Wednesday, December 25, 2013

麺屋 宗 Menya Sou: salt of the earth

The end of the year is approaching quickly. At this time of year, a lot of shops produce a gentei (limited-time) bowl full of seasonal ingredients. Above all, I was interested in Menya Sou's gentei bowl. They're located in Takadanobaba, which is one of the biggest ramen battlegrounds in Tokyo.

Sou was pushing out a salt and butter ramen. Sounds rich! I thought to myself while licking my lips. Sou uses Beurre d'Echire butter, which is a gourmet French butter often used for high-priced sweets.

The bowl is beautiful. A slice of lemon and several more slices of prosciutto make this bowl look like an Italian pasta dish.

One sip, and I let out a moan like an porn star. The butter and mushrooms combine for an amazing flavor profile.

The Echire butter adds a creamy accent that dribbled from my mouth. I was sad to see it dissolve into the soup. The noodles were chewy, going well with such rich soup.

As an added bonus, Sou provides some rice and cheese in which to use the leftover soup for a sort of ramen butter risotto.

Pouring the rest of the soup on the rice and shredded cheese was very yummy.

We enjoyed this gentei til the very last drop. A wonderful Christmas present for my belly. Unfortunately, this bowl is no longer available at Sou, but I'm sure they'll have more, so visit them and let us know!

Tokyo, Shinjuku-ku, Takadanobaba 1-4-21
Closest stn: Takadanobaba

Open from 1130am-4pm and 6-10pm


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

日清亭 Nisshin-tei: hot springs, hot noodles

We took a short trip last weekend to Hakone, a resort area of Japan south of Tokyo full of hot springs and historical culture.

The last of the beautiful autumn foliage was visible despite the windy temperatures.

Weekend excursions to beautiful resort towns do not preclude us from building appetites for bowls of ramen. Hakone's local favorite is a diner-like shop called Nisshin-tei.

There aren't a lot of ramen shops in this part of Japan (I imagine most tourists would rather eat luxurious kaiseki courses than slurp bowls), but Nisshintei is noteworthy regardless for making their own noodles, in full view of passersby and hungry tourists waiting in line.

First trips to strange locations call for the house special.

Ramen (600yen)

The shoyu had a basic broth with accents of chicken and vegetables, chashu, menma, and a slice of naruto. Your typical, no-frills diner ramen from the Showa era.

The standout is definitely the noodles, which are hand cut and vary in length and texture for unpredictable mouthfuls.

Lum went crazy and got the sanratanmen, which is a sweet and sour ramen that's also pretty spicy. I only had a bite of this, but it was much more of a solid punch in the face.

Sanratamen (850yen)
By the time we got outside, a massive line had formed with many groups and families. Word has definitely gotten out about this friendly, solid joint. It's worthy of a side trip if you're already dipping your cold skin into hot onsen.

Kanagawa, Ashigarashimogun, Hakonemachi-Yumoto 703
Closest stn: Hakone-Yumoto 

Open from 11am-9pm (closed Tuesdays)


Friday, December 6, 2013

凪煮干し王 Nagi Niboshi-ou: the fisher king

It's getting to be the best season for ramen. Hearts and I were roaming around Shibuya and decided to go to Nagi.

Our last experience at Nagi's tonkotsu shop was disappointing, but this time, we went for Nagi's claim to fame, a soup made up of tons of dried sardines.

If the shop is busy, you wait outside while they call you using this classic tube device.

They have a certain quirky style. The sign in front of the shop says:

Dear customer,
To be honest, if you don't like dried sardines, you will not be satisfied

Hearts got the shop's signature bowl...

Niboshi shoyu ramen (700yen)

...while I tried their spicy ramen. Both had soy-sauce bases.

Karami niboshi shoyu (750yen)

I'm not always satisfied with spicy bowls when I order them, so this time, I ordered the spiciest level (5).

But the strong flavor of the soup and the extreme spice levels knocked me out. Or rather, the spiciness overwhelmed even the strong sardine flavor of the soup. I should have ordered a less spicy level (Hearts pressured me!).

Their staple is solid, with a heavy fish flavor as expected. Nagi uses two types of noodles - a thick and curly noodle...

and a flat, softer noodle that is similar in texture to a wonton soup shell and is excellent.

Their ramen is good, though Hearts claims the Golden Gai shop is much better. I couldn't tell, because my tongue was numbed from the spicy bowl.

Nagi started in 2004 in Shinjuku as a small shop, but they are now a great small chain. They are only getting bigger and more famous, but thankfully their quality is still high overall. I expect the Nagi revolution in the coming years.

Tokyo, Shibuya-ku, Shibuya 3-7-2
Closest stn: Shibuya

Open from 11am-1am (closes from 330-5pm and at 9pm on Sundays)


Friday, November 29, 2013

銀座 篝 Kagari: wandering ginza butterfly

Ginza, ostensibly Tokyo's most expensive real estate, has been creeping up the ramen rankings. This is where you might find exquisite ramen alongside Michelin-starred French and decades-old kaiseki restaurants.

I was here for Tokyo Filmex, which was screening Noboru Nakamura's "The Shape of Night," a brilliant film about a young factory worker-turned-prostitute named Yoshie and the sad-sack men she serves. It's a film whose rich color palette and sensual imagery constantly reflects the passionate and progressively exhausted life of its protagonist. It also made me crave ramen.

Enter Kagari, a very tiny shop located in the sort of back alley that Yoshie might have once practiced her trade, sandwiched humbly between boutique designer vendors and luxury restaurants. It's an elegant shop that seats no more than eight at a time, a place where you might accidentally overlook the "SOBA" sign and stumble in looking for high-end sushi, only to become confused at the vats piping hot steam in the back. Seeing a long line of salarymen for a place like this, in an area like this, is a unique experience.

The chefs of Kagari serve two types of ramen - a shoyu heavy with niboshi dried sardines...

Niboshi shoyu SOBA with bamboo shoots (900yen)

...and a refined tori-paitan. Seeing as this is Thanksgiving where I come from, I opted for the chicken ramen in lieu of turkey.

Tori paitan SOBA with egg (950yen)

Both these bowls are fantastic. In fact, these are perfect examples of bowls that combine mastery of traditional techniques and experimental ingredients without going overboard. The tori-paitan comes with some fresh veggies, chicken chashu, and a dollop of ikura salmon roe.

The shoyu is heavy with fish flavor, and is topped by both pork chashu and roast beef, along with several different tones of green condiments.

Furthermore, each bowl comes with a side condiment - for the paitan, some fried garlic and grated ginger, and for the shoyu, some homemade oil made of fried onions. Both are delicious, giving their respective bowls an extra kick.

In place of a Thanksgiving bowl, this will do. At least until someone comes up with a turkey ramen with gravy broth and extra turkey chashu...

Tokyo, Chuo-ku, Ginza 4-4-1 Ginza A Bldg 1F
Closest stn: Ginza

Open from 11am-330pm and 530-1030pm (closed Sundays)


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

中華そば みたか Mitaka: say that you love me

Killing time at Mitaka, I found a good and cheap ramen shop.

Located in the basement of a very old building, it's a bit of a hidden gem. The small counter means you can enjoy every bit of the master's movement. And this is a master. I was excited for this bowl.

This is what I was craving. Old-school ramen.

Ramen (450yen)

More like Japanese soba than ramen, which means that it's not as salty as typical ramen, and the color of the broth is very mild.

Interestingly, not everyone immediately leaves here as soon as they finish their bowls. Some people linger, ordering extra dishes or beer, as if they were relaxing at somebody's house.

The staff is so friendly it's hard not to see why. I'm sure there are lots of local fans.

I'm definitely coming back. This is a shop that has captured my heart.

Tokyo, Mitaka City, Kamirenjaku 3-27-9 New Eminence Bldg B1F
Closest stn: Mitaka

Open from 11am-2pm and 5-830pm (closed Mondays and every first/third Sunday)


Friday, November 22, 2013

蓮嘉 Renge: lonely island [CLOSED]

I usually only come to Umegaoka for one reason and one reason only, and that is for my favorite value sushi spot. I'm loathe to name it because it's already crowded enough, but their all-you-can-eat special always has me returning and braving the hour-long lines.

But I've been wanting to check out more of Setagaya's shops. This is my stomping ground, after all.

Renge was close and I wasn't in the mood to take multiple trains for lunch.

The outside is quaint, but the inside was deathly quiet. A little too quiet...

Renge specializes in a stock blend of chicken and seafood -what's called a "double soup" (FYI, "triple soups" with pork are pretty normal, and now there are shops that have begun churning out four-stock blends with beef bones).

Ramen (700yen)

My good friend joined me on this day off to try their all-chicken tori paitan.

Tori-paitan with flavored egg (850yen)

These bowls were solid contributors to their field, but are probably not worthy of any special trips. They lacked any elements that would have made them more memorable. Possibly the taste was soured by the fact that we ate our bowls in total silence, like an extreme version of the silent-booth Ichiran. Not one person entered the shop while we were there, and the master came in and out of the shop while we were eating. A sad sign.

Renge is literally right next door to competitor Busho, and I was tempted to go in to their more lively and seemingly more appetizing shop instead. Another trip to Umegaoka for something other than sushi might be in order.

Tokyo, Setagaya-ku, Umegaoka 1-9-11, Umegaoka Copo 1F
Closest Stn: Umegaoka

Open from 1130am-9pm (closed 3-5pm and on Tuesdays)


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

ばふ Buff: commando

You might have noticed that lots of shops are using chicken for their soup. Bafu, or "Buff," is no stranger to these trends, but their shop is special.

Bafu creates a bowl that uses all natural ingredients, even down to the water!

Jukusei awarei-men with egg (800yen)

What a beautiful bowl. The soup is light and clear, but incredibly deep, with accents of yuzu pepper. For relaxing times, this is definitely the bowl to do the job.

Thin noodles with light soup are getting more popular, and Bafu's noodles really match their broth. The noodles felt smooth gliding down my throat.

And the toppings were delicious. Look at this seasoned egg!

Ramen is known for being greasy junk food for overweight salarymen or otaku, but there are so many great ramen shops like Bafu where the ramen isn't unhealthy at all. This bowl is, in fact, a very balanced meal. Ramen is constantly rewriting its own public image, becoming healthier and more refined in the process. I like where this is going.

Tokyo, Koganei City, Honcho 2-6-10
Closest stn: Musashi Koganei

Open from 11am-11pm (closed 3-5pm)