Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Kôryû (康 竜), Shinjuku

(Also in: Naka-Meguro, Akasaka, Ikebukuro, Ginza, Akihabara. Directions: JR Shinjuku Station, East Exit - see map)

What: ramen (tonkotsu)
Recommendation: jibun-shitate ramen (do-it-yourself ramen), 750 yen
Verdict: Nice (3.8/5)

The Story
Out on my weekly ramen excursion with Willow, this time we decided - or rather, I followed Willow's suggestion, to try the do-it-yourself ramen at Kôryû. Located near the East exit (Luminé Est and the Kôban). Didn't know much about the place, except what Willow told me: You get to put together your own ramen - that is, the topping.

The Place
Fairly standard, cozy retro-ish dark wooden panelling, only counter seats on the first floor, which would be ok, if there'd been a little more leg room - they certainly didn't have us gaijin guys in mind when they furnished the place.

The Noodles
Ok, rather than the noodles, it's the topping that's the thing here. For 750 yen, you get to choose four different toppings - I went for extra pork (kaku-ni), fried garlic (age-ninniku), the half-boiled egg (hanjuku-tamago) and the bamboo sprouts (menma).

The noodles are of thin hoso-men type, and they are thin indeed. I don't mind that in itself, but it makes it even more important that they're not overcooked. In this case, they could do with a little more bite - in this sense, I prefer Ippûdô's system where you can choose the al dente-degree of the noodles.

The soup, though, was full and rich, a treat in itself.

Has the jury reached its verdict?
All in all a good ramen experience. Excellent soup, loads of goodies on top. Shame the noodles weren't quite up there with the rest. Can definitely recommend it if you're in the area.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Udatsu shokudô (うだつ食堂), Waseda/Tsurumakichô

(Arakawa Tramway Line, Waseda station: Walk down the Shin-Mejiro-dôri in the opposite direction of the tramway for about five minutes until you see it on your left-hand corner. Map)

What: ramen/tsukemen Recommendation: chûka-soba, zenbuiri (Shôyu-tonkotsu ramen with all topping) Verdict: possibly addictive (4/5)

The Story
- I've got this great ramen joint I wanna show you. I really think you'll like it, Rocky said enthusiastically. Well, he's always enthusiastic, so that in itself didn't really convince me.
- Uh... ok, I said. -What about Monday?
Monday came with Monday morning blues, took me ages to get out of my room, and when I got to Uni, I was nodding over the computer, half drooling onto my laptop keyboard. 12:30 came, and ok, yeah, time for the good old any-day-morning-blues cure in which all practitioners of the ramen school of medicine place their faith.

The Place
The place Rocky took me, looked nice enough. I was a little skeptical to see a mock-up of a train station signpost outside to add to its atmosphere, but it's nice enough. Headed inside and found myself face-to-face with the vending machine.
- Grab the zenbu iri (means you get all the different toppings), Rocky said, and I complied and paid the 900 yen (without extra topping, it's 650 yen)
We handed over our food tickets to the lady, and got the choice whether we wanted normal (nami) or large (Ômori) portions, and whether we wanted the eggs raw (nama) or half-boiled (han-juku).

As we sat down, I noticed, a bit surprised, that the interior was all tables, no counter. The walls had dark wood paneling and old posters from early in the Shôwa period, like an advertisement for the energy drink "oronamin C". Cozy nostalgia, in other words, if you're Japanese and over 50. If not, it's simply cozy.

The noodles
After a few minutes, in came the steaming bowl, loaded with goodies: two kinds of meat in abundant quantities, egg, leek, nori (crispy seaweed), moyashi (bean sprouts), menma (bamboo sprouts) and a piece of deep-fried squid. This last item surprised me somewhat, but Rocky explained that this was another nostalgia factor: Most Japanese, at least over 25, have fond memories of buying this stuff for snacks when they were kids, apparently.

Dipped the renge spoon in the broth, sipped, and lifted my eyebrows. Nice. The combination of the rich tonkotsu pork broth blends very nicely with the characteristic aroma of the shôyu (soy sauce), with a hint of sweetness to balance it all.
- This could become a habit, I instantly exclaimed?
- Right? right? Rocky nodded eagerly.
Definitely right - the noodles, which were medium thick (chû-goshi), were not amazing, but definitely good, and balanced the soup well. The grilled pork topping had good bite and was very good. A little disappointed to find that the "half-boiled" egg turned out to be merely poached, but I guess that's a matter of individual taste.

The deep-fried squid seems to be more a nostalgia thing than a taste thing, though.

Has the jury reached its verdict?
Great tasty ramen with lots of stuff (if you pay the 250 yen extra). The soup was memorable, and the noodles good. Potential for addiction.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Ippûdo (一風堂), Takadanobaba

[EDITED, 22. FEB: After comparing with some other tonkotsu joints, I've come to the conclusion, that I have to adjust my rating of Ippûdô to do them justice]

(JR Takadanobaba station, Waseda exit/Tôzai Takadanobaba statio, Waseda exit: Head down Waseda-dôri, after approx 7 min, you'll cross Meiji-dôri in a big intersection. Keep going for three-four minutes and you'll find it on a corner your right-hand side. Map)

What: Ramen (Tonkotsu)
Recommendation: Akamaru

over-hyped (2.5/5)

The Story
Although a branch of the main store in Fukuoka, Kyûshû, the Takadanobaba joint has gained a fair bit of reputation of its own. Not to wonder, perhaps, given its prime location between the Waseda University and its nearest JR station, Takadanobaba. While Waseda keeps its position, rivaled only by Keiô, as Japan's top private university, students are students; and students are hungry. And each day, thousands of these hungry students have no choice but to pass the tempting aromas which coming steaming from Ippûdô, as they do their "Baba-aruki" - the common term for the fifteen minute Takadanobaba walk.

The Place
So obviously, lots of students in this place - yet, it's strangely un-studenty, interior-wise. With its warm, cozy, asian-retro look, it's an inviting place. And if you don't feel welcome as you line up outside (usually there's only a line at the busiest time between 12 and 1 o'clock), the hearty, bellowed IRASSHAIMASE! (welcome!) as you step inside, will (unless it simply gives you a heart arrest). Sit down, have a look at the menu (in English! And, as far as I can remember, rather correct English, too). and place your orders to a waiter, who again shouts it out, heartily, to the kitchen staff two steps across the counter who, shouts it back with equal vigour. Lots of shouting, yes, but can't help enjoying the vigor of it.

There are two types of soup, Shiromaru (the original pork-based broth) and Akamaru (a newer recipe; richer, with red seasoning oil). Also, you can choose from five degrees of noodle texture: from yawamen (soft) to harigane (steel wire). The noodles are of the hoso-men (thin noodles) school, and the choice of texture means you can have it your way - assuming you know which way you prefer. Personally, I go for the Akamaru barikata (4/5 on the hardness scale). Note also the great lunch deal: A bowl of rice and 5 bite-sized gyôza (Chinese dumplings, steam-fried Japanese-style) for a mere 100 yen extra, available until five o'clock in the afternoon. (Which leads me to the question how some Japanese men can eat all of this, every day, even have refills on the rice, and still stay so thin)

The noodles
The first thing to say, is that the noodles are good. Although thin, they have very good texture. However, after repeated visits, and comparisons with other tonkotsu places (like Ôita Hôraiken up the road), I've reached the inevitable conclusion that the soup is thin. Thin, thin. Compared, for instance, with Kôryû (in Shinjuku, for instance), which has a more gut-striking impact, or Keika (in Shinjuku, Takadanobaba ++), which has far more personality, Ippûdô's pork broth doesn't quite live up to its fame, I'm afraid. At least not in this joint.

Has the jury reached its verdict?
Still, all said - this is decent ramen, and excellent value at lunch (if you can care to eat that much). A safe bet, but no clear recommendation.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Ganko ramen, Takadanobaba/Waseda

(JR Takadanobaba station, Waseda exit/Tôzai Takadanobaba statio, Waseda exit: Head down Waseda-dôri, after approx 7 min, you'll cross Meiji-dôri in a big intersection. Keep going for three-four minutes until you see Ippûdô [一風堂] on your right-hand side. Dive down the small alley on the left-hand side of Waseda-dôri, just across from Ippûdô. Look for a black, non-descript tent with a bone(!) hanging out in front)

What: Ramen (shio/shôyû)
Recommendation: Shio
Verdict: Highly Addictive

The Story
There seems to be a kind of a law out there, that a good ramen joint has a stubborn chef, wh
ose dedication to the noble art of noodling is so absolute that no trivial concern - like pleasing customers - is allowed to interfere with his quest for the perfection of his craft. Now, with the insane competition among restaurants in Tokyo, no one really expects this practice to be upheld. All the more refreshing when someone actually does. Let there be no doubt; Ganko ("stubborn") ramen lives up to its name.

The Place
Well, what can I say? The length this gu
y goes to to not advertise the fact that he is running a business, is impressive. No sign, no poster, just a black, non-descript tent. which covers the entrance of the building. The only signal he sends out to the world that he actually is in there, is the animal bone which hangs on the outside when he's open. Step inside, and it's equally impressive: Five seats in an old (definitely not retro, just plain old), grimy joint, in which the kitchen, filled with monstrous pots and pans filled with heaven knows what, occupies more than half of the space. Here, it's the chef who is god: No excessive talking, no dallying (or the noodles will get soggy), no talking on the mobile. Oh, and if I can't get the taste of the soup right, I don't bother to open the store that day.

In short: I love it.

The noodles
Go for the shio-ramen (he also serves shôyû and occasionally has periods where he serves experimental ramen, like prawn-based soup stock), 700 yen. Unhurriedly, he'll start preparing the noodles, slicing the pork, heating the seasoning oil. Finally, he puts the bowl on the counter, and pours sizzling, hot oil over the mound of leek on top. At first the soup seems straight-forward; it's nowhere near as sophisticated as Sakurazaka. But then you discover that it has depths, and a unique flavour which no other place I've been to has been able to copy. To put it this way: Sakurazaka makes for a good first impression, but it's ganko's ramen I keep coming back to (and not only because it's just around the corner from my appartment). I admit it; I'm a ganko junkie.

Has the jury reached its verdict?
Must... have... ganko...

Sakurazaka (櫻坂), Shibuya

(JR Shibuya station, South exit - cross the pedestrian bridge on your left, take right up the hill by Family Mart, the first on your left -> Map )

What: ramen (shio)
Recommendation: shio
Verdict: Excellentolainen (4/5)

The Story
"You think it's any good?" I asked my Korean friend Willow. We were back in Shibuya for another ramen adventure. Thursday night, all energy and inspiration drained from yet another week of seemingly end-/fruitless studies. Wasn't really in the mood for ramen, either. But that was just the grumpiness of my low blood sugar talking.
"Dunno. But the rumour says it's great," Willow replied as we were trying to locate the spot.

The place
Found it, dove inside, bought our food tickets from the vending machine inside the door - prices ranging from a friendly 650 yen for "sakura-shio soba" (seems they're famous for tsuke-men as well, but haven't tried it yet). Cozy, zen-retro interior (seems to be a lot of that around lately), nice and clean. Minutes later, the bowls were placed in front of us: the soup had an enigmatically beautiful cloudy colour, which well balances those of the leek and the half-boiled egg. But we didn't come to play art conoisseurs, we had come for ramen.

The noodles
We each dipped our renge spoon in the soup and sipped it.
Willow: lifted eyebrows
Yours truly: "Mhmn!"

The taste was rich, exquisitly refined, and was perfectly balanced to match the noodles. The egg was deliciously soft and rich in flavour. And the noodles? Oh, brother, let me tell you about the noodles! Made in the slightly thick style (futo-men), they were fabulously al dente, and had the slickest surface texture (nodo-goshi) I've experienced yet.

Has the jury reached its verdict?
Could go on forever recommending this place, and probably have already. So, if you haven't got it yet: GO THERE!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Asuka (飛鳥), Kagurazaka

(Tôzai line, Kagurazaka st., right outside the Kagurazaka exit)

What: Ramen.
Recommendation: Miso ramen
Verdict: Pretty good (3.5/5)

The story
This cozy little joint keeps tempting me every Sunday afternoon, as I head back from teaching Norwegian class at Bindeballe Scandivian Language School. The warm glow of the wooden sign with the magic three-letter word らーめん (ramen) just proves too much to resist, particularly on chilly winter nights.

The place
Dive inside, get a food ticket from the vending machine on the right-hand side of the door - they serve shôyu (soy sauce base), miso (fermented bean paste), and shio ("salt", ie. soup stock base) from 600 yen ~, as well as gyôza (steam-fried Chinese dumplings) and beer. The interior is clean, oriental-retro style, with large counter and some tables. And the noodles? The word on the web is that the shôyu is plain average, but I can warmly recommend the miso (650 yen).

The noodles
The soup is full and reach, although it doesn't reach the heights of, say, Junren in Takadanobaba, or Kôryû (in several places, I've tried the one on Shinjuku East exit). The noodles have decent texture, and the topping is good.

Has the jury reached its verdict?
Good value, good taste and atmosphere, decent noodles. Excellent choice if you're in the area.