My old friend M was in town for a little while, so what was I going to do, not take him out for a couple of bowls? We decided to take a stroll down one of the city's main ramen corridors and find something tasty, so we headed up Otakibashi-dôri, which runs north-south just west of Shinjuku station. The Otakibashi ramen zone seems to have sprung up around the original location of the feted Menya Musashi chain, which was one of the first shops to receive major media attention in the ramen boom of the 1990s. The area now has about a dozen shops, including a branch of Môko Tanmen Nakamoto, a Ramen Jirô, curry ramen Cocoichi, a location of the excellent Kurume tonkotsu purveyor Tatsunoya, and many more.
Our target was the newly opened Miso-ya Hachirô Shôten, which is the new shop of Furuya Ichirô's Nantsuttei franchise. Furuya is a shameless self-promoter and one of the most visible celebrities cooks in the ramen world. But he has the chops to back it up, since the pork soup with garlic oil at Nantsuttei is, um, really fucking good.
Though Hachirô Shôten isn't as decked out with cartoon renditions of Furuya's visage as his other shops, the front features a large sticker stating the shop's association, which, to be honest, is what got M and I to go in.
The cooks inside also wear their head towels in patented Furuya fashion with a thin tight roll high across the brow, and the wall proudly displays his patented catch phrase, inviting eaters into his world of "umai ze beibî!" - "It's delicious, baby!"
Bowls are available in four colors - white (original), yellow (curry), black (pepper), and red (tomato). All are based on the same miso and pork bone base soup, and all are topped with a generous helping of Furuya's patented pitch black mâyu (burnt garlic oil). The soup is strong, almost too strong, and a bit salty even for my admittedly salt-loving palette. Rather than create a thick, rich broth that brings out the miso, the soup is thin, almost as if it was just Nantsuttei's basic recipe plus miso.
M got the black bowl, in which the extra pepper seemed to overwhelm the taste. Garlic and miso tend go well together, but the garlic oil seemed to be at war with the broth rather than complementing and deepening it. The tomato added an interesting dimension that thrust Hachirô's soup out of the "same old" category, but the acidity of the fruit made my face crinkle a bit. I'm a fan of the convergence of big, intense flavors, but the elements here didn't seem to be working together here, merely existing together in the same bowl.
The noodles were home made, and were nice and round and plenty chewy, almost like high caliber spaghetti. Thick is definitely the way to go with rich miso, and it was nice to get a bowl that DIDN'T use the ubiquitous Mikawaya Seimen popularized by Kururi.
While I was eating at Hachirô I enjoyed it well enough, but the more I thought about it, the less I liked their ramen. It was a cash in, a trend jumper, an attempt by a big chain to hop on the current popularity of new-fangled miso ramen. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into the development of Furuya's original Nantsuttei blend (at least according to his flash animation biography...), and you can taste it, even years after Furuya stopped cooking at his own shops. But Hachirô's ramen lacked soul. No doubt a lot of effort went into developing the new menu, but it lacks the depth and richness of so many other places. For every excellent Kururi, Ringodô, or Yahiko, there are too many imitators. I think I'm going to take a break from miso for a while.