Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Mmmm Ramen... hip to the jive - Jan 2013

It's January! And what do you need to beat January? There's nothing like a healthy soup right? And trust me, tonkotsu ramen are nothing like a healthy soup...

After my recent rant about burgers I should be careful about jumping on another bandwagon lest I end up with more on trend foodstuffs I can't write about. After the gourmet meat patty explosion, the latest import popping up is that Japanese addition to the street food canon, ramen noodles. And not just ramen noodles, but the porkiest, most unctuous subset of ramen, tonkotsu.

With ramen, and especially with tonkotsu, the news isn't about the noodles. They're the bread that soaks up the soup. They need to be good, but they're not (really) the story for me. The story is the broth… broth made from pork bones to be precise, long and slow cooked for 15 hours or more until they yield up their fatty bounty into a creamy collagen rich soup. As an advertisement at Shoryu proudly describes it, 'rich, creamy and porkalicious'. Oh, and reader, it is.

I won't write too much about them, but instead defer to Marina O'Laughlin's excellent review on the most recent openings, Bone Daddies and Shoryu. I'd also recommend that you read her end of the year round up on the inexorable rise of trendy, dirty fodder like ramen and burgers. It's bloody funny (and bloody accurate).

Now noodles aren't just meaty delivery systems, there are numerous different styles (ask Mr Noodles, he has almost an entire blog devoted to them) and combinations, but the one unifying rule should be that it's (very) hearty, healthy(ish) and leaves you feeling better than you were when you walked in. Like the Japanese version of chicken soup, this is food that soothes the soul.

I've become slightly obsessed with the Soho venues that have sprung up offering the noodle, particularly ramen, over the last few months. As much because it's the perfect solo lunch or pre-theatre dinner. They all (with the exception of Ittenbari) have a counter that means you don't feel out of place slurping away on your own. Of all of them though, I preferred the atmosphere at Bone Daddies, it's buzzy, fun and resolutely non-traditional. The least authentic of the lot, but the chance to stare out at the passing Soho trade while supping your thick broth means that this is the perfect way to spend a lunchtime. The ramen was almost too porky for me*, packed with salty piggy flavour and creamily unctuous. Served with a rich and shining soft boiled egg and thick slices of the pig whose bones you are literally drinking, it's protein and protein and protein till you can't take any more.

Shoryu feels slightly more authentic but somehow slightly more austere (the cringey communal greeting all of the staff holler as you walk in aside) and Ittenbari, despite not offering the tonkotsu everyone is lusting over, is still often packed, it's shabby interior full to bursting with a silently polite line of ex-pats and Japanophiles queuing out of the door. Tonkotsu has proved the easiest to snag a table at, but here still you'll face a 30 minute wait of a prime time evening. To a casual like me they all taste pretty fine though it's definitely that Bone Daddies stock I wake up after dreaming about.

At between £8 and £11 a bowl it's not as cheap as it should be, but as a once a week treat it beats a burger. Don't kid yourself though, it certainly isn't as healthy as you make out just because you eat it with a spoon and it has veg spiked through it. It's probably not far off the calorie count of that burger if you checked (I won't if you won't). Even conveyor belt kings Yo Sushi are getting in on the game... Ramen vs Hunger emblazoned across their windows. I can't contradict them on that, and given the quality of the rest of the menu, I may not... any reports welcome!

Four spots for ramen in Soho:
Tonkotsu - 63 Dean Street, W1D 4QG
Shoryu - 9 Regents Street, SW1Y 4LR (opposite the Japan Centre)
Bone Daddies - 31 Peter Street, W1F 0AR
Ittenbari - 84 Brewer Street, W1F 9UB
And if you can't get enough of your noodles, then pop round to Koya - 49 Frith Street, W1D 4SG - Thicker udon noodles here, but damnably tasty all the same...

*even now I'm ashamed to have written that sentence...

Shoryu on UrbanspoonTonkotsu on Urbanspoon
Bone Daddies on Urbanspoon
Ittenbari Ramen Restauant on Urbanspoon


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