Tuesday, November 30, 2010

めん徳二代目つじ田 味噌の章 (Mentoku Nidaime Tsujita Miso no Shô)

Some bowls you just know are gonna be great. At last winter's Odaiba Ramen Event , Keizo and I tried out bowls from shops near and far, and the hands down winner was Nidaime Tsujita Miso no Shô. This miso ramen nearly knocked our socks off. And that lucky dogg has gone on to meet none other than Mr. Tsujita Takehiro himself, owner and head chef of a couple of shops located in central Tokyo famous for their tsukemen, and now miso.

This time around though, Ramen Adventurer Brian and I headed out to Ogawa-cho on a rainy day to get the real deal out of a non-plastic non-festival bowl. Could Tsujita's miso really be as bomb shliggity as I remembered it?

Answer? Yes. Look at this bowl. This is a thing of beauty. It is so beautiful. It is such a beautiful thing to behold. Let's see it from a different angle.

Break it down - smoothly sliced egg, ever-so-slightly gooey in the middle. Generous chunk of ginger. Dab of minced garlic. Diced pork chunks. A smattering of aonori seaweed. Fresh pickled bamboo the size of small timbers. A dusting of red pepper flakes. And of course, key to any true bowl of miso ramen - a hefty helping of bean sprouts wokked togeter with the soup and the miso paste.

I could go on and on about what different kinds of miso go into this complex blend. I could wax poetic about the thick and chewy noodles. I could tell you how the blend of sweet, salty, oil, and ginger makes you want to lick the bowl.

But I'm just gonna leave it at this is a damn delicious bowl of ramen. Along with Sapporo Junren and Kururi, perhaps the best (or at least my fave) bowl of miso anywhere in town.

Oh yeah, I got the "special rice" too. It had a sudachi citrus on it. It was OK. BUT MY GOD THE RAMEN! (I know this post may not be up to the dense prose that you're used to at Ramenate, but what can I say, this one struck me speechless).

Saturday, November 27, 2010

信濃神麺烈士殉名 (Shinano Shinmen Resshi Junmei)

You know this post is already a few months old because it begins with "one sunny Sunday", and it's been too damn long since we've had one of those. Anyhoo, one sunny Sunday, my buddy S and I set out with no greater purpose than to eat noodles and stroll around northeastern Tokyo with canned beers in hand. I'm happy to report that despite our lofty goals, we can report mission accomplished.

We started out at Shinano Shinmen Resshi Junmei, which is even more of a mouthful than the noodles in question, so let's just go with Resshi for short. With a name like "Righteous and Chivalrous Warrior - Noodles of God from the Land of Shinano", are they running a ramen shop or a poorly subtitled Kung Fu movie?

Of course, what holds up the upstanding warrior is nothing other than a "Bond of Hearts." As to the way that bond gets created, you'd have to ask an Edo period historian...but that's another story. In this case, Bond of Hearts is the name of one of a mover and shaker ramen group based in Tokyo and Nagano. King of Hearts Tsukada Kenji himself hails from mountainous central Nagano Prefecture, known prior to the Meiji Restoration as the domain of Shinano. Of the Heart's groups many shops, what makes Resshi stand out is its focus on ingredients from that very same land.

Inside, the shop is dark wood, with several local sake varieties on offer. I'm more of the type to take a beer with my ramen, but when you're serving a bowl as refined as Resshi's...

I couldn't tell you if the provenance of these komatsuna greens can be traced to Nagano Prefecture, but it was nice to have a healthy little free snack to start the meal off. Y'know, before sucking down the melted down fruits of the farm.

I think there may be a domestic Nagano ramen tradition, but it's not strong, and I couldn't tell you exactly what "Nagano Ramen" contains, though I think it involves a pretty standard mix of chicken, pork, seafood, and konbu seaweed. And of course your choice of Nagano's own home grown shôyu (soy sauce) or miso. S and I both went with the miso, which is a totally different beast from the better known Sapporo-style. Shinano miso is blonde, almost white in color, and very sweet without getting too pungent.

Well, readers, let me tell you. It works. I would trek over the mountains of Shinano, and maybe even break my own bond of hearts to eat this ramen. The noodles are thick, chewy, and a bit flat, and they work perfectly in the extra creamy soup, rich and complex. Great care went into the blending of this miso. The shôyu is actually the main menu item, and also gets high regards, but I can't but recommend the miso.

S seemed to like it as well. Unfortunately, we didn't have room for the house-made creme brulee dessert.

And just in case all that isn't enough to convince you, Resshi is part of the Nippon Ramen Association, an organization I have never heard of elsewhere, but is no doubt a group to be respected. After all, "they're cheering for you...with a bowl full of love," as the sticker says. Located right near the Kasuga subway station, you want to rush to Resshi!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

がんこ一徹 (Ganko Ittetsu)

Out with my fellow ramen rovers Keizo and Brian, we decide to stick close to home on one of our semi-regular ramen outings. The guys schlepped out to my (now sadly former) home in the semi-obscure northwestern Tokyo neighborhood of Araiyakushi. Right in front of my dearly missed local train station on the slowly moving Seibu line is a decent little ramen zone. There's a branch of the eminent (and soon to be written up) Ogikubo-style Maruchô, local stalwart Yakushi Ôban (deliciously slurped yet sadly unphotographed last year), the original locale of tomato ramen innovator RYOMA, and Ganko Ittetsu.

Wanting to try something new, we decided to go with Ganko, figuring it to be a branch of the publicity-shy franchise based in northwest Tokyo. The Ganko shops are quite legendary - check my old posts or the New York Times article for more info.

Ganko rarely (OK, never) does a ramen eater wrong, and this place had the telltale magazine recommendations, but...is it really a Ganko? There was no black sign, no signature bone, no grumpy old man behind the counter. Publicity seemed to indicate that the master had trained at the Eifukuchô Taishôken, so I'm not really sure how the Ganko got in there, save for some obscure lineage, a distant third cousin at best. Which is perhaps why the felt the need to add on the "Ittetsu", meaning "stubborn or hardheaded" to Ganko, which already means..."stubborn or hardheaded."

Sadly, the soup wasn't up to true Ganko standards. Keizo and Brian got what I think was the standard miso (sorry, this is where the blogging six months late bites you in the ass), which was, while not bad, a bit bland and nothing special. If you've got some bowls under your belt you should be able to tell at a glance that a bowl that looks like this is not destined for greatness.

My own bowl had a bit more punch since I maxed out the spice level. It made for a tasty bowl, but it really felt like eating Korean food rather than ramen, with spicy miso and sesame seeds. Check out that monster-sized bowl though! I guess that's where the Taishôken connection comes in - tub-sized portions.

The other factor that gave it that Korean flair were the noodles...which isn't a good thing, since in Korea "ramyun" means instant noodles, which this kinda resembled.

So, sorry Ittetsu, you may have filled our bellies, but you won't go down in the ramen annals. You may have tasted pretty OK, but with three better shops within a hundred meters, I can't even recommend you in good faith. Get grumpier with those noodles!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

皇家龍鳳 (Kôka Ryûhô)

Now, here's some ramen you don't get every day. You may remember my adviser, Professor T, he who dares to slurp tsukemen without so much as tucking in his Hermes tie, downing bowls without spilling a single drop. Professor T is well aware of my love for ramen (and this blog!), and we had long discussed getting another bowl together.

Well, Professor T, in his extreme generosity made one poor graduate student's day. After a brief discussion of 1920s language reform - an appetite stimulant, natch - he took me out to grab a bowl...at the Kôka Ryûhô (Imperial House of the Dragon and Phoenix) restaurant inside the extremely proper Rihga Royal Hotel.

Professor T had rightly pointed out (he never points things out wrongly, trust me) that despite all my ramenating and ramen eating, I was overlooking a very significant category of ramen, namely hotel Chinese food ramen. Every nice hotel in Tokyo worth its both proverbial and literal salt has a Chinese restaurant inside. Love for ramen just might transcend class. In any case, well-heeled wheeler-dealers need space to slurp away from the public eye.

And while those restaurants may specialize in banquet food and fine preparations (like this sea urchin gelee served with sashimi)...they always offer Japanese-Chinese staples too. This of course includes ramen, which was, you recall, called "Chûka Soba" (Chinese noodles) and imported as "Chinese" food around the turn of the last century.

So, after dusting off the above appetizers, a bit of light tempura vegetable fritters served orchid-side...

It was noodle time! We decided to do a taste test, starting with the Gomoku Yasai Soba (mixed vegetable noodles), featuring a veritable wok-full of fresh veggies atop a light yet flavorful shôyu (soy sauce) broth. Basically, this is your average street-cart style old school Tokyo ramen done up proper, rather than cooked in a vat in a parking lot, and the nuanced flavors and lack of oil made the difference.

But the star of the meal was no doubt the Fukahire Ramen - thin noodles in a rich creamy pork bone broth topped with a generous slice of tender shark fin. Mein gottes in himmel, this was a luscious delicacy. Imagine a tonkotsu broth made just a bit sweeter, but instead of roast pork, you get melt-in-your mouth ineffably soft whatever it is that shark fin is made of. It's a delicate taste hard to describe if you've never tried it.

Sorry Mom, sorry Jewish upbringing, sorry Nature.

And if that wasn't decadent enough, note the bright orange chunks of crab roe. This was truly a treat. Professor T and I savored every bite. Plus, when's the last time you had a tuxedoed waiter refill your cup of tea every time you took a sip while you slurped?

As much as I wanted to let that taste linger in my mouth for hours, I couldn't resist a bit of almond pudding to finish off the meal.

It's been months, but Professor T, if you're reading this, thanks again for a great lunch and for introducing me to a whole new side, nay genre, of ramen I'd never have discovered otherwise.

Monday, November 15, 2010

ラーメン二郎歌舞伎町店 (Ramen Jirô Kabukichô)

With a backlog so big, what shops go up when is going to be a bit scattershot, and for some of these it's been the better part of a year since I ate them, so I'll do my best to keep my tasticular memories straight. So expect a lot of jumps in time and space from Ramenate from here on out. A good bowl should take you to another place, right? In any case, for my first bowl back in the blogging fold, I had better pick a good one, no?

It was the first days of summer, so what better way to enjoy the newly sweaty weather than a free outdoor concert? Performing for the people in the bike parking lot of Nakano station were Tokyo's favorite 60s freakout revivalists, Delicious Sweets.

Every town has their rotating group of nubile girls that wear day-glo miniskirt kimonos while dancing and performing skits to the tune of psych rock shakedowns. Oh, wait that's just Tokyo. Delicious Sweets are pretty ubiquitous, and if you hang out in western Tokyo chances are you'll accidentally catch them confusing passerby sooner or later.

In attendance at this particular gig were none other than international photographer superstar Moriyama Daido, discreetly snapping away...

...and a man with a pet parakeet.

But, not content to fill my Sunday evening with just one sixties-era throwback performance, I skedaddled a few stops down the line to Shinjuku to meet some pals to see the new play by radical underground theater guru Kara Jûrô. This year's play was entitled "Hyakuninchô", and told the story of - serendipity baby! - a ramen shop with a hidden secret that serves as the portal to a wild and nonsensical anti-gentrification adventure. After a couple of hours sitting cross-legged on straw mats inside Kara's iconic red tent and snacking on sake and dried squid, the crew was ready for some real ramen.

Fortunately for us, but unfortunately for our pants, the Kabukichô branch of the one, the only, the infamous Ramen Jirô was just around the block.

Despite the seemingly intense location of this Jirô amidst the host and hostess clubs of Japan's biggest nightlife district, this is actually one of the more user-friendly Jirô shops around. Water is provided, as is a list of toppings that true Jirô devotees should know by heart (extra veggies, garlic, lard, and "karame" soy essence, just for the record), and even...

Free tissues! The scandal. Does this even count as a true Jirô experience? For those of you unfamiliar with the girth of this unique shop, check out some of my previous Jirô visits.

The bowl too is relatively reasonable, lacking the sheer volume and height of noodles and veggies of some other shops.

That said, I ain't hating. This Jirô may be a bit more refined than some of its sister stores, but the balance is right on, the noodles are just as thick and chewy as they should be, and the garlic just sinks right into the strangely sweet yet oh so salty tonkotsu shôyu (soy sauce and pork bone) broth.

And I've never been known to complain about a kimchi option!

So when you're in Shinjuku and can't find a hunka hunka burnin' love so decide to settle for a hunka burnin' lard...

...or just are in the mood for food cooked with a two-by-four, Jirô Kabukichô will do you know wrong, though your gut might blame you later. Treat yourself to some ice cream and people watching for dessert!

Monday, November 8, 2010

死ぬまで麺を食うぞ (I'm Gonna Eat Noodles 'Til I Die)

Muchachos y Muchachas,

You may have thought Ramenate was dead. You may have bemoaned it's passing. You may have forgotten about it completely. Alternately, you may not have even noticed that I haven't posted in about four months. There's been a good reason for my absence - I have taken my leave of Tokyo (for now), and have moved back to New York, where my time has been spent on academic endeavors, which hasn't left so much blog time. Then there's that thing about not having a regular internet connection.

But! This does not mean the end of Ramenate. As I mentioned a few months back, there are still literally dozens of bowls I downed and still intend to post, shops to be shared with the world.

But! The siren call of 1920s avant-garde Japanese periodicals (and the footnoting thereof) grows ever louder.

And Thus! You can expect a (perhaps somewhat sporadic) return of Ramenate, albeit following a new format.

Specifically! Rather than extended "dissertations" about the material circumstances surrounding each bowl, I'll be posting just a few pics with a brief description and assessment of the shop.

And so! There will still be the historical details, ridiculous digressions, moribund pop cultural references, and snarky graduate student prose you have come to expect from this blog - just in far more compact capsules.

Because! Shorter posts are better than no posts at all, no?

In addition! Posts will now include the address of the shop, and if I can figure out the relevant technology, a google map (and if I can't, a link to the Supleks Ramen Database that includes a google map).

And! For those of you who have written with questions, comments, asking to meet, asking for recommendations, or whatever else over the past few months and not received a reply, I truly extend sincere apologies. You probably think "i wrote that ramenate and he never wrote back - he is probably a dick who thinks he is too good to write back to noodle amateurs / friendly travelers such as myself." My life has been in Transpacific transition since approximately late July, and is just now settling into normalcy (read: I have a chair in my apartment), and all ramen related matters fell by the wayside. Again - my apologies, and if there's something you'd like to ask, please try writing again, or leaving a comment, and I'll do my best to get back to you.

Finally! I have resettled in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York City - one of the city's numerous Chinatowns. So, for those of you wondering if I'm going through noodle withdrawal, don't worry. It may be tough to get a good bowl of "ramen" in the states, but I'm just a couple blocks walk from plenty of freshly made "lamian!"