 scoops) is made from the same green tea that blew me away earlier and is similarly astoundingly good. I’m sure I eat far more than my fair share…
Service is a little muddled, though I’m not sure if that’s down to the restaurant still being relatively new or the staff being slightly flustered by the presence of the big boss. Still, it’s service with a genuine smile, which always goes a long way.
My meal at Shoryu really made me long to be back in Japan. Perhaps it’s time for that ramen crawl… anyone want to join me?
Kavey Eats was a guest of Tak Tokumine and the Japan Centre.
My visit was in late November. Shoryu have been very proactive about responding to customer feedback to improve their offering further, and after writing this post, I was happy to see a message on the 17th December that they were switching to a fattier and more flavoursome cut of belly pork.