Do you remember our ramen days? You know, the exciting times that ran concurrent with the emergence of a chattering of chicken shops, somewhere in the middle of our burger years, just before cronut-geddon, but after the dawn of BBQ?
To be honest, it felt like ramen saturation almost immediately. Which is strange, given that the hype beast was really focused on two, maybe three specialist restaurants, in what is not exactly a small town.
It was all a bit hectic. And that seemed odd. The busyness and fervour seemed totally out of kilter with my memories of the Zen-like, calm, controlled atmosphere in almost all places of eating in Japan, not to mention the properties of the dish itself. This, remember, is a wholesome, unpretentious bowl of steadying, mellowing, fortifying stock, which both hosts and submerges nourishing ramen noodles and comforting, yielding, seasoned eggs and pork belly. Savour, don’t rush.
Why bring this up now?
Well it’s largely due to my stumbling across a fantastic clip from a Japanese film called Tampopo. The longest version I’ve found is just 3 minutes and 34 seconds. I urge, nay, insist, that you watch it through; the only flaw is that it ends too soon. If you’re unable to do so right now, please return and try again. In the meantime, you just need to know that it features an excitable youth being taught how to eat ramen by a wisened man. As I watched, I couldn’t help but see food trend hungry London as the youth.
Should you ever seek to understand mindfulness, this is as good a place as any to start. On a more immediate level, there was, of course, only one thing I could possibly eat for dinner after watching it …which leads to the other reason for writing this post.
Whilst the hype days are (probably) over, I hope that there are many more ramen places to come. There’s certainly room – as far as I can tell, there are precious few decent bowls of noodle soup outside Soho. The newest addition to the scene arrived this week as the Japan Centre opened another Shoryu sites. But it’s in Kingly Court, Soho, so the only place that I know beyond those central streets remains Tonkotsu East in Haggerston.
Housed rather attractively in a railway arch (natch), Tonkotsu East has got a reclaimed London crossed with Muji catalogue thing going on. The kitchen and bar running down one side are all gleaming steel and steam; the rest of the room is Network Rail’s finest brick work. Large spherical fluted paper lanterns hang from the ceiling whilst their in-house noodle machine (a Japanese import) sits in a brightly lit glass case at the end furthest from the door. Trains rumble over every few minutes. Which is apt, as ramen bars in Japan are often close to transport hubs; but also a reminder that the ginger line is a useful one, these days.
To my mind, that ‘thing’ they’ve got is a good one. I prefer the space when it’s quiet on a weekday lunch – for the opportunity to have a mindful eating session. But there’s always a buzz in the evenings, and that’s enjoyable too.
As at the original Soho site, Tonkotsu East’s ramen selection remains resolutely slim – just three options (Soho now has a fourth).
The house dish, ‘Tonkotsu’ ramen, is based around a pork broth. Milky in appearance, the stock soup is rounded and relatively subtle, yet has enough depth to remain interested to the bottom of the bowl. There’s a soft, velvety mouthfeel, which I enjoy. Bean sprouts, bamboo shoots and thin slices of pork belly all do their job – as per the Tampopo clip, remember not to eat these first. Crucially, those in-house made ramen noodles have real integrity: they bounce and have bite.
If there’s constructive criticism to be given, it’s that that there’s only half a (soft and beautifully amber yolked) Burford Brown, and one in five stocks isn’t quite up to the standards set by the other four.
Whilst I almost always go for the ‘Tonkotsu’, my girlfriend tends to take on the ‘Tokyo’. Its soy sauce, chicken and pork based stock is more instantly gratifying, but I find gets a bit too much. Thick but perfectly tender slabs of mirin and soy marinated pork belly are the highlight in this one. Shimeji, Shiitake and Miso Ramen finishes the triumvirate of options. It’s perennially next on my list.
In short, Tonkotsu East provides good ramen in an enjoyable environment and it’s not in Soho. It’ll be a good thing if they grow beyond their current two sites.
Two final things to note: you must always have the salt and sansho pepper squid and / or soy, ginger and garlic marinated chicken karaage to start; and do watch the video clip to see how you should approach your bowl.
Tonkotsu East in 3 words
Ramen. Eat mindfully.
£9-11 for a bowl of ramen. You might want to add an extra half egg. Those fried things will nudge the bill up by another £6. Fairly pricey craft ales lubricate things nicely, but push things higher still.
www.tonkotsu.co.uk – Arch 334, 1a Dunston Street, E8 4EB – 020 7254 2478