Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Tonkotsu, Soho

Artist's impression of Tonkotsu, Soho from www.tonkotsu.co.uk
It's the smell that gets you first. Rounding the corner of Old Compton Street into Dean Street, the intense, rich aroma emanating from Tonkotsu like a vapour grabs you in its tractor beam, winds its way into your dilated nostrils and demands that, like a Bisto Kid, you track this heaven scent to its source.

That source, it transpires, is the vast vats of pork-bone stock which simmer away for up to eighteen hours and then, with the addition of noodles and toppings, become the tonkotsu ramen from which this jaw-droppingly good Soho newcomer takes its name. Still relatively unheard of in London, ramen bars are ubiquitous in Japan, where ramen has the same quick, cheap, feed-me-now status as fried chicken does here. Now the owners of the estimable Tsuru Sushi have decided it's the capital's turn for some top notch noodle action.

Tonkotsu's 'part-Japanese, part neo-industrial'  interior. Photo by Senthil Sukumaran
Tonkotsu's interior. Photo:  Senthil Sukumaran
As is the law for any Soho opening these days, Tonkotsu is a no-reservations affair, but spread over two floors so as to provide a decent chance of getting a table without too long a wait. The decor's part traditional  Japanese - stripped wood, silk wall hangings - and part neo-industrial, with reclaimed school dining room chairs at the bare refectory tables and an imposing caged spiral staircase linking the floors.

The menu, concise as a haiku, offers three varieties of ramen alongside a handful of simple sides and gyoza. These crimped dumplings, hand-made daily, are a triumph; usually offered either steamed or fried, here they are first steamed to cook the super-fresh fillings - pork, prawn and pork or shitake and bamboo shoot- before being flash-fried to give a golden colour, slight crunch and savoury flavour to the wrapper. 

Sides, too, show attention to detail. Chicken kara age - Japan's rather more civilised take on fried chicken - sees chunks of tasty thigh marinated in soy, ginger and garlic before being dusted in flour and deep-fried; the resulting nuggets are moist, tender and so packed with flavour as to not need the accompanying dipping sauce. A deceptively simple salad of spinach and bean sprouts benefits from its nutty, viscous sesame oil dressing coating each leaf, making the overall flavour smoky rather than bland.

But the best part of all is, of course, the ramen itself. I tried the Tonkotsu, which adds to a generous bowl of that sumptuous broth thin noodles, belly pork, a seasoned egg - sunshine-gold yolk still slightly oozing - bean sprouts and spring onions, and Alyn had the Tokyo Spicy, much the same but using pulled chilli pork and thicker noodles. Both dishes had in common an incredible consistency; the labour- and time-intensive cooking of the stock, during which the collagen in the pork bones breaks down, results in a creaminess almost like a velouté.

Tokyo Spicy ramen at Tonkotsu, Soho.
Each of us preferred our own choice, Alyn liking the only-slight extra heat of the Tokyo Spicy while I liked the restraint of the Tonkotsu, but agreed that both bowlfuls put anything we'd had before in the shade. Slurping, Japanese-style is encouraged; we didn't need any.

The concise drinks list might confuse some customers, focusing as it does on British craft beers, sake and whiskies. There are a couple of big-name Japanese beers (Asahi, Sapporo) that diners will recognise but other than those it's pot luck as far as liquid refreshment goes; even the soft drinks eschew the familiar, including 'Dalston Cola' which we didn't try but the gents on the table next to us abandoned after one sip.  Still, all credit to Tonkotsu for being as innovative with their drinks as with their food.

Pricing is reasonable especially considering the quality; ramen dishes (as well as the two we tried there's a veggie option using miso broth) are £9 or £11, gyoza £5 for five and side orders all about a fiver. With drinks and service, a meal for two will work out at about £25 a head, a pit-stop lunch for one of ramen and a drink closer to £15, putting Tonkotsu firmly in the affordable category.

Tonkotsu continues the trend in London for restaurants doing only one thing but doing it exceptionally well and in that respect is a very welcome addition. If, as I expect it will, it starts a new trend for ramen-ya, then we can only hope that they'll be nearly as good as this.

Tonkotsu, 63 Dean Street, London W1D 4QG Tel: 020 7437 0071 http://www.tonkotsu.co.uk

Tonkotsu on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Posted by +Hugh Wright


  1. Oh don't deprive yourself - take a pal and order both!

  2. Being incredibly indecisive in the face of a long menu, I am very pro this restaurants doing one thing trend. Trying out Tonkotsu next week, so I've got a week to decide between Tokyo Spicy and the Tonkotsu - you make them both sound so good!

  3. I'd've got what you meant, but either way, I agree!

  4. Couldn't agree more Richard - don't know if you saw this piece that I wrote on that very subject! http://tgr.ph/0CHOICE

  5. i loved this place, the flavour is 'spot on'. I was going to type 'ridiculous' but thought it wasnt going to convey the point.

  6. I wouldn't care less if the menu didn't change in the next 5 years - doing one thing well certainly hasn't done Le Relais de Venice any harm. And if this sort of thing kills off dining concepts preceded by "pan-" then I'm sure we won't be crying.

  7. more authentic ramen in london please!

  8. Looks like that wish should be granted soon; hot on the heels of Tonkotsu comes Bone Daddies http://www.hot-dinners.com/Features/Articles/coming-soon-new-restaurants-opening-in-london and I very much hope that Tonkotsu will roll out branches!


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