the stock in trade of Shoryu Ramen is vigorous, noodle-slurping, informal comfort food
Shoryu Ramen!! Said aloud, or even just written down on paper, the name of this Hakata-influenced ramen bar is more like a battle cry from a revolutionary early 90’s combat arcade game that people of a certain age (i.e. mine) will no doubt recognize. Which is why, when I first heard of this place, my first reaction was “a-ha! I know what shoryu means!” (It means ‘rising dragon’ by the way).
First things first though: I know absolutely nothing about Japanese cuisine. To me it is a twilight world shrouded in intrigue and secrecy, a whole other alien universe. A demi-monde everlastingly shut-off from the prying and greedy round eyes of the Gaijin. The concept (for it is undoubtedly a concept) of Japanese ‘high eating’ is built around etiquette and ritual and takes its roots from the country’s ancient tea ceremonies. The manner in which one eats, the aesthetic appreciation of a shared meal, is as much part of the experience as the eating itself, maybe more so. And this is something that does not really square with our own occidental world view of food and what it means to eat.
Only when a peep behind the noren into the ryokan is permitted do we see the sheer breadth of Japanese cuisine. And it is staggering. Sushi and sashimi for instance, both utterly different (though often thought of as one and the same by us westerners), yet each their own distinct universe. How many ways of serving tuna or mackerel can you think of? Well you could probably walk down an – apparently – unmarked alley just off the Shibuya in Tokyo into a bamboo shed with space for only five only to find it is a triple Michelin Starred alter at the temple of sashimi. Here, a single fish might be cut, sliced, prepared and served in about five hundred different ways before your eyes. A haiku in epicurean form where meaning and connotation vary from city to city, region to region.
Society changes. And so do our palettes. And as these both change so again does the world around us, driven as it is by our bellies. Foreign, or gaijin food probably now comprises the majority of what Japan puts into its mouth, and interestingly, this what it now exports back to the rest of the world. Since Imperial Japan kicked off in 1868 with the Meiji Restoration, rapid economic growth and industrialisation coincided with contact and trade with the previously shunned outside world. This of course brought gaijin food to Japan. Fast forward to now and Kobe (Wagyu) beef is Japan’s ubiquitous foodie export to the world. It may be sought after as an exorbitantly overpriced bovine delicacy on high-end menus the world over but steak is western food sold back to westerners. They are even doing it with whisky – what is Japanese whisky, as bloody brilliant as it is, if it isn’t basically just Scotch?
A great deal of Japanese food today is in fact Chinese in origin. It is Chinese noodles and broth that form the beating heart of modern day eating in Japan. See that steaming bowl of ramen and those tempting gyoza? As Chinese as child labour. And that is exactly what is served at Shoryu Ramen on Lower Regent Street, just off Piccadilly.
Dispel at once any notions of delicacy, obscurity or refinement; the averted-gaze-and-shy-giggle-behind-the-hand; the imperial-military-severity of tsukemono or hamachi restaurants. The stock in trade of Shoryu Ramen is vigorous, noodle-slurping, informal comfort food.
As you may or may not have guessed ramen is ‘noodles in broth’. Any Japanese-ness attributed to ramen is of course the fact that there are an utterly bewildering number of iterations of the dish, be they regional or ingredient based. Shoryu Ramen specialises in only one type and that is the tonkotsu (not to be confused with tonkatsu, something totally different). Not only that, the tonkotsu ramen served here are of the Hakata variety – specific to the Hakata district of the city of Fukuoka.
Tonkotsu means ‘pork bone’. The resultant broth is made from boiling down pork bones, fat and meat over many hours. Miso this is not. This variety is currently popular back home plus there are already two others in London: Bone Daddies and the eponymously named Tonkotsu, with many more due to open soon. If the craze for ramen restaurants takes off big time in the capital, well, you read it here first.
Immediately upon entry I was assailed by a strangulated shout of “Irasshaimase!” Not knowing what was going on around me my instinctive reaction was to block the anticipated ball of energy about to slam into my midriff. (You can’t duck underneath, remember, and leaping over would leave you open to attack from a well-seasoned World Warrior – eh, kids?). But no, Irasshaimase thankfully turns out to be a greeting yelled to all and sundry who step over the threshold.
Shoryu Ramen is a compact space. Lunch time diners fit elbow to elbow along a single row of tables although there is also an area of communal tables and benches at the front by the window – probably the best place to sit. Walls are of the ubiquitously à la mode bare brick variety save for some decidedly retro swirling motifs. Browns and oranges are the dominant colours. It certainly didn’t put me in mind of something I’d expect to see in downtown Hakata. More like a cafeteria in a Scandinavian airport in the 1970’s. The overall effect was not as suicide-inducing as it sounds. It worked and looked stylish. My visit was also accompanied by a background soundtrack of post-bop jazz that put me in mind of writer Haruki Murakami for some reason.
I found my first few appetisers to be a waste of time sadly. Pickled cabbage was really just flaccid curls of raw white cabbage soaked in Sarsons. It was as every bit as hair shirted as it sounds. Yamitsuki Asian cucumber was equally as unforgiving. Though dressed in sesame and sea salt it looked (and tasted) like it had been buried in North Korean sand.
Luckily, things kicked up a gear with the arrival of a plate of Gyoza dumplings and Shoryu Ramen immediately got back to what it does best: pork. If badly done, I find that the pork mince in gyoza can have a distinctly nasty, bummy quality. If done well they are one of my favourite things in the whole world. A fine line if ever there was one. These, thankfully, were the real deal: each one maddeningly addictive and superbly succulent. A hirata pork bun, a supple, pillow-soft steamed bun filled with yet more pork – slow cooked belly this time – further drove the point home: I would not be leave here hungry.
There are variations of the Tonkotsu ramen on the menu ranging from the typical (with added chilli, wasabi or char siu barbecue pork), to the more off the wall: piri piri, yuzu and the intriguing ‘dracula’ that adds caramelised black garlic and balsamic vinegar. A recent addition to the menu is the Hokkaido curry ramen which includes crispy fried kara-age chicken and mini fishcakes.
I opted for the basic, or ‘signature’ ramen. It was quite the distillation of everything porcine. The broth was concentrated and cloudy, almost milky in colour. All flesh, bones, collagen and more flesh and bone. But naturally enough it was lighter and cleaner on the palate than expected while still being satisfyingly rich. Toppings were yet more sliced pork (too dry) and kikurage mushrooms. A generous shovelling of noodles, plus bean sprouts, spring onion and nori seaweed provided the body of the dish, while sesame and ginger provided the seasoning. The soul was undoubtedly the pork broth. As for the manners? Well they were distinctly Chinese: slurping is most definitely the order of the day. No self-consciousness here, head down, get on with it. Filling, myriad flavours, wonderfully satisfying. Ramen are hardly a novelty but this did feel like something entirely new.
All this was accompanied by a wonderfully invigorating genmai, or brown rice tea. The drinks menu also offers no less than thirty varieties of sake if you feel like going at it but alas, time, for now, marches on… So I finish up. Funny to witness the chap who was to take my seat flinch in terror at the incoming “Irasshaimase!”.
Shoryu Ramen, while maybe a bit Too Cool For School for some of you squares – they’ve even flown in the chef from Hakata – is welcoming, different enough while still being familiar enough, and is a great introduction to Japanese lunch time culture. Dozo omeshiagari! And indeed, Shoryu ken!
9 Regent Street