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)


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

麺屋武蔵 虎嘯 Menya Musashi Kosho: roppongi road warrior

Weeks and weeks of eating bowl after bowl of tsukemen wasn't exactly painful, but I did begin to seriously fein ramen after such a long abstinence.

Okay, I lied. I actually had a few bowls of ramen in-between the fest. But now it's time to start letting you in on my explorations of noodles with soup once more.

I happen to have a day job in Roppongi for a godless corporation that shall remain nameless. Lunch in Roppongi can be incredibly pricey, and most days I have subsisted on instant ramen from our company vending machines. But when I must have a real bowl, there are only a few options in the area that are worth checking out.

Menya Musashi is worth checking out. A Tokyo chain of sleek ramen shops, they have a lot of soup and noodle varieties, but are all linked through an atmosphere of dark woods and black paneling. This one has an additional tiger theme.

Kosho is the Roppongi representative, and the men of Musashi do a shoyu blend heavy with the dashi of dried ago flying fish and katsuo skipjack tuna.

Ramen (800yen)

It's a good, if unremarkable broth, with a flavor similar to the original shop in Shinjuku. This one is quite a bit richer through its enhanced fish powers, so your preference for this bowl might be higher or lower depending on your tolerance for fishy soups.

The noodles, on the other hand, are significantly more remarkable. Chijire wavy noodles that have great chew and pick up the mild broth perfectly.

Musashi doesn't have anywhere near the rabid following of Jiro, though the original Musashi is inarguably the greatest warrior to have ever lived. Jiro is probably now more famous for sushi than ramen, but that will change one day…

Tokyo, Minato-ku, Roppongi 4-12-6 Uchida Bldg 1F
Closest stn: Roppongi

Open from 11am-11pm


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

大つけ麺博 Grand Tsukemen Fest: 支那そばや Shina Sobaya, 中華蕎麦サンジ Sanji, ラーメン人生JET

This is the final week of the Tsukehaku Grand Tsukemen Fest (if you've been away, catch up on weeks one, two, and three). We went during the three-day holiday weekend, and since the weather was mild, the lines were long.

Our first bowl was Shina Sobaya, run by the famous "Ramen Devil" Sano-san in our next-door neighbor prefecture of Kanagawa.

He's very famous in ramen circles as a strict and stubborn character (though I'm not sure if he's this way in real life). Apparently, he collected highly select ingredients from all over Japan and collaborated with 11 different ramen chefs!

Sano Minoru no gachinko tsukemen (850yen)

The appearance of this bowl is like art. Ikura, or salmon eggs, dot the noodles like a necklace of little orange pearls.

The taste was delicate, much more like Japanese soba than ramen. The flavor of the flour in the noodles is pleasant, but the salmon eggs were just a decoration after all. They slid off the noodles and had to be eaten one by one after the noodles were consumed.

While the taste was a disappointing experience, I'm happy that this bowl was creative and tried something different from all the rich and creamy tsukemen that dominated the festival. This isn't a top bowl, but it's imagination was solid.

Our next bowl was Sanji, a well-regarded shop hailing from Tochigi prefecture.

A dense soup made of fish, pork, chicken, and beef bones, this was a bowl that had it all.

Sanji no tsukemen (850yen)

The ramen came with a side of freshly-made salsa, but the taste of the salsa was completely drowned by the high impact of the meaty broth. I could see this working with a really spicy salsa, but this mild tomato mash just disappeared when it hit the bowl.

Sanji makes a gyokai-tonkotsu tsukemen that is good but typical. I'm not sure I'd wait over an hour to get this when tsukemen like this is everywhere in Tokyo...

Finally, we tried the Osaka-based Ramen Life JET!

Noukou torinikomi tsukemen (850yen)

An all-chicken base ramen that is a lighter version of Inaba, which we tried earlier in the fest. 

It didn't have the shock-factor of Inaba, but it was a pleasing final bowl of the festival.

As the curtains come down on the fest, which shop will come out on top as the Grand Champion of Tsukemen? Check the Festival Page in a few days for the results.

We were sometimes surprised, sometimes overjoyed, and sometimes disappointed at the 2nd Annual Tsukehaku, but one thing is certain: if the creativity of these bowls are any indication, the future of tsukemen will be a lot of fun!