Wednesday, July 31, 2013

ソラノイロ Sora no iro: noodle freestyle

Hiroshi of No Reason!! took us to one of his favorite shops, located in a business district that turns into a ghost town on the weekends. But Sora no Iro still packs a crowd inside its sleek interior.

Hiroshi knows the owner, which means we would get the special treatment...

...umibudo, or sea grapes, marinated in ponzu sauce. Sora no Iro is a ramen shop, but transforms itself into a sort of ramen izakaya at night, with seasonally prepared snacks and copious amounts of alcohol (available all year round).

There was also an umibudo ramen bowl, available only for the unbearable month of July. Tempted though I was by its green color and apparent coolness, I went with the chuka soba, which is always undergoing constant tweaks and adjustments since the chef is a homicidal perfectionist (and overall nice guy).

Chuka soba (700yen)

Shoyu always looks the best in photographs. That deep brown color, translucent enough to see the ingredients therein. This bowl had new and improved noodles from Watanabe Seimen, supplier of Ippudo bowls around the world.

These noodles, and this entire bowl, is a big winner. One of the best chuka soba around.
Veggie soba zembu nose/everything (1000yen)

Sora no Iro is also known for its veggie soba (don't worry, it's still ramen). The broth is made entirely of vegetab - just kidding! It's made mostly from meat juice, though lots of green and orange plants do make their way into bowl, and paprika makes its way into the flat noodles.

Topped with even more fresh veggies, it's a solid alternative and fresh concept, though the broth was a bit more watery than I would have liked.

This kind of experimentation is what Sora no Iro is known for (the name translates to "colors of the sky"). They have a limited-edition ramen every month, but their chuka soba is better than 99% of shoyu ramen shops out there. A great shop, capable of honoring tradition and innovation.

Tokyo, Chiyoda-ku, Hirakawacho 1-3-10, Blue Bldg Honkan 1B
Closest stn: Kojimachi

Open from 11am-4pm and 6pm-1015pm (dinner closed on weekends)


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

一龍 Ichiryu: the golden bowl

I've grown up with this nostalgic flavor, in this nostalgic town, since I was a little girl. Shimokitazawa, where both the new and the old coexist.

Ichiryu's bright red interior

This an old-school bowl. I always order the chuka-soba, which is very cheap!

Chuka soba (600yen)

The color of the soup is golden. Made only from chicken and pork bones (and probably a few secret ingredients), its color shows how beauty can come from perfecting the simple things.

One sip and it tastes like home. I don't know why this flavor makes me feel so relaxed.

The broth clings to the curly noodles really well. And the red ginger topping gives a nice, refreshing taste if the bowl gets too oily, making you want to eat more and more.

I don't know how to classify this bowl (tonkotsu? shoyu?), as it's creamy and deep, but not too rich or fatty. I'm so small that I can't normally finish the soup, but I never have a problem here.

EVERYTHING in Ichiryu's bowl is a pleasure to eat. I think its simplicity is the reason why so many people have been attracted to it over the years.

I love this bowl and I love this town!

Tokyo, Setagaya-ku, Kitazawa 2-30-11 Kitazawa Bldg. 1F
Closest stn: Shimokitazawa

Open from 1130am-10pm


Friday, July 26, 2013

HAJIME: beat the meat [CLOSED]

Ahh, summertime. No better time to board multiple trains for this year's top-ranked bowls of ramen.

Wait, I forgot my scare-quotes. "Top-ranked" ramen (much better) should always be taken with several grains of salt (preferably delicious sea salt from Masu). With so many ramen magazines, websites, critics, and even pathetic variety TV shows giving out yearly ramen awards, "#1" bowls tend to lose significance.

But the best shops still end up somewhere in the rankings of every list. HAJIME, debuting last year as the second branch of Hasune's Hajime Ramen and winner of "Best New Bowl" in Ramen Taisho is one of those shops. The all-upper case lettering means that the new shop is powered up and ready to punch you in the face with flavor.

We had to strap on our jetpacks to head out to Jujo. Expecting a long line of fellow ramen lovers, we arrived shortly after they opened and were startled to find that there was nary a soul in the place. With a big counter and tables, they can fit in a sizable crowd.

HAJIME won awards for both its shio and its creamy tori-paitan, an all-chicken broth concoction. Lots of stuff going on in this shop. We ordered both.

Gyu-shio ramen with steak (1000yen)

Zembu-nose (everything) tori-paitain ramen (900yen)

A lot of shops this year have debuted gyukotsu, or "beef bone" soup, but HAJIME takes it a step further by using quality beef meat to make the soup richer. Unlike a soup like Nakiryu, which prides itself on its clarity, this broth looked muddy. With rice noodles, the result is like a ramen pho.

Possibly the bigger draw is the the luxurious option of topping your shio with even more beef - an entire sliced skirt steak...

...which was overcooked, but you can dip the meat in a special shoyu sauce.

With fried chunks of onions, it was almost like an Outback Steakhouse meal on top of a bowl of ramen pho. Again, lot of stuff going on in this bowl, but maybe too much?

The tori-paitan, on the other hand, was pretty soaked with chicken flavor. I only had a few bites, but the rich flavor was like an excellent dashi that you would drink in a fancy (and much more expensive) restaurant.

The flavored egg was also especially gooey.

Number one new shop? You can be the judge of that. Upon leaving, we stopped by a trinket shop that was selling a giant second-hand plasma TV for only 26,000 yen. I was tempted to buy it before realizing that is at least 30 bowls of ramen (with deluxe toppings) and slapped myself. Everything must be measured in ramen.

HAJIME likes its meat

Tokyo, Kita-ku, Kamijujo 2-30-9
Closest stn: Jujo

Open from 1130am-3pm and 6-1030pm Monday-Friday (closes at 8pm on weekends)


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

パパパパパイン Pa-pa-pa-pa-pine: tropic thunder

Ramen and pineapples? It sounds like an awkward combination, but it's our mission to explore anything as long as there is ramen in it, right?

A pineapple lantern marks the entrance...

...and there are many pineapple-shaped figurines decorating the inside of the shop.

Two kinds of pineapple ramen are available - shio (salt) and shoyu (soy sauce) - so we had one of each.

Shio ramen ippa-in/everything (900yen)

Shoyu ramen ippa-in/everything (900yen)

From the first sip of the soup, you can really taste the flavor of pineapples! Very fruity, with lots of chunks of pineapple as topping.

Even the chashu and flavored egg had good pineapple flavor.

After a few bites, Hearts and I looked at each other and nodded. It's...pineapple-flavored ramen, with a flavor you would expect, but working as a much better combo than I expected.

Personally, I think pineapple flavor goes better with shio. You can taste the flour of the noodles much better in the lighter broth. Shoyu really tastes like shoyu first, and everything else including pineapple second.

Not super delicious, but really interesting and another unique concept. Ramen chefs have the best hooks to get us into their shops.

Now off to the to-to-to-to-toilet!

Tokyo-to, Suginami-ku, Nishi-ogi-minami 3-12-1, Nissin Nishi-ogi Plaza 1F
Closest stn: Nishi-Ogikubo

Open from 11am-9pm


Monday, July 22, 2013

鳴龍 Nakiryu: beauty and the bowl

Nakiryu was given a sterling write-up by none other than Ramen Adventures, the intrepid biker and explorer of ramen destinations across Japan and beyond.

It's out there in Otsuka, which is known for its old-school trolley and...uh...yeah. We didn't stick around for too long after eating.

Nakiryu has three choice bowls: shoyu, shio, and a spicy tantanmen. Lunch options are limited, but the night menu brings fancy stuff like wontons, or bowls of rice topped with steamed clams or shirasu, also known as dried baby anchovies.

The shop is sleek, the owner, slick.  He used to run Omotesando Hills now-defunct ramen joint MIST. Ramen for the bourgeoisie, you might think, but it was actually a surprisingly well-balanced shio, if a little lacking in oomph.

Shio ramen with ajitama (800yen)

Nakiryu's shio is much more flavorful. It's also a work of beauty. Pinks, greens, browns, reds bob in the bowl like still art. It's almost too lovely to eat.

I believe Ramen Adventures called it "refined." Lots of dried scallops, high quality vegetables, and imported Mongolian salt have been used to make the dashi. It starts out mild but becomes denser and more complex as you get to the bottom of the bowl. By the end, it was almost saucy in its depth.

Tantanmen, or dan dan mien, is always a tricky beast. Japanese spicy-sweet noodles with heavy amounts of ground pork, peanuts, chili oil, Sichuan peppers, and scallions. Too sweet and the spice is rendered mute. Too spicy and the bowl becomes almost bitter.

Tantanmen with ajitama (850yen)

Nakiryu's tantanmen is their signature bowl. It's more difficult to make the peanut and pork broth attractive, but Nakiryu's tantanmen comes surprisingly close in its balance and simplicity.

This one is very good. Great color and presentation to start, with a thinner noodle usually at home in a bowl of Hakata tonkotsu pork broth. The bits of meat cling to the noodles well.

This one is less on the sweet side, but this works in the bowl's favor. The pork flavors the soup, so the broth becomes richer and meatier as you work your way through it. By the end, its practically a pork and peanut porridge.

As is typical with Japanese editions of spicy food, it could've used a bit more punch, but there was enough tang (and optional DYI numbing pepper) for a mild sear through the entire bowl.

There is also a shoyu, but these are the two bowls you must order on a first or second visit. The quality and attention to detail in Nakiryu's savory bowls are impressive. A professional operation, and one worth a mild trek.

Tokyo-to, Toshima-ku, Minami Otsuka 2-34-4 Sky Minami Otsuka Bldg. 1F
Closest stn: Otsuka

Open from 1130am-3pm and 6pm-9pm (closed Mondays and Tuesday lunch)


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

九月堂 Kugatsudo: sweet and lowdown

I'm glad to find such a good place for chilling out and enjoying ramen, especially with female friends. This Shibuya place is a cafe-style ramen shop. There's a couch, nice lights, and comfortable chairs with blankets. Ramen truly for a woman's perspective.

I went here with a female friend and we ordered the dinner set: ramen with your choice of sweets. There are two types of broth to choose from: I ordered the assari (light), while my friend ordered the kotteri (heavy).

The appearance of the bowl is kind of cute. It's topped with a piece of wheat gluten molded into the form of a flower. The noodles and soup were okay, but the yuzu citrus and shredded negi onions made for a good flavor combination to stimulate the appetite. Personally, I preferred the light bowl to my friend's heavy one (yes, I tried hers; we're good friends).

However, the chashu, flavored egg, and menma bamboo shoots were all too sweet for me. Maybe most girls like this sweeter ramen, but I got bored midway through eating the whole bowl. So many sweet toppings actually made the bowl feel salty.

Dinner Set A -
Assari ramen with dessert (1000yen)
Speaking of sweets, I got the green tea pudding with sakura (cherry blossom) flavored ice cream. My friend got yuzu jelly with sherbet. Both were good, but the yuzu jelly was especially tasty - smooth and refreshing, especially after eating ramen, and the size is appropriate for a woman's stomach as well.

I always crave something sweet after eating ramen, so it's really good news for women to be able to have some sweets right here in the same shop.

Overall, Kugatsudo has a nice concept. Too bad the incompletely-realized ramen is a little disappointing.

Tokyo, Shibuya-ku, Jinnan 1-15-12 Sato Bldg. 2F
Closest stn: Shibuya (7 min walk)
Open from 1130am-10pm Tuesday-Friday and Noon-9pm on weekends.