Brits surrender to London's ramen invasion
In London, foodies can find anything they want. Almost.
Of the few gastronomic genres still eluding the city of immigrants, travelers and other nomadic cooks, the Asian noodle soup is the most glaring.
Vietnamese pho may abound on Kingsland Road, and there’s that one place in Chinatown where the Singapore laksa used to be good.
But considering the city’s general affinity to all things Japanese -- from sushi to teppanyaki -- the lack of ramen has been the most surprising.
Four ramen joints have opened up in less than a year, covering the gamut from the strictly traditional Shoryu to the hipster-packed diner Bone Daddies.
Each serves a mean bowl of rich broth bursting with noodles, marinated grilled pork and a gooey six-minute egg on top -- and Londoners are slurping the stuff down.
There’s no-frills Tonkotsu, serving its eponymous pork-bone stock alongside one soy-based and one miso-based version.
All-rounder Ittenbari has opened with a menu of hearty Japanese classics.
Shoryu has variants scrolling down the menu.
Bone Daddies tries a different take, where head chef and founder Ross Shonhan of ex-Zuma and Nobu fame has deliberately avoided a mock Japan feel, with a diner-style space, rock ’n’ roll name and European staff to make his ramen as London-friendly as possible.
It’s all about tonkotsu
Though most Japanese ramen-yas serve just one type of ramen, London ramen shops serve at least two, perhaps to hedge their bets on a city just discovering the stuff.
“Tonkotsu ramen is our most popular -- I was shocked to find out,” Shonhan says. “Someone described it like melting a pig into a bowl and dropping more pig onto it, then adding some noodles and an egg.”
Miso-based ramens originated in the ramen-yas of Hokkaido -- they’re nuttier and thicker than the soy- and salt-based versions.
From pop-up to permanent
Emma Reynolds is one of the founders of Tonkotsu. Like Shonhan, she and business partner Kensuke Yamada started simply because they couldn’t find a place for a ramen lunch one day in 2011.
It sparked London’s first pop-up ramen event.
“As soon as we set up the Twitter feed to buy tickets for the first lunches, they just flew,” Reynolds says. “It’s wholesome, refreshing food, a one-dish meal that you haven’t been able to get in London for such a long time.”
After 12 successful pop-up events, Tonkotsu set down its roots on Soho’s Dean Street in May 2012, with a sparse menu and closely packed tables for a ramen-first, ambience-second feel.
Naturally, tonkotsu is the big seller here, where the soup is boiled for 18 hours with pork bones and chicken bones. Other recipes suggest pig trotters for that extra infusion of collagen that give the dish its unctuous allure.
Down Brewer Street near Soho, Ittenbari opened last April, with ramen the biggest shout on a menu that also features homestyle Japanese katsu and curry.
It eschews current "it" flavor tonkotsu for clear stocks of miso and chicken, enhanced with a seafood extract of mussels, scallop, shrimp and bonito.
Go at 1 p.m. and you’re guaranteed a wait outside the wooden, noren-curtained doorway.
“Ramen is becoming popular now for a combination of reasons,” says Mark McCafferty, marketing consultant at Captivate Hospitality. “One is that London likes to follow trends from the states. Americans are far more accepting of new foods while the British seem to take their time. It was the same with sushi, teppanyaki and tempura.
“It’s also helped that the economy has forced people to embrace quick and cheap eating. Londoners don’t like to compromise on quality and innovation and ramen ticks all those boxes.”
Unlike cities and towns all over Japan (and Hong Kong, where ramen bars like Butao command lunchtime queues that start before 11 a.m.), the philosophy behind nursing and stoking a vat of animal bones and rendered fat into a broth perfect for slurping with chewy wheat noodles has never quite taken hold.
After all, with its 18-hour cooking time and careful balance of flavor and texture, ramen isn’t the sort of thing you serve on the side.
“The chefs in London are really getting behind the ethos of Japanese food whilst putting their own stamp on things,” says McCafferty. “There is a real effort to create amazing bowls of noodley goodness and the queues out the door are testament to the high standards.”
Is authenticity the way to your stomach?
For true ramen nerds, Shoryu could well be the only stop.
Opened in November by the Japan Centre group that operates a deli and restaurant off Piccadilly Circus, Shoryu specializes in tonkotsu ramen, steered by Hakata-born CEO Tak Tokumine.
Its secret pork stock is white and flavorful, gliding easily over the classic Hakata hosomen noodles for a springy, soupy mouthful.
With a head chef hailing from Fukuoka City, where Hakata sits, Shoryu prides itself on being the only expert when it comes to Hakata ramen, serving six different tonkotsu ramens plus three soy and miso ramen broths.
“There are so many variations in Japan, each region, chef or town will have their own version,” says McCafferty. “In Japan, quality and seemingly effortless attention to detail is the name of the game. If London restaurants can get this right, then they are being ‘authentic.’”
In Japan, chefs are creating Thai green curry ramen and cheese ramen topped with grated parmesan, served alongside a dish of melted, glowing cheese for dipping.
“At Bone Daddies, we’ve just developed a sun-dried tomato with chorizo and miso ramen,” says Shonhan. “That’s the great thing about ramen -- it can be anything you want as long as it’s delicious.”
As befits an export of the land of otaku nerd culture, ramen is a geeky thing to perfect.
You don’t need to be geeky to enjoy it, but once you have a bowl you’ll be on an eternal hunt for that perfect meeting of piquant broth, springy noodles and anything from crushed garlic and grilled pork to, apparently, cheese and chorizo.
In London at least, that’s no longer a fruitless search.
Tonkotsu Bar & Ramen
This dimly lit ramen-ya is named for its specialty -- the tonkotsu, or pork bone broth, ramen, which goes for £11 (US$17).
It was opened by the founders of Tsuru, a dedicated katsu (deep-fried pork cutlet) and sushi bar, and they seem to have nailed the niche dining experience with a small, satisfying ramen menu bolstered with sides such as dumplings or spinach salad for around a fiver.
If you don’t dig slowly simmered piggy soup, spicy soy-based and veggie-friendly miso versions are also available.
63 Dean St., W1D 4DQ, +44 (0)20 7437 0071; www.tonkotsu.co.uk
Tonkotsu ramen comes in eight different takes, from straight-up to wasabi-infused. Bowls go for £10 (US$16) each, and you’ll probably want to try its gorgeous list of sides, from salmon caviar rolls to steamed buns filled with pork belly.
The cocktail list is well worth a whirl, with shochu or umeshu (plum wine) martinis using flavors like ginger, lemongrass and kumquat
9 Regent St., SW1Y 4LR; www.shoryuramen.com
A cheerful ramen and sushi joint, with homestyle katsu, rice and curry alongside ramen headliners.
The Ittenbari special, a clear broth of rich seafood extract, goes for £8.90 (US$14), while the intriguing miso ramen -- claiming apple, tomato and even Marmite -- runs to £11.50.
Just like ramen-ya in the Land of the Rising Sun, you can request kaedama -- or refill noodles -- for £1.50.
84 Brewer St., W1F 9UB; +44 (0)20 7287 1318; www.ittenbari.co.uk
Every ramen bar has its own ode to Japan, and at Bone Daddies it’s in its equal commitment to traditional touches like the fresh garlic crushed into your bowl, to ramen’s more experimental side, including the tantanmen, a spicy sesame broth garnished with pork mince.
With retro-cool diner stools at communal tables, the vibe is Soho hip -- which only serves to make the top-selling creamy tonkotsu ramen all the more a delectable surprise at a mere £11 (US$17).
31 Peter St., W1F 0AR; +44 (0)20 7287 8581; Bonedaddiesramen.com