Tuesday, March 9, 2010

海神 (Kaijin)

People have a lot of mistaken ideas about ramen. What it is, how to eat it, whathave you. But one ramen-related stereotype that's been on the wane of late is that whatever ramen is, it's not for ladies. Though there are plenty of shops that maintain that old school down and out slurper image, and plenty more that embrace the dudely side of ramen full bowl (see Ramen Jirô), there are more than a few that actively seek to appeal to lady noodle lovers.

There was even a recent book (and one of the best on the market at that) called "Girls' Noodle Club" highlighting shops in the metropolis that can leave a lovely lady satisfied.

Restaurants in Japan often become weirdly gender-segregated - beef bowls, fried pork, and curry huts for boys, bakeries, cute cafes, and foreign foods for girls. Some shops, like Machida's Koshinbô actively appeal to women with pastel interiors and healthy menus, but many of the current generation of ramen shops, if not actively seeking to transcend this binary, at least go out of their way to create a space that feels comfortable for patrons regardless of class or gender.

Enter Kaijin. Located just across the street from the southeast exit of Shinjuku station, Kaijin is an easy to overlook shop worth not overlooking. A few weeks back my friend Y and I set out to give it a shot.

The name may mean "god of the sea," but the deity in charge here is all goddess. The head cook at Kaijin is one of a small but growing number of female chefs in the ramen world, and she's not messing around, but playing for all the fish in the sea. Which is exactly what finds it's way into Kaijin's broth.

The soup at Kaijin is a light broth made almost exclusively from the frutti di mare, changing regularly depending on what's in season. The ingredients of the daily stock are displayed on cloth streamers inside the shop, which are switched out regularly. The day I visited, the soup was gleaned from tara (cod), sake (salmon), kanpachi (amberjack), kinmedai (sea bream), and madai (snapper), but the taste changes with the tides.

The result is a thin but fully flavorful and refined broth that maintains a pleasant taste of the ocean without becoming overly "fishy" like some darker soups made from dried bonito and mackerel stock. "Gyôkai" ramen has become an increasingly important genre, in which a very strong fish broth is blended with a creamy pork bone soup, as developed by shops like Aoba, Menya Musashi, and Watanabe. But Kaijin's bowl is something else entirely.

Kaijin's toppings are equally unconventional - a few sprigs of shiso leaf (beefsteak plant often served with sashimi), raw and spicy myôga ginger, and two chewy cakes, one made of finely ground chicken, the other of shrimp. The bowl is also available with a sprinkling of red chili, in case you want to add some kick to the engine of your ocean skiff.

The noodles are thin, straight and white, somewhere between what you might find in a bowl of Kumamoto ramen and a plate of vermicelli. They taste fresh and hold up well without getting soggy - another advantage to such a light and refreshingly unoily bowl.

If you go, be sure and throw down the extra few yen to get the set meal, which includes a ball of grilled rice mixed together with small bits of dried fish. Crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside like an eskimo in an igloo being eaten by a polar bear (huh?), it's perfectly edible by itself, but even better dipped in the soup. Kaijin isn't just a great ramen shop, but a great seafood restaurant that happens to only serve ramen. 70% of the planet is covered by oceans, so I expect a full 70% of you to go out and try Kaijin's ramen to try and even the balance, because this shop comes close to scoring a 100.