Thursday, 31 January 2013

Tonkotsu: my new stock answer

Best ramen in London.

I remember the first time I ever had a ramen. I'll whisper it: it was at Wagamama. I remember too many noodles, too many veggies that looked like noodles and a weird pink and white thing that looked straight out of a Woolworth's pic'n'mix. Apparently is was a crab stick. Anyway, it was all drowned in "stock".

Stock? I mused. As in, what OXO turns into cubes? But that's just a poor man's soup! So I carried on thinking that and, bar a terrible meal at the much-lauded Koya, barely sniffed at a ramen. Until I arranged to have dinner with a fellow food blogger. Both sick of burgers and lost in the middle of Soho, we started throwing Japaneses around (not the people that is, restaurants). And so it was that I headed for a rare ramen, and not entirely looking forward to it.

It all started going right before I'd even walked through the door. Rather than forcing you to look the diners, Tonkotsu have put their kitchens in the front window. Through it you see the Japanese chefs toiling away over massive, shiny pots of stock, chopping veg, frying gyoza and talking excitedly. It's so inviting and theatrical, like the very best street food.

It quickly becomes clear why they've done this. The dining room is so thin there's hardly room to swing a cat, which I believe neither the Japanese nor the Chinese would want to do anyway. So you walk past the kitchens into a dingy, atmospheric corridor, where your table just happens to be. The effect is that you immediately feel a million miles from Soho. It's not authentic by any stretch, and I hate that word anyway, but it has an edge that makes you think you're in some kitch cafe in Shoreditch, not least because you can see the wiring.

Service was swift (there are only about 30 seats so it should be) and within about 10 minutes we were supping on yuzu lemonade and digging into a crispy-bottomed moon-shaped prawn gyoza (dumplings to most people). The were the delicious, fresh as spring and sweet with the light, not overly spicy (though slightly watery) chilli sauce. Before we had even finished five (and believe me it didn't take long) our ramen had arrived. And it looked like no ramen I had ever seen.

Unlike Koya's cloudy, separated mix of oil and chicken water, this was dark, thick and slightly viscuous, like Soda Stream coke syrup. And it was stuffed with flavour; absolutely loaded with it, from pork bones that must have been cooked for weeks to get all this beautiful flavour out. The soy sauce added a cheeky sweet-saltiness that made it as moreish as crack. It left oil on your lips and hope in your heart and once paired with the falling-apart pork, marinated in mirin and soy until it fell apart, it was all I could do not to throw my face straight in it. And then the egg! Imbued with the flavours of the stock it was a revelation; the semi-runny yolk like a flavoursome jewel - the most precious thing ever held between chopsticks. Once I work out how they cooked it, got the flavours so deep, I will never eat another kind of egg again.

I've heard it said that £9 for a ramen is a bit much, I'd say that the gyoza were the only overpriced item here, at a pound each. But genuinely, this is the best fast food and so-called "cheap eat" I've had in central London and, when it comes to ramen, it's the only place you can go. Tonkotsu is as close as stock could ever get to art. No longer a poor man's soup, it's my favourite soup.

Tonkotsu on Urbanspoon   Square Meal


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