Ladles of warming, creamy, intensely umami broth, painstakingly derived from animal carcasses, playing host to hand-formed waves of bouncy noodles, perfectly braised slices of pork and a myriad of other carefully chosen accoutrements. I am describing ramen. More specifically, tonkotsu ramen or rather, what I think it should be. As students, we are accustomed to the packeted variety and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s pretty fucking delicious. But ever so often (read always), the allure of the real stuff comes calling; it would be rude not to indulge. And so, inspired by Tampopo, a film about a woman’s quest to create the perfect bowl of noodles, I set out to explore what London has to offer.
With a head chef hailing from Hakata, a region famed for its street food, Shoryu prides itself on delivering bowls of thick, creamy, pork broths and thin, straight noodles for which the prefecture is known. Boy, does it deliver. The broth is dangerously rich and clings like ivy to the noodles, which are served perfectly al dente when you request for them to be cooked ‘hard’ (recommended). Although the chashu, braised pork belly, is slightly dry, it further adds to the deep meatiness of the bowl. Sides-wise, we’re talking expertly soft-boiled eggs, umami-ridden mushrooms, spring onions that cut refreshingly through the fatiness and a slice of salty seaweed. A whole host of other extras are provided on the side; I would recommend adding a few cloves of crushed raw garlic and a liberal dash of chilli oil to help subside the pure richness of the broth. Multiple branches are dotted around the city; from Monday-Wednesday, 2-5pm, a bowl of the signature tonkotsu is £7. At that price it would be disrespectful to turn down.
From the people that brought you Flesh&Buns comes Bone Daddies. Based off of the Izakayas that are omnipresent throughout the streets of Japan, this is like the bad boy cousin of London’s Ramen Bars. Quick note: unsurprisingly, given the owner’s other ventures, the baos here are great and I would highly recommend treating yourself to one. It’s good stuff. As for the ramen, it’s also pretty damn fine. The broth is creamy, less so than Shoryu yet still rich and flavourful and the accoutrements are all fine, well-executed, additions. The chashu pork belly is a highlight here. For me, the noodles are slightly too soft and lack the bounce or structure to serve as a delivery vehicle for the broth – the lack of ability to specify noodle hardness here really shows. It’s also a bit spenny. However, if you want a twist on the usual ramen bar formula and if you fancy a few baos, I’d recommend paying a visit.
This is like the granddaddy of ramen chains. Founded in 1985, Ippudo has won award after award in its native Japan and now has joints worldwide, luckily including London. Ippudo is renowned for producing consistently excellent bowls of ramen – which is why I’m a little disappointed. Firstly, service is painfully slow and it took 40 minutes to receive our food. For an extra pound, you get a serving of gyoza at lunch; they were pretty good but nothing to shout about. The ramen itself is all a bit mediocre: middling levels of creaminess of the broth and average noodles. It’s all a little bit meh. The lack of an egg really rubs salt into the wound. Unlike Shoryu, no extras are provided on the side and given the lack of attentiveness of service here, requesting hot oil is a chore. It would seem that Ippudo suffers from the same criticisms fired at Din Tai Fung – that they are unable to transfer the same levels of quality from their native restaurants to their ventures abroad. Maybe it’s something in the water.
Across the road from Ippudo lies Kanada-Ya. There is often a line snaking outside but I’m unsure as to whether that’s a testament to its popularity or a reflection of the fact that it seats about 20 people at a time. What I will say is that it’s clientele seems to be primarily Japanese, which is often a good indication as to where to find the good stuff. Service was impeccable. I was eating alone and was seated quickly and my bowl of noodles was delivered mere seconds after ordering it. The broth is delightfully rich, intense and the perfect level of creamy. The chashu here is probably the best I’ve had – nicely charred, fatty and deeply meaty. The noodles, however, were a bit too al dente for my taste. I ordered ‘Hard’ as advised but the insides felt slightly undercooked. If you come here at lunch, you get a bowl of ramen and a drink for £10, which is a pretty good deal – I’d recommend getting calpico, which is like a big version of a Yakult (my dreams do come true).
By sampling these four joints, I’ve only scratched the surface of London’s ramen world and I hope to continue my quest as the year progresses. But if I was to vouch for just one of them, you can’t go wrong with Shoryu.