I've lost count of the number of places I've walked into recently - shops being by far the worst offenders, but a fair number of restaurants and offices too - where no-one's said "Hello!" or otherwise acknowledged my presence. So the cheery, traditional, "Irasshaimase!" from the staff and beating of a drum on entering Shoryu, London's latest ramen joint on Lower Regent Street, endeared me to the place before even a mouthful of food passed my lips.
But oh, the food...it's wonderful. Just brilliant. So much so, in fact, that after an impressive first visit I returned twice in the space of a week. The room's nothing special - tightly-packed, functional (trans: hard) seating; bright lights, an apparently Spirographed mural - and the Lower Regent Street location, horrible, but these are minor considerations next to the combined allure of the warmth of welcome and the sheer quality of the ramen.
Shoryu's menu, presented on a clipboard, is much longer than at any of the other ramen-ya that have sprung up around town. The basic Shoryu Ganso tonkotsu is a huge bowlful of rich opaque pork-bone broth to which hosomen noodles, tender barbecue pork, crunchy, woody kikurage fungus, seasoned boiled egg (nitamago), beansprouts, spring onions, pickled ginger (gari) and crisp dried seaweed (nori) are added. Then ingredients are added or subtracted to make different dishes, there are miso and soy broth variants, and all can be tweaked and customised to personal taste. There's a good twenty-odd starters and sides to choose from too.
The dish that blew me (and the cobwebs) away on my first visit was Wasabi Tonkotsu, which saw a sinus-purging whack of potent fresh and pickled wasabi added to a gari-free Shoryu Ganso. It was in many ways the perfect meal; lovely to look at, nourishing, complex - each mouthful slightly different in taste and texture from the last - and filling without leaving one bloated. I loved it; food is often fun, sometimes intriguing, but rarely is it genuinely exciting. This was.
A side-order of chicken kara age, chunks of thigh meat lightly-battered and fried, was initially a little bland but came alive with a squeeze of lemon juice and dipping in the accompanying spiced mayonnaise. Although great value for the portion size at £5, there was rather too much of it for one person; solo diners shouldn't have to miss out on trying extras for fear of over-ordering (not, I'll admit, something that often afflicts me, as my waist size will attest).
I enjoyed the kara age again on my second visit, this time in tori kara age men, one of the shiitake and konbu soy broth choices. Although in its non-broth components not dissimilar to the tonkotsu, this was a much lighter, more cleansing affair, slices of gari folded into the noodles adding little depth-charges of flavour. In this setting the fried chicken - as much of it as in the side-order serving - felt rather decadent. I wasn't sure if I liked the roundels of garish pink fishcake, which didn't feel like they quite belonged in this assembly, but I polished the whole lot off just the same.
On a third occasion I took along my BFF Anders and, as confident as I could be that I wouldn't be chatting anyone up later, ordered the Dracula Tonkotsu. Really it should be called anti-Dracula Tonkotsu as it includes mayu - black garlic oil - and garlic chips, caramelised and roasted to take away some of the pungency but none of the warmth of the vampire repellent. Although enjoyable, of the three ramen I'd now tried it was my least favourite, being rather one-note; that much garlic can't not dominate a dish. Still, I'd order it again, if Buffy was having a night off and there was no snogging to be done.
Anders's Yuzu Tonkotsu was interesting, the fragrant citrus fruit made into a chutney with chilli and piled high in the centre of the bowl. Its citric acidity, which should in theory have cut through the fattiness of the sliced pork and collagen-rich broth, somehow seemed to sit apart from it, but this sort of experimentation is what makes the food at Shoryu so enticing. A side of pork gyoza were, if not the best of their kind, perfectly fine, but as with the kara age on my previous visit not strictly necessary.
Staff, many of them Japanese, provide service that is briskly efficient while also friendly and very courteous; diners are not hurried or harassed but tables are turned at such a rate as to ensure that the queues which inevitably build up at busy times keep moving along. As well as the lively greeting there are other customer-friendly touches; a complimentary palate-awakener of cabbage dressed in rice wine vinegar is brought with the menu, and the discretionary service charge is a modest 10%.
When somewhere like Shoryu opens that nails its concept so assuredly from the get-go, it's always tempting to believe that the first branch might be the prototype for a chain. If that is the case here, then good; I'd welcome a Shoryu on every corner as warmly as they welcome every customer.
Shoryu Ramen, 9 Lower Regent Street, London SW1Y 4LR www.shoryuramen.com
Posted by +Hugh Wright