In Japan we ate a lot of different Ramens. Here is what I thought of them.
Ichiran is a chain. I went to two different locations, one in Shibuya - the other in Kyoto. The most exciting thing about Ichiran is that it is an almost entirely anonymous dining experience. You enter the shop, place your order at a machine which dispenses meal tickets. Then someone hands you a piece of paper where you can specify various things about how you want your ramen to Taste. For example, richness*, fishiness, amount of chilli powder, etc.
After doing this you take your ticket, and your order sheet to a small booth. There are panels to either side of you blocking your view of the customers sitting next to you, and in front of you is a curtain. The curtain will briefly rise and a pair of hands will take your order. A few minutes later another pair of hands will place your order in front of you and then withdraw, closing the curtains behind themselves. You're then free to eat in as close to complete privacy as can be found in a crowded ramen bar. You can speak to your server if you wish, but there are also wooden signs provided with which you can signal that you wish to request various services, without having to speak.
The ramen itself is a good classic ramen. Ichiran was the first bowl that I ate on arriving in Japan, so it's possible that I'm overrating it due to a lack of hedonic adaptation. Rating: 4/7
Afuri is a chain that is known for their Yuzu Shio Ramen. This ramen has yuzu added both to the broth, and as a garnish. The broth is lighter and thinner than a lot of the other ramen chains. And the combination of chicken with a citrus fruit gives a very different feeling to other ramens. Their pork is also very different from what you generally get. It's essentially a thick crispy piece of bacon, more akin to what you'd find in a good English Breakfast, than the soft, juicy pork that Ramen usually contains. This citrus burst, and crispy pork is definitely an interesting change, but I don't think it's better than more typical ramen.
The branch of Afuri that we went to felt a lot more airspace than most Japanese establishments. Make the seating slightly more spacious and I think this restaurant would not be particularly surprising in London. Potentially this could be the Wahaca of Ramen. Rating: 4/7
Another chain. With branches in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Taipei, Kikanbo specialises in making spicy ramen, and really leans into its Oni based branding. It's also really good!
When ordering you are asked to specify how spicy you want your food, out of 5. You are asked to choose this on two scales, spicy and numbing. Spicy is chilli pepper, and numbing seems like it is sichuan pepper. You then take your place at the bar.
While you wait for your food, you can take some time to appreciate the decor which is, as mentioned, all based around Oni. The door handles resemble Oni's clubs, there are devilish faces everywhere that they can possibly fit. Each piece of cutlery and crockery includes a devil. I don't know if this was always the case, but during our visit, there was a constant soundtrack of Taiko music - which added a somewhat combative feel to the proceedings. As if this was more like a trial by combat than a meal.
In short order you'll receive a very large bowl of ramen. The broth is extremely thick, the portion very generous, and there is a huge hepling of bean sprouts on top. The pork at Kikanbo was a real standout. It was amazingly succulent, and completely fell to pieces in the mouth.
I'd chosen 3 (or medium) for both spicy and numbing, assuming that at a restaurant that is dedicated to spice this would be quite intense. For my Jalfrezi loving palette the spice was actually very mild. If I went again I would definitely take a step further up the heat scale. The flavour was very good. This was maybe the most enjoyable ramen experience.
We went to the Akihabara branch. Arriving at 11am, when it opened, the restaurant was already full and there was a queue of 5 or so people out the door. We didn't have to wait long, but by the time we got inside the queue had grown to cover both sides of the street, and looked terrifyingly long.
We went to this place on the way to the Studio Ghibli museum. I assume that they must get a few such visitors everyday, but still the restaurant felt very much like a local joint. Without being able to look at an online map and see all the restaurants marked - we would never have stumbled across it. It's in a nondescript basement of an equally nondescript building. You sit on a bar around the two men who make and serve all the food. You can peer into the broth and see the vegetables floating in it, you can similarly peer into the bath of boiling water where your noodles are cooking. And you can watch a very healthy dose of MSG being poured into every bowl.
We got wantan-men, and it was just really really nice. It's not outrageously thick, and the flavour doesn't lean too hard in any one direction. Just balanced, tasty, filling. A really lovely place to eat.
There's no English menu, so it's good to know what you want to order. And take some cash.
We went here after arriving in Nara. We originally wanted to go somewhere else, but we had suitcases, and it was far too small to accommodate them. So we ended up here by chance. Luckily it turned out to be a really good place!
From the outside it's not particularly flashy. It was really delicious though! The pork is the real stand out here. The bowl I ordered contained a huge chunk of pork, and it was seared more intensely than a lot of other places. The pork retained its softness, but with a crunchy sear.
They also had a really good music playlist, which I was shazaming throughout. Here are some of the songs we heard during the meal:
Tatsunoya is a buzzy restaurant on the north side of Shinjuku. They also have a branch in California apparently. Which are presumably less good and much more expensive. This is a place where you will probably have to queue quite a while regardless of when you choose to go. It's very tasty, but nothing about it really stuck in my mind and after eating my mouth felt extremely dry.
Also I accidentally got two eggs, which looked wrong.
We stayed at the Dormy Inn. They offer a free ramen service in the evening. You can wander down the canteen, and grab a bowl of hot ramen with the various other people staying at the hotel.
Their ramen is really nothing to write home about. It's basically instant ramen, made at a larger scale.
All of the convenience stores in Japan sell a huge range of instant ramen. We tried this one because it was branded 'Nakiryu' - which is a Michellin starred ramen joint. This instant ramen is more involved than anything I'd seen before. There are three separate sachets of different sauces which have to be opened and combined.
For an instant ramen it is very good, and manages to partially emulate the thick fatty broth that makes the meal so good. But it only partially emulates it. You'll still have a better meal going to any really ramen restaurant.
rating: King Size Bombay Bad Boy / 7
Quite an unusual Ramen. The broth is more fish based than other places, and you can order your ramen with various fishy dumplings. You also get a mackerel rice ball, which you are supposed to add to the leftover broth after finishing the noodles.
I was slightly worried that everything would taste super fishy, but the flavours are fairly subtle and very delicious. The dumplings were the best part - and proved an interesting change from all the other ramen.
I don't really remember much about this one, except that
Rating: Good / 7
On new years day we went to Fushimi Inari. This was the one of the busiest events I've ever attended, and getting a sit down meal nearby was hard. In the end we got a bowl of ramen from a stall in a car park. It was okay.
Rating: 3 / 7
We sheltered in here during an incredibly cold and snowy day. The ramen is very thick, very spicy, and very delicious. They also provide you with a slotted spoon so you can pick out all the delicious bits - if drinking all the broth proves too much.
Eating Ramen in Japan is a low risk activity. You can pretty much choose places at Random, and assume that they will be better and cheaper than any similar meal you could find in Europe.
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