Last week we got informed that my husband had won tickets to a ghost tour of Fleet Street in London on Saturday, so we had to make a quick decision whether to go, and accept the cost of travelling up to London, or give the tour a miss. Never ones to pass up a freebie, we decided to jump on the train and make a day of it, even if the tickets and lunch out would cost a lot more than tickets for the tour would have. Oh well!
We never go up to London without going out to eat. We’ve got such a long list of restaurants we want to go to that it would be silly to let an opportunity pass us by. This time we wanted something affordable and casual and the first thing that came to mind was Tonkotsu which was reviewed in The Times a couple months ago by Giles Coren.
As we entered from a drizzly, grey Saturday into the warm, chattering atmosphere of the tiny noodle bar, I had high expectations. We were offered a seat at the bar, right next to the door and right behind some chefs-at-work (unfortunately the view of the work space is totally blocked by a wall), or a table. I chose a table, not wanting to stare at a black wall all afternoon with men hovering above me wielding what were sure to be very sharp knives. We were ushered through the narrow main room to the back of the restaurant where I realized, with some horror I will admit, that we had to share a communal table and, naturally, both ends of the table had been taken and we were left to occupy the middle.
With some Australians on one side and some Japanese on the other, my husband sidled into his seat against the wall and I inserted myself in my seat, holding my breath to let the waitress by. Once we were in, the horror of the situation faded and we focused on the delicious things we were going to eat.
First up were some pickled cucumbers (£3) and I had my reservations. I don’t like cucumbers. Somehow the flavor just doesn’t work for me and anything they touch seems to take on this unpleasant cucumberiness that makes my skin crawl. My husband had read on a few reviews that they were amazing and, always willing to try new things, I hesitantly agreed to give them a shot. On their own, they were just about edible for a non-cucumber eater. However, drizzled with chilli oil and rice wine vinegar, they were out of this world. I’ve even tweeted the restaurant asking for the recipe, so should anything come of that I will fill you in. They were tender and silky, yet still crunchy, and the pickling had removed the worst of the cucumber flavor leaving just sweet freshness. They definitely got my taste buds waking up, rubbing their eyes and stretching towards the sky. If I wasn’t ready to eat before, I definitely was now.
Next up were the shrimp gyoza (£5). Gyoza are beautiful things and these were no exception. They were moist inside, had a lovely chew to the dough and they had a beautiful bit of caramelization – so much so that they were all stuck together when they came out. Once again, mine were dressed with the amazing chilli oil that adorns each table and this time some soy sauce.
The third and final appetizer was the chicken karaage (ka-raj-eh) (£6). This was described by Giles Coren as, “Every bit as wonderful as the million-dollar-a-mouthful duck at HKK, for £6 a portion.” High praise, indeed. It had a thick, crunchy coating which enveloped delicately tender, moist chicken. My husband was in hog heaven; give him a bit of fried chicken and a beer over caviar and champagne any day. There were five pieces on our plate, so it was enough to share between two people. It was near perfectly cooked fried chicken which wasn’t greasy or heavy and I would say it was definitely worth the £6.
I convinced my husband to order the seafood (Soho) ramen (£11). Listen, he’s a seafood lover and almost always orders something fishy when it’s on offer, so I thought this would be right up his street. It had nothing to do with the fact that I had been dreaming of the pork belly (Tonkotsu) ramen for the past three days. It arrived and looked beautiful. It had a good size piece of smoked haddock in a seafood broth with pak choi, bamboo shoots and half an egg (more on them later). The broth was tasty and the fish was well cooked; it was a perfectly acceptable bowl of ramen, even if it wasn’t blowing his mind.
I ordered the Tonkotsu ramen (£11) made from pork broth and slices of pork belly with bean sprouts and half an egg. Ah, the egg: somehow soft boiled with a squidgy yoke and then soaked in soy sauce and who knows what else which gives it a really distinct flavor. It was possibly the best egg of my life. The broth was heavenly; it was probably pretty close to the most porky thing I have ever tasted. It had obviously been cooked for hours and hours and had a thick, silken, almost gelatinous consistency and the pork was tender and flavorful. This flavor was amped up to eleven by the condiments so cleverly distributed on the tables: chilli oil (which they sell in jars for £5.95), rice wine vinegar, soy sauce and heads of garlic with garlic crushers so you can crush raw garlic into your ramen in whatever quantity you want. I added the chilli oil and chose a particularly fat garlic clove, crushed and stirred. All of a sudden, this simple bowl of broth, meat and noodles became the epitome of good cooking. All ingredients perfectly cooked, perfectly balanced and the combination of all these things completely mind-blowing.
I will go back to the Soho ramen now. At the point I discovered and added the garlic, I offered to add some to the Soho ramen. My offer was declined, very quickly and, in my opinion, without thought. Halfway through our ramen, there were complaints from the other side of the table.
“Your broth is so rich and porky.”
“You didn’t expect pork broth with your seafood ramen, did you?”
“No. But it’s just so porky. This is a bit insipid.”
“It’s not insipid, it tastes like fish. It’s made from fish.”
You can see this conversation wasn’t going anywhere fast. I offered up my bowl of perfection to combat the melodrama seeping into our meal. He took it and gave me his, at which point I added a humongous garlic clove and a splash of vinegar. Result? He couldn’t get his bowl back fast enough.
Both bowls of ramen were delicious and we walked out of there fat and happy. If I went again, and if I lived in London I definitely would, I would go for the pork broth-based ramens because they are something that is done superbly well and should be appreciated. All in all, it was a fantastic meal which satisfied us both on multiple levels and left the delicious taste of umami in our mouths as we walked back out into the brightening light of a summer’s day.