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Review: my first time with ramen @ Tonkotsu London

Tonkotsu ramen is a version of the popular Japanese dish made with alkaline noodles in pork broth – that’s what Wikipedia says, at least. I won’t pretend I had ever heard of it – as you will know by now, my relationship with Japanese food is at its at its “knowing each other” stage-  before bumping into Tonkotsu, a new restaurant which is still in its “soft opening” phase in Soho (63 Dean Street).

tonkotsu ramen london
I heard about it on Twitter and I was intrigued by the idea of the and by the prospect of 50% off the bill, which starts to have an appeal after the first half of the month. I wanted to go before hordes of Twitterati started to descend on the hot new place – the horrendous buzzword “Twitterati” being a suitable punishment for their greed, though.

I am a virgin to the “soft opening” concept, as to me a restaurant is either open or it isn’t (not very refined I know, I just killed my chances of appearing as a knowledgeable serious food blogger). I come from a small seaside town in central Italy. Most restaurants there open early May, when the beach season starts, and close end September; every two or three (or ten) years they change tablecloths or chairs, and occasionally one of them shuts down for good to be replaced by a Chinese clothing shop. And that’s pretty much what the “food scene” looks like.  Thus, the concept of a “new opening”, soft, hard or otherwise, sounds almost exotic to me- pity my naivety. I imagined it to be a bit like one of your first experiments in the erotic department:

  • overall pleasant (otherwise you wouldn’t do it) but with lots of room for improvement
  • logistically complicated and slightly clumsy, but fun

I can say the experience at Tonkotsu was exactly like this.

tonkotsu ramen london review 2

So here we are, on a Wednesday night, sizing up the queue in front of the small window shop of yet another Asian food joint, amongst the always lively drinking crowds of Soho. There are about 6 people in front of us and things are moving reasonably fast, so we decide to wait and entertain ourselves by watching the chef- bearing an uncanny resemblance to some characters from japanese cartoons I watched as a kid – juggling between huge pots of broth, colanders full of thin ramen and several plastic white boxes full of…hard to tell as the window reflection and the steam coming from the pots. Same reason why my pictures are really bad, as you can see (add that a mounting hunger, as the queue moves slowly, a few people seem to have booked, and others seem to just jump it. The owner approaches the queue just 2 seconds before we start to get upset and explains that they’re slightly overwhelmed, but that in 10 minutes they should be able to seat us. Nice save.

In 10 minutes indeed, we’re seated at one end of a long salvaged wood table at one corner of the room- a good place to take in the mix of vaguely industrial decor (rusty iron grids on the ceiling, bare concrete) and warm colours from the wood and the textile banners hanging from the walls- I like.

The menu is pretty basic- 2 types of ramen, Tokyo Spicy (I was sold at the word “Spicy”) and Vegetarian; three or four starters (seriously, edamame beans? who goes to a restaurant for edamame? well not me); and a short but well selected list of drinks amongst which whiskeys and some interesting wines. I wonder if the meu will stay the same once the opening is official, as it’s really limited – or maybe they will rotate seasonal specials.

I choose a glass of Picolit; pork and prawn gyoza are sold out, so it had to be pork gyoza and fried chicken as we’re famished at this point; and two bowls of Tokio Spicy. Food arrives promptly and the owner apologizes once more for the wait, explaining that two staff had let her down last minute – fair enough, I guess that’s the sort of thing you iron out at this stage.

tonkotsu ramen london 3

The gyoza looked peculiar at least- a lump of dough covered in what seemed a golden lace cloth. Once we managed to detach one, they revealed themselves very good gyoza all stacked together, which didn’t do them justice as most of them broke and spilled the filling. I’d like to know whether the golden lace (a concoction of oil and burnt particles from the grid) is intentional or not, but it was nice- looking and tasty…better not to think of the health side tho. The chicken nuggets were a nice surprise, crunchy, tasty and juicy, they went down a treat.

Expectations were high on the ramen. It has a nice, tidy look with ingredients orderly arranged in the bowl, and a yummy looking egg on top. The egg was indeed an highlight- the yolk still runny, fresh tasting, and the white delicately flavoured- a sort of younger ‘century egg’. Although I know you are supposed to slurp ramen, I am not completely sold on the concept. I tried the noodles first, and they were indeed very good- bouncy and firm, with a nice rough texture which went well with the heavy broth. They were so good by themselves I had to remind myself to start slurping them together with the liquid. Coming to the broth, as I said I have no standards against which to measure it if not the images evoked by the name “Tokyo Spicy”- well, spicy it wasn’t. Good, yes. Pork bone has a very distinctive aroma and it’s probably not to everyone’s liking, but I really enjoyed it although I found the whole dish to be a bit bland for my taste. Apparently (I’m reading their blog here) they’re continuously making improvements to their broth taking in feedback from customers, so I’m curious to see where the Soho crowd will lead them in a few months. I appreciate nobody wants that ‘Knorr- like” salty spicy hot taste you can find in cheap ramen- however, I suspect many people like me would expect something labeled as spicy to pack a bit more of a punch.

After devouring our meal I went to the open kitchen area to take a few more pics and ask the chef about the ‘magic egg’- he explained they mariate soft-boiled egg overnight in a ‘secret sauce’ which give them flavour and the distinctive greyish colour. Long live the secret sauce!
We left the premises just while they were closing down, bouncing off a few hopefuls as there was no ramen left (!), and the tables were only half-occupied by customers who looked more like the “family and friends” the first days of Tonkotsu were dedicated to. I got the impression of having sneaked into something slightly private, still slightly messy (although in a charming way) and a bit hit- and- miss, but full of promises and potential. A first time with all its promises and disappointments, in short, but I’ll definitely be back to see what will come out of it.

tonkotsu ramen review 4

UPDATE: other bloggers have started to review Tonkotsu- my favourite is “Slow Food Kitchen” where May also reveals some secret plan for future menu…read it here.

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5 Comments

  1. Was looking around for reviews of tonkotsu, chanced upon yours. Seems many people find the soup too bland and watery for a tonkotsu ramen broth, but glad to hear a more balanced take on the place, their noodles sound good at least, and that is one of the key parts of a good ramen to me. ” I imagined to be a bit like one of your first experiments in the erotic department:
    overall pleasant (otherwise you wouldn’t do it) but with lots of room for improvement
    logistically complicated and slightly clumsy, but fun” <- LOL.

    • Oh, glad you like dit. I found the broth underwhelming (not against any ideal tonkotsu broth, just against my expectations) but overall it was really pleasant. Those eggs are really something!
      If you go to Tonkotsu and find something different, let me know- I’m really curious.

      • Oh and by the way your blog is really nice- great pictures! Hopefully I’ll be visiting Singapore soon, will look at it for food tips :)

  2. Great review, with a lot more details than mine. Love your pics.

    Mine is here -http://www.slowfoodkitchen.com/spicy-ramen-landed-soho-tonkotsu/

    • Oh thanks. It’s just iPhone and some basic editing *blushes*. Read yours, can’t wait to taste the London ramen, not sure it’s hortodox but anything with bacon has me as a fan :)

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