Wednesday, December 31, 2008

特別報告:テレビ東京年末ラーメン番組 (Special Report: TV Tokyo Year-end Ramen Program)

Thanks to a tip-off posted on the estimable Ramen Tokyo blog (, I arranged to get in front of a TV at 6:30 this past Tuesday the 30th to catch TV Tokyo's year-end ramen special 最強 ラーメン伝説:これぞ 必食のNo.1決定戦!!("The Toughest Ramen Legends: Decisive Battle for the Bowl You've Gotta Eat!!")

The format was simple - 8 of the city's most popular recently opened ramen shops had a week to each develop a new special bowl of ramen. At the end of the week, a rotating team of 5 ramen celebrity judges would taste the soup and give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down, or rather, choose between deeming it "pilgrimage-worthy" or simply walking out of the shop. 3 out of 5 meant a victory, anything less a defeat. Winners got a hand-written plaque from Ramen God and tsukemen inventor Yamagishi Kazuodeclaring that their shop was worth a pilgrimage. Losers got embarassed on national TV. I cracked a beer and got comfortable for the 2.5 hour program, eager to see what was up on order, as the cooks were being challenged to really push the envelope to create experimental ramen that could impress the toughest customers. The judges were:

Ramen Writer and "Man that Ramen Shops Fear," Ishigami Hideyuki;

"The Singing Princess Who Has Downed a Thousand Bowls," Hayashi Asami;

Professional Wrestler and "Devil's Ramen Fighting King," Takada Nobuhiko;

Actor and "Hot Gentleman Noodler" Ohwada Shinya;

Former Yakuza Film Star, Current Pickle Company CEO, and "Food Emperor of the Celebrity World" (and one of my personal favorite 70s actors) Umemiya Tatsuo;

"Ramen Boss" and Nantsuttei Head Cook Furuya Ichirô;

"Ramen Devil" and Shina Sobaya Head Cook Sano Minoru;

...and of course the big (in every sense) man himself, "Ramen God," Tsukemen Inventor, and Former Head Cook of Higashi-Ikebukuro Taishôken Yamagishi Kazuo.

The shop line up:

1. CONCEPT in Itabashi

2. はないち (Hanaichi) in Nerima

3. 覆麺 (Fukumen) in Jinbochô

4. 藤巻激城 (Fujimaki Gekijô) in Nakameguro

5. ほん田 (Honda) in Higashi Jûjô

6. 麺処遊 (Mendokoro Yû) in Uguisudani

7. 麺や七彩 (Menya Shichisai) in Toritsu Kasei

8. 'Baba's own 麺屋宗 (Menya SOU)

To start at the end, I'm sorry to say that SOU didn't fare so well - only one of the five judges gave young Mr. Yanagi's bowl the thumbs up. He tried an ambitious duck soup ramen, but was clearly stressed and nervous. Nonetheless, I can't see this having too big of an effect on the shop's fame and popularity. Still, one thumb up is better than Menya Yû, which got an embarassing zero out of five; no matter how you slurp it, that has to sting a bit. Yû's master traveled to Tsukiji fish market and chose a wide array of seafood ingredients like scallops, clams, and sardines to make a blended fish and chicken shio soup - apparently, the cook's father is also a ramen master, and the young cook may have failed by trying too hard to surpass his father, coming out with a broth the judges deemed "unfocused."

Also at the low end of the spectrum was CONCEPT, a shop that, clearly, is a high concept one. The cook there, a young fashionable male with long dyed hair, had trained as a French chef, and so loaded the broth with unusual ingredients like clams and Pastis liqeur. His "W" (Double) concept was a weird tsukemen reimagination where you dip thick noodles into a broth already loaded with thin noodles. It takes balls to serve something like that to the tsukemen master Yamagishi Kazuo, and it didn't go over so well.

Faring slightly better, but still coming in one vote short of victory was Fukumen, where the gimmick is that all the cooks wear Mexican-style Lucha Libre wrestling masks. They did another tsukemen-but-not-tsukemen bowl called "tsukeramen," where you get a full bowl of ramen whose noodles are then dipped in a thicker tsukemen broth. Apparently the big innovations were the use of a dried fruit puree to make a sweet soup and the house specialty of burnt onion layered on top. I have to say, it actually sounded kind of interesting.

In the victory column, Honda, started I believe just this year by a 22 year old female cook, won the judges over with a "NEO Shio MAX" ramen made with special chicken and lots of veggies served on the side. Also coming in with a solid three votes was Hanaichi, run by a husband and wife couple, with the wife acting as the head cook. With a young kid watching the action, the lady master whipped up something called "Family White" ramen, served with a tomato and shrimp sauce and other unusual toppings alongside a creamy-looking shio broth. She said she was aiming for "a ramen even her young son would love to eat" that adults could enjoy too - Yamagishi tipped the balance in their favor with his final deciding vote, reducing the family to tears of happiness. He really came across as a nice guy and a big softie. By contrast, Nantsuttei's Furuya-san seemed cocky and unpleaseable - I think he only gave his seal of approval to one shop the whole night.

Next up the line was what was clearly the most ridiculous bowl of the night, served up by Nakameguro's Fujimaki Gekijô. Behind a nearly unmarked door, a tunnel leads through a cave with fish ponds back into a very fancy restaurant, several levels above bougie Gogyô. Fujimaki's master (also named Fujimaki) serves up extremely high-end Thai-style Tom Yum Ramen, clocking in at a whopping Thirty Dollars A Bowl. No matter how high-end the ingredients, no matter how delicious, no matter how much he writes "a whole full course meal in a single bowl" on the webpage, I can't imagine spending that kind of money on noodles, much less on the even more insanely over the top "Imperial Noodles," which clock in at an even 10,000 yen (over 100 USD) and must be reserved three days in advance. I guess at least it tasted good, according to the judges.

Finally, receiving thumbs up votes for "pigrimage-worthy" from all five judges was Shichisai, located in the western suburbs and dishing out nikomi ramen, where the noodles are boiled in Chinese-style baitan white chicken soup. The Shichisai guys think of themselves as "noodle theorists" and journeyed to the countryside to find the best possible barley. Apparenlty they also serve up a modified Kitakata ramen laced with olive oil (!)

Frankly, all of these places looked damn tasty. Unfortunately, most of them are only going to be serving their special experimental inventions for a couple weeks during January, and for the most part just a dozen or so bowls a day. After the program, there is no doubt that these shops are gonna be mobbed, so it'll be nigh impossible to try any of these crazy bowls without queueing up for hours and crossing your fingers. Nonetheless, even their regular soups looked tasty, and even the shops that didn't fare well by the judges are no doubt going to become even more popular just by dint of being featured at all. Yamagishi-san may not have dug tsukemen with clams and Pastis, but I'm still a bit curious to try it. I'm definitely going to add some of these places to my list, especially Shichisai and Hanaichi. Noodle TV FTW!

二代目海老そばけいすけ (Ebi Soba Keisuke II)

I had just finished watching TV Tokyo's two and a half hour long year-end ramen special (to be covered in the next post), and after being barraged with that much noodle porn, I ran out of the house to eat as fast as I could. All the shops covered on the show were new, hot, experimental-type places, so it put me in the mood for some outside the box ramen. Fortunately, I hadn't yet ticked Ebi Soba Keisuke II off the list, and it was just a stone's throw from my front door on the road to the station, so I decided to do my next bowl there.

Keisuke II is located just east of Takadanobaba station on one of the busier blocks of Waseda-dôri; the Keisuke sign is the one on the far right of the sea of neon. Keisuke II is, as may be apparent from the name, the second ramen venture of up-and-coming young(ish) cook Takeda Keisuke(竹田敬介):

Besides being sufficiently bad-ass looking for a ramen cook, Keisuke has built a small empire since opening his first solo shop in Hongô in 2005. Having spent years training in Italian and French as well as Japanese restaurants, Keisuke decided to try his hand at the ramen game and opened a shop near the storied "Red Gate" (akamon) of Tokyo University specializing in a rich fish and miso blended dark black soup. Apparently it must have done pretty well, because only a year later he set up Keisuke II across town near Waseda. Each of Keisuke's shops specializes in a different concept, which is an innovative idea - the original shop does the black fish miso, II is a shrimp ramen specialty shop, III is in Tachikawa and takes pride in their Chinese-style red oil (hongxiangyou 紅香油), and allegedly shop IV in Komagome does a lobster (!) ramen. Apparently there is also a limited time duck ramen on offer.

Inside, Keisuke II is a great blend of concept shop and old-school ramen joint. The black walls make it feel a bit gussied-up, but the white counter and the fact that it's narrow even as far as ramen shops keep it cozy. Interestingly, most of the clientele were in their 30s, which is a bit unusual - usually there are at least a few younger people or older people. In any case, maybe the age bracket has something to do with the soundtrack of 80s American pop and Hi-NRG dance music that made me feel like I was back uptown in New York.

I got the basic bowl of "Ebi Soba" (shrimp noodles), which clocks in at 780 yen. Keisuke II is the kind of shop that goes out of their way to take care of their customers - the same 780 yen gets you ramen of any size at any time of day, from the standard 200 gram portion to the extra-large 400 gram, which is really quite a deal; rice is also free. In addition, they provide other kinds of services, like hair ties for women (and presumably long-haired dudes as well), paper aprons, and they'll even wash your personal chopsticks that you brought from home - I guess my offhanded comment about no one bringing their own sticks to ramen shops was off the mark. Keisuke is definitely going for a bit more mature crowd than your stereotypical ramen fan who is satisfied to splatter broth all over his duds. They even were selling takeout soup and noodles to get you through the 4 day New Years holiday ramen jones!

They also take great care in their choice of tableware - instead of standard bowls, Keisuke II's ramen comes in giant severed tilted spheres on square black plates. To be honest, even though it's visually impressive, I found this to be a bit of a hassle, and ended up spilling more than a few drops out of the tilted rim of the bowl. The tsukemen dipping broth also comes in fancy ceramic coffee cups. Anyways, let's get down to what was in this bowl!

Keisuke II definitely goes for a similar layout of toppings to other assari-kei (thin soup) fancy shops like Sou and AFURI, with mizuna greens and those mysterious red slivery things that look really pretty on top. One unusual topping was the generous heaping of yamakurage (literally "mountain jellyfish") vegetables instead of bamboo shoots, which I found to be extremely tasty. The noodles are medium thin and medium wavy, nice and light, with plenty of them. But the real thing that makes Keisuke II unique is this:

A big fat fuckin' shrimp wonton. Sitting in a cujungulously large spoon. The basic ramen comes with one shrimp wonton, but for a couple bucks extra you can get them loaded up (which I may do next time). As a non-châshû type guy, it was great to have such a tasty substitute, which was soft and well done. Keisuke II's titular shrimpness goes beyond the wonton into the soup itself, which is the other star. Made (I think) of largely shrimp and chicken broth, Keisuke II's soup is souper tasty, and I realized that I had drank almost all of it by the end. For a lighter soup it was very complex and maintained a nice bit of oil without being overpowering or cloying, not unlike Ogikubo-style soup; it also was served extra hot like Ogikubo-style soup.

The thin but strong soup matched well with the 500 yen glass of mugi shôchû (Japanese barley vodka) on the rocks that I ordered. Not a fantastic shôchû, but again, another example of thinking outside the box, and a good way to get your liver juices going before a night of heavy drinking in Shinjuku.

All in all, Keisuke II serves up a high quality slurp. Totally tasty and totally unique, with all the touches of a fancy ramen shop, without trying *too* hard to seem classy, though I could do without the weird bowls. Being so unique, I don't know if I want shrimp noodles every day, but I'd recommend Keisuke II to anyone, and I'm curious to try some of Mr. Takeda's other concept shops around town.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

ちょっとしたの再来 (A Few Revisits...)

This past week my cousin was visiting from New York, so I didn't spend too much time running around to new shops. Instead, I revisited a couple favorites, like AFURI and Kitarô.

One of the stops high on my cousin's hit list for Tokyo was the parasite museum in Meguro - billing itself as "the world's only museum of parasitology", the Meguro museum is pretty stomach turning, with all kinds of displays of pickled parasites, photos of victims of obscure infections, and a surprisingly rockin' gift shop (!)

Naturally, the ideal food to eat prior to checking out 8 foot tapeworms in jars is long thin noodles, so we stopped by old favorite AFURI in Ebisu on our way down to Meguro. I figured AFURI was on the way and would be a nice refreshing bowl that wouldn't weigh us down on our long day of cruising around town and going to obscure museums. Plus, it's "popular with women."

We got there a bit ahead of the lunch rush, so didn't have to wait. We each got a bowl of the Yuzu (citron) shio ramen. The half soft-boiled egg (which comes free with each bowl) was done perfectly as ever, and the yuzu hit the spot, but in the fashionable yuzu shio category I think I have to give the edge to Menya SOU - AFURI's thin noodles seemed a little off, and SOU's broth is just a tad more complex. Nonetheless, a high quality bowl of ramen, and the side dish of takegohan (bamboo rice) can't be beat:

A couple of days later, for my cousin's last lunch in Tokyo we decided to grab another bowl close to home before she headed for the airport. Kitarô was just around the corner, and I had been impressed with their aemen last week, so we decided to head back there. This time, we both decided to go for straight-up ramen, rather than continue to explore the experimental soupless noodle options. I went with the "black" ramen, my cousin with the "white" - Kitarô does their menu in colors: yellow for curry aemen, red for chili aemen, white for basic tonkotsu, and black for shôyû.

A far cry from the experimental and highly innovative curry aemen, the "black" shôyû tonkotsu was refreshingly straightforward, classic yet upscale. In addition to the naruto, bamboo shoots, and green onions, Kitarô's black also had a dash of chopped raw white onion, and, perhaps in a nod to the Kyûshû tonkotsu tradition, kikurage woodears, which were served in large chunks, rather than sliced. Though nothing especially new or mindblowing flavorwise, this was clearly ramen made with higher than average quality ingredients and greater than average care; it was also pleasingly ungreasy for a shôyû tonkotsu. The noodles were about medium in girth, neither thick nor thin, and the egg was awesomely gooey in the middle.

I think the "white" tonkotsu may not have been quite as successful. In comparison to the shôyû tonkotsu, the broth wasn't quite as rich or flavorful, and felt a little bit overwhelmed by the taste of the fresh white onions.

My cousin says the pork was also quite tasty. All in all, Kitarô's ramen is high quality, but it can't quite reach the mindblowing levels of their curry aemen; I think I'm gonna save the soup for other shops and come back here when I want the soupless stuff.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

年末のらーめんレフレクション (Year-End Ramen Reflections)

It's the end of the year, so I thought I'd take a moment to think about the state of ramen both in my hood and in Tokyo in general. A couple of days ago, I popped into a convenience store and found that the new 2009 edition of my ramen guide (Shuto Kenpan's Ultimate Ramen 究極のラーメン)had hit the stands. I took a brief flip through, but there wasn't really anything new enough in the 'Baba listings to justify the 8 dollar cover price; a few additions (notably the appearance of Kitarô), a few subtractions, but nothing I hadn't already noted myself. The magazine comes with a set of free chopsticks, which is kind of an asinine promotion - who brings their own chopsticks to a ramen shop?

Nonetheless, the awards and news were well worth a browse, as they clearly use a different set of criteria from Ramen Database Supleks to select their top shops - while Supleks is often top-heavy with gyôkai (blended fish broth) soups like Kissô, Rokurinsha, and TETSU, the new Ultimate Ramen seems to follow different trends, and is perhaps a bit more populist. Their top five (based on taste, length of line, and something else I forget) was as follows:

1.Nantsuttei(なんつッ亭) - a Hakata style shop notable for it's slathering of mâyû (burnt garlic oil); has its own instant ramen line and a celebrity cook that's also a TV personality.

2.Kujira-ken (くじら軒) - a "Shina-soba" (Chinese soba) shop that has been nationally famous for almost 20 years. Old school thin shôyû broth with naruto and thin noodles. They've also got their own instant ramen line.

3.Ramen Jirô Takadanobaba (ラーメン次郎高田馬場) - I feel proud as a 'Baba-based ramen man that of all the dozens of Jirô's spanning from Mita to Ibaraki, my home branch made the list. Naturally, Jirô@Baba dishes up heaping hunks of noodles and pork in greasy-as-fuck broth. I guess this Jirô's hunks are that much bigger and the soup is that much greasy-as-fucker. See the old post.

4.Ichiran(一蘭) - Large-scale chain Hakata style ramen with fully customizable soup and noodles. The defining features are the cubicles to eat in and the lack of any human interaction. Frankly, Ichiran's popularity totally baffles me. See the old post where I call Ichiran's bowl a bowl of ramen that I would not recommend to anyone.

5.Gogyô(五行) - I don't think they specified which branch of this high-end ramen dining mini-chain was at the top. Gogyô serves all styles as well as a full food and liquor menu in an upscale atmosphere. The big draw is the burnt miso "black ramen," which I found to rock, hard. See the old review.

So, for what it's worth, these are one ramen magazine's top 5 overall shops for 2008. Interestingly, all of them are chains, at least to some degree. Ironically, although Jirô has perhaps the most shops around Tokyo, the Jirô here is the most independent of the five, since Jirô shops are free-standing institutions following the same lineage to the Mita shop. It's surprising to me that a magazine wouldn't include a single independent or individual shop in it's top 5 list - Gogyô is part of the Ippûdô empire, Ichiran is a major chain, Jirô is world famous, and Kujira-ken and Nantsuttei are both known nationwide, at least through their instant noodles. This strikes me as a somewhat safe list, perhaps even pandering a little bit. I'm not saying that I wish the top five was loaded with the currently red-hot gyôkai fish soups, but I'm surprised it's not a little "deeper," although Supleks Database and other ramen-world favorites like TETSU, Rokurinsha, and Ramen Ivan get special notation further down the list. Sou got the tip of the top hat for "fashionable ramen for women," with AFURI coming in third.

I think this points towards a larger ramen world trend towards popularization and a wider audience. Another sign in this direction is the renaming of one of the main ramen periodicals - Since arriving in Tokyo a few months ago, I had been searching bookstores up and down for the main ramen monthly Gekkan Torasan (月刊とらさん), but to no avail. A couple days ago I figured out why - beginning in October, the company that publishes Torasan discontinued the magazine under that moniker and created the new magazine Ramen Bank (ラーメンバンク). The name change can't but strike me as symbolic - Torasan takes it's name from the iconic popular hero of the post-war era, portrayed by Atsumi Kiyoshi in the 48 films of the "Otoko wa tsurai yo" (It's Tough to be a Man) series spanning across four decades:

There's a lot about Tora-san that makes him a great namesake for a ramen magazine - he spends his life traveling around the country, a wandering man spending a little time here, a little time there, just like a ramen fan always in search of the next great bowl. He's an old school guy of the type they don't make anymore, hailing from the "low city" of Shibamata in far northeast Tokyo and proud of it. Crass and bumbling but always smiling and lovable, Tora-san is an icon and a fittingly symbolic figure. What are old fashioned ramen shops if not a bit dirty and scrummy but wonderful and homey? The fact that Tora-san is a masculine figure to the end probably shouldn't be ignored either.

For better or worse, the days of ramen shops as the havens of Tora-san types are ending. People from all walks of life enjoy ramen of all sizes and shapes in all kinds of shops and neighborhoods, sipping on soups made of things like blended citron broth and Himalayan rock salt. I can't even imagine the kind of bull in a china shop situation Tora-san would probably find himself in if he pulled up a cushioned seat at Gogyô, which he most certainly wouldn't recognize as a ramen shop.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing by any means - I don't wish we could go back to some imagined Tokyo of the past where ramen shops were nothing but places for old men to sip thin shôyû soup between beers. On the contrary, it's precisely this proliferation of different tastes, styles, and concepts that make noodling across Tokyo so interesting and so much fun. Nonetheless, I hope that as ramen continues its rise it doesn't forget its roots, and that the aforementioned shôyû and shôchû under the tracks type places don't go the way of the dinosaur.

The new magazine "Ramen Bank" seems like a pretty nice little periodical - it's available for free download as a PDF online at . Each issue has a central focus highlighting a particular kind of shop, as well as a number of regular monthly features. So far there have been specials on "Spicy Tantanmen," "Luxurious Ramen," and the inaugural issue on "Shops Easy for Women to Enter," which is an interesting choice for a leadoff story. Other regular features include overviews of particular neighborhoods, interviews with famous ramen figures (like tsukemen godfather Yamagishi Kazuo), job listings and so forth.

Two segments that stand out as representative of the new ramen world are a regular comic featuring a woman with no ramen experience asked to become a ramen specialist for her journalist job, and a series on date-appropriate ramen shops near popular couples hangouts. There's also a cute little naruto-shaped mascot - definitely an image makeover. The mag has good information, fun interviews and articles, and Ramen Bank will no doubt be a good way to continue to follow the pulse of the Tokyo scene.

Getting back to 'Baba, there's some local news as well - walking down the street the other day, I found Shichifukujin shuttered with a notice thanking customers for their patronage and stating that the shop would not be reopening in the new year. Although I only ate there once, Shichifukujin showed me how good shôyû ramen can be, and I'm sorry to see it go. Down the block, Garasha had a notice up that the cook had injured himself and that the shop would be closed for a while - hopefully it reopens again in the new year, since it's high on my list of local bowls to try. In other news, a vacant storefront on Waseda-dôri was displaying a poster announcing the opening of a new miso specialty shop and looking for employees. Including Shichifukujin, there are a couple other vacant ex-ramen shop storefronts, so we may see a few new challengers in 2009.

To end, my new wishes for the new year - five Tokyo shops I'm hoping to try in 2009, in no particular order:

1.Ramen Jirô Mita Honten(ラーメン次郎三田本店) - I can't call myself a true ramen fan without making a pilgrimage here at least once.

2.Môko Tanmen Nakamoto(蒙古タンメン中本) - I hear this "Mongolian-style" shop has the spiciest noodles in town.

3.Rokurinsha(六厘舎) - I've gotta check it out to see what the fuss is about.

4.Menya Kissô(麺屋吉左右) - Same reason as number 3; gyôkai fish broth or not, any place that continually ranks this high must be worth a shot.

5.Hakata Nagahama Ramen Goten(博多長浜らーめん御天) - I'm still on a quest to find the best bowl of Hakata ramen in Tokyo, and this place looks like a solid contender.

Of course, my big wish is to be able to make it down to Kyûshû and eat Hakata ramen in its birthplace, but we'll see how the year unfolds...

Sunday, December 21, 2008

ぶぶか (Bubka)

"Japan has amazing junk food doesn't it?" That was my professor's comment upon watching me unwrap the offense-against-all-that-is-holy of a "sandwich" containing yakisoba and a fried potato croquette. When I was eating at Bubka tonight I couldn't stop thinking that the abura soba (oily noodles) I was chowing down on were truly ramen as junk food par excellence. But let me back up a bit.

Tonight was unseasonably warm for late December, so I decided to eschew the two-wheeler and hoof it to the west side of 'Baba station to hit up Bubka. The fact that I had forgotten my bike key upstairs also probably had something to do with the bipedular decision. It's bônenkai (year-forgetting party) season right now, so the streets were unusually packed for a Sunday night, and group drunkenness and indiscriminate yelling abounded all the way to the station.

Bubka first caught my eye due to the fact that it shares a name with one of the trashier gossip rags / porn-peddling mags around. For what it's worth, apparently it's also the name of a world-famous Ukrainian pole vault champion. Bubka serves up a bowl of noodles that would probably be right up the alley of either the readership of the eponymous magazine or the Voroshilovgradian vaulter.

Bubka is a straightforward no-nonsense ramen shop all the way. After a quick glance around, I was about to make a mental note that everyone else in the store looked every bit the ramen fan (that is to say, chubby dudes), but no sooner did the thought pop into my brain than two young couples walked in.

The menu is clearly tailored towards those who take their ramen seriously, with only two basic choices on offer - tonkotsu ramen and abura soba (soupless noodles). I had been wanting to get down with a proper bowl of abura soba, and I knew that's what I wanted before I walked in.

After a longer than average wait for the bowl of noodles to come up, I got hit with a savory and delicious carbohydrate bomb laid down on the counter in front of me. One look at Bubka's abura soba and I knew that this would be a satisfying bowl of noodles.

In case you're wondering, fuck yeah that's a big glob of mayonnaise! After I put in my order, I took a glance at the longer than average list of available toppings, and decided to do this bowl of noodles full up with a soft-boiled ajitama egg and some mayo. I hadn't had mayo ramen in six years, not since my last visit to the tiny reggae ramen shack in Shibuya's backstreets, but this was a day to go for the gusto. Another unusual topping on offer was spinach - as luck would have it, "Popeye" is the name of another (albeit slightly less trashy) men's mag in Japan.

Before chowing down I dabbed on a bit of garlic, a bit of thick chili sauce, and a splash of vinegar before getting down to mixing it all together:

As I said before, this was definitely ramen as junk food. Just a whole bunch of savory things mixed all up ins, held together by thicker and chewier than average noodles. When you're doing ramen without the soup, you've got to make sure the noodles can deliver, and Bubka's do. To be honest, I'm not sure I needed the mayonaisse in addition to the oil the noodles were already floating in, but like I said, it was a gusto-going for kind of evening. The only negative was the fact that without any soup, the noodles didn't seem to go as far - maybe it's because you don't get full off the liquid, or maybe it's an optical illusion due to the fact that you can see the noodles decrease with each bite, rather than be left in the dark as to how many strands are left in a cloudy soup. Nonetheless, Bubka only charges 580 for a standard bowl, one of the cheaper prices I've seen outside of Jirô these days, so paying an extra hundred for the ômori extra noodles is no biggie.

I really enjoyed Bubka's abura soba, and I ate up every last sliver of onion coated in the thick oily, spicy, garlicky, mayonnaisey goo. Honestly, I wished I had some chips, because when I finished the last of the noodles I wanted to use that remainder as a dip. Abura soba like Bubka's is almost like Japanese nachos, if that makes any sense. These noodles are the food equivalent of the act of grimacing, furrowing your brow, and clenching your hands when a good metal song comes on the stereo. Fittingly and thankfully, Bubka also serves draft beer. As I was polishing off my bowl, X Japan's "Forever Love" started playing over the PA. Definitely a ballad, but a welcome change from the recent Christmas jingle remix overload, and definitely worthy of a lighter raised in the air. I'm going back to Bubka - next time I'm going to do the abura soba with a raw egg and extra bamboo shoots. And I'd lay a fair wager that their straight up tonkotsu ramen rocks too.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

ババ番外地、その八:西麻布五行 (Beyond Baba 8: Nishiazabu Gogyô)

Black Ramen. When leafing through a guide of 1100 ramen shops in the Tokyo metropolitan area, a pitch black bowl of soup is bound to stand out. Gogyô's bowl of ramen was calling out to me, and today I found myself taking care of more errands in Roppongi, within easy striking distance of Nishiazabu, home to one of Gogyô's several locations. Nishiazabu Gogyô is located on a tucked away block, in a strange little corner between the Aoyama Cemetery, the National Art Center, and, weirdly, an American military barracks that I got in trouble for photographing.

As befits the posh Nishiazabu address (whose presence BEFORE the name of the shop is definitely not an accident), Gogyô is visually entirely unrecognizeable as a ramen shop, at least in any conventional sense. A broad patio lined with chairs spreads out in front of the casual bistro-style awning - I wonder if they do al fresco dining in the spring and summer here?

The swankity continues inside. Although there are counters, they are outfitted with big chair-like stools, and the majority of the dark-wood interior space is filled with plush leather couches, which the afternoon light streaming in through the plate glass storefront prevented me from getting a good photo of.

Gogyô (named for the five elements of Chinese cosmology) takes the "upscale ramen" concept to a whole new level, feeling more like a fancy cafe that happens to serve ramen instead of a ramen shop aiming for a high-class feel. The clientele was a mix of fashionable couples and foreign businessmen on lunch break, with a few construction workers thrown in for good measure. For being such a frou-frou place, Gogyô offers an extremely generous lunch special - choice of ramen, choice of salad, and choice of rice for 1000 yen. While waiting for my order to come up, I browsed through the glossy brochure and was unsurprised to discover that Gogyô is a spin-off from the Ippûdô empire. Ippûdô is, of course, one of the first shops to "elevate" Hakata ramen on the national scale and serve ramen in a fancier "restaurant-type environment," so it wasn't surprising to see them branching out and trying something even more high concept and upscale. Gogyô has all the same little nice touches, like fresh pepper to grind and tea instead of water for tableside refreshment.

Although the trademark "black ramen" is obviously the big draw point, Gogyô serves up a full menu, with choice between shio, shôyû, miso, and tonkotsu, as well as a larger than average menu of side dishes, including fried chicken, cucumber salad, and Mascarpone cheese tarts, in addition to an impressive selection of chilled sake. It seems like they have an even more extensive menu at night, with a range of carefully plated traditional Japanese and fusion dishes.

So, what about this black ramen? The proper name is kogashi miso, "burnt miso ramen," but they also offer a slightly less black "burnt shôyû." I'm not entirely sure if it's miso paste itself they are burning, or something else that is simply layered on top of the miso, but it's different from Ippûdô's trademark black mâyû (charred garlic) oil. Whatever it is, there were huge flames periodically leaping towards the ceiling from the stoves behind the glassed-in kitchen. When my bowl came up, one glance told me that this was definitely "impact ramen", taking you outside the realm of the expected. Thick layers of black carbon particles swirled amidst the creamy miso base, making for an incredibly rich and almost sweet soup. The soup had almost nothing to do with a standard miso bowl, tasting more like Chinese grilled and spiced chuanchuar skewers or Korean barbecue, an impression reconfirmed by the taste of the burp I just let rip.

As for toppings, Gogyô's bowl was one of the few I've ever had to lack green onions and menma (bamboo shoots), with only a soft pink naruto (fish cake) and half of a soft-boiled (hanjuku) egg, along with a few shreds of raw white onion that added to the overall "grilled" impression. It looks like the other styles of ramen on offer each have their own carefully selected sets of toppings, with cabbage on the tonkotsu, and so forth. The downside of the layer of burnt oil on top is that it keeps the soup extremely hot - Gogyô's is probably the highest temperature bowl of ramen I've ever eaten. Having a bit of what they call a nekojita (cat's tongue) in Japanese, I ended up having to wait a few solid minutes for the soup to cool down, after first making the mistake of putting some unpleasantly hot soup in my mouth. The only other negative mark Gogyô gets is for the noodles, which were more like ever-so-slightly-flat thin pasta noodles than standard ramen noodles, and felt a bit limp to me. But when the soup is this fucking delicious, I'm ready to make a lot of allowances. I enjoyed dumping my mixed grain rice in the soup and slurping the broth up as much as I liked eating the ramen itself - it's hard to express just how exceptionally complex, unique, and delicious a bowl of soup Gogyô's burnt miso is.

On my way out, I stopped in the bathroom, which was of course equally impressive, with hardwood walls and a sink where the water dripped out of a hollow piece of bamboo. Gogyô is definitely a ramen shop in a class by itself, and if you're ever in the neighborhood, it's definitely worth seeking out.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

北狼 (Kitarô)

My last couple of posts (and bowls) have all been outside the Waseda / Takadanobaba area, so I thought I should get back to business and cross another shop off the list in my own neck of the woods. I recently discovered the mapping function on the Supleks Ramen Database, and it revealed a whole host of shops in the vicinity that had thus far escaped my attention. It turns out the total number of shops is probably closer to 75 or 80 than to 50. After a few brief moments of panic and self-doubt as to whether I really could eat my way through all those ramen shops, I regained my composure and decided to redouble my efforts.

Tonight I was feeling a bit sluggish and didn't want to schlep too far, so I decided to give one of the places closest to home a whirl. Kitarô (The Northern Wolf) is literally just around the corner from my place, but for whatever reason I had never noticed it until just a week or two ago - I chalk it up to it's location on the far side of the crosswalk I always use. I knew nothing about what to expect, and a bit of googling revealed only that they have one other branch in Shingawa and that they have a specialty of something called aemen. I had never heard of aemen before, so I set off no less sure about what kind of ramen I was in for.

Atmosphere-wise, Kitarô falls into that category somewhere between the upscale decor place and the standard shop. No high design concept, but the glass storefront and clean and stylish black counter makes it a ramen shop that's "easy to enter" for the uninitiated, lacking the sometimes intimidating presence of a solid door or noren curtain. Nonetheless, I was still surprised to see two student-esque young girls among the customers - fashionable shop or not, I rarely see girls my age at ramen shops unless they are being dragged in by their boyfriends. This is not to say that there aren't plenty of female ramen freaks (there are), just that the general ramen clientele tends to skew way in the "no ovaries" direction.

Interestingly, the ticket machine had two separate "menus" - one row for lunchtime, with slightly cheaper prices, and one row for dinner, with a few less options. For lunch there seemed to be a variety of tonkotsu bowls (fish-blended, shôyû-blended), but for dinner only a choice between "ramen" (without a lead-in descriptor) and two kinds of aemen - "spicy red" and "curry yellow." The curry yellow sounded good to me on a cold winter's day, and that was the one that people were talking about on the Supleks database.

When the aemen arrived, it came as a bowl of noodles dusted with brown curry powder and another bowl of a slightly thick, curry-looking (duh) soup. I asked the cook if I should eat it by dipping the noodles like tsukemen, or pour the soup onto the noodles - it seems like this is a common question, because he handed me a laminated explanation sheet describing the proper aemen eating process. Pour the soup over the noodles, mix well, then sip on the last of the soup between bites of noodles, something like a mix between abura soba (oily noodles with no soup) and standard ramen technique.

I decided to start by trying a bite of the noodles pre-souping to see how they tasted with just the curry powder and the little bit of oil at the bottom of the bowl. The first thing I noticed were that these were some thick and chewy fucking noodles. Kitarô's noodles might be the thickest and chewiest I've ever eaten, almost more like udon than standard ramen. This is by no means a bad thing. The next thing I noticed was that the curry powder packed a pretty solid punch in the spice department.

The soup, conveniently served in a bowl that doubled as a pouring utensil, was tasty on its own - certainly way thinner than the heavy goo known as Japanese curry, but still thicker than the standard ramen soup. The spice factor was present in the broth as well, and I felt my nose tingle from the curry particles. I was actually kind of shocked how spicy the dish was, considering that Japanese curry is usually far more sweet than hot, and that the "curry yellow" was contrasted with the "spicy red" on the menu. I'm guessing there are more than a few customers who are caught off-guard, thinking they are ordering the mild dish and getting hit with a tongue-tingling cross-counter punch. As I started eating, I noticed for the first time the presence of slivers of menma, visually almost indistinguishable from the mega-thick noodles.

Soup, powder, and noodles blended together was definitely where it's at, with bite after chewy bite of thick, curried goodness. These noodles took a lot longer than the average bowl to prepare (maybe due to the thickness of the noodles?), and they took longer to eat than the average bowl as well. I can see why Kitarô has fans, and I wouldn't be surprised if people come from afar to eat here - the curry aemen is definitely a totally unique bowl of ramen, not quite like any other bowl I've ever eaten.

On the way out, I noticed this little bronze figure - it was paired up with another figure cooking the noodles and a third one serving the noodles. Kind of awesome - I wonder if they had it specially made or if these are sold somewhere? I might have to get one, but in the meantime, I think I found my user ID photo. I will definitely be back to Kitarô - not only am I itching to find out just how spicy the "spicy red" is, I'm pretty curious what such an inventive ramen shop does with their "standard ramen." One of my top picks so far.