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 interior. Photo: Senthil Sukumaran|
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.
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
Posted by +Hugh Wright