Whenever friends ask me where to eat in New York City, the first spot that comes to mind is Momofuku Noodle Bar. It had just opened when I started culinary school and I met my sister there for lunch on orientation day – a little inspiration for a budding chef. This was the first of what was to become chef David Chang’s restaurant empire, before his cookbook, his magazine, his many awards for being the best chef in America, and his unapologetic dislike of vegetarians became widely known. At this point it was a unadorned storefront on the Lower East Side with a few seats serving bowls of steaming Japanese style ramen. Chang also went to the French Culinary Institute and many of my classmates went on to work in his various restaurants, and I reaped the rewards with many a free dish while sitting at the bar watching the tattooed chefs sweat over steaming vats of stock and griddles filled with sweetbreads.
I’ve never quite recovered from this love affair with ramen and the seeming simplicity of a bowl of soup. A plate full of tart pickles and a side of pork belly buns with a cold beer on the side is my idea of heaven. I moved away from New York but never forgot the lovely textures and tastes of this noodle nirvana and so when Chang’s cookbook arrived in shops I snapped it up. For someone cooking at home the recipes are slightly daunting. To compose a seemingly simple bowl of Momofuku Ramen you must make your stock, cook pork shoulder and belly, slow poach eggs, find the right noodles and other various accoutrement that make up the dish. Perhaps I should have kept the book as nightstand reading material, but the lure of a culinary challenge cried out to me.
|My attempt at Momofuku Ramen at home|
I was having friends to dinner in London and I decided that as they loved Asian cooking as much as I did, they would be worthy guinea pigs for my first ramen attempt (in spite of my tiny electric stovetop and minimal counter space). I cured and then slow cooked the two different cuts of pork, boiled pork and chicken bones for hours on the stove top, tracked down the requisite fish cake, seaweed, mushrooms (I even went out and searched for bowls and spoons to serve it in). I was determined to also try Chang’s pickle recipes, the pork belly buns, and for dessert a McDonald’s style apple pie with Sour Cream Lime ice cream and a miso butterscotch drizzle. This meal was a week in the making.
What a result! It really tasted like I remembered and except for a blackened apple pie that was consumed by my overheated vat of oil, it was relatively simple once all the ingredients were assembled. However, I must admit, that I’ve been loathe to go to the effort again. It’s simply too much work for a bowl of noodle soup and instead I’ve counted on intermittent trips to New York City for my fix.
This week however, I read about a new little spot in London’s SOHO that sounded very familiar. Tonkotsu (which means pig’s bones) on Dean Street opened on Wednesday and was offering a simple ramen menu, with a few dumplings and seaweed and spinach salad for good measure. I was there on Thursday ready to dig in.
Much like Momofuku the decor is minimal and the cooking space is open to the restaurant. The waitress explained to me that the Spicy Tokyo Ramen was a pork broth that has been cooked for 18 hours and then has shredded pork placed on top. I decided to go with that version (the other was vegetarian miso and mushroom) and have some prawn and pork gyoza to start with. Interestingly there were two tables of Americans seated near me in the room – I wondered if they too were Momofuku freaks out to test the waters.
|Prawn & Pork Gyoza|
The gyoza arrived with a terrific looking sear on the one side, just like there should be. I mixed together some soy and garlicky chilli sauce. They were ok, but I felt the filling should be more highly seasoned. It really just tasted of prawns and pork – neither winning over the other, neither lifted in any way by say, ginger or garlic or lemongrass or scallion. There was no zing – rather they were almost watery – and although the texture was good the chilli sauce on the table for dipping did nothing to help either.
My Spicy Tokyo ramen arrived soon after and it was very good. It’s difficult when you have an idea in your mind of what a dish should be and then someone else interprets it differently but the basic tastes were there and if I closed my eyes I could for a minute imagine myself back on the Lower East Side. The 18 hour broth was quite complex and had the requisite salty, porky taste. I didn’t think there was enough shredded pork to noodle ratio and I really love it when the pork shoulder is almost crispy and you get a hint of the salt and sugar cure that has helped flavor it. This was more like poached pork shoulder without much seasoning. The noodles were fine and there were flecks of seaweed mixed in, but I think the dish could be helped with a few vegetables and instead of a boiled half an egg, please poach! Let me explain….
|Spicy Tokyo Ramen|
Chang slides a slow poached egg into each bowl of Momofuku ramen. Similarly Mario Batali uses a soft poached egg in his Lamb’s Tongue Salad at Babbo. In both cases you gently break open the egg and the yolk slips into the dish, which when you sir it around thickens the soup in the first case and the dressing in the latter. The yolk enriches the dish, while the bits of the white get encorporated into the noodles and pork. This adds a whole new element that I think is crucial to the ramen. Having half an egg sitting in the broth did nothing for me.
Ken Yamada is the half Japanese, half English chef that’s opened this dish-focused joint, and in spite of what I’ve said, I think it’s got a shot at being pretty great. According to my waitress he’s got a ramen cookbook in the works and perhaps these early-days kinks in the food will work themselves out. I’ve got my fingers crossed as I hate to wait for my trips back to New York, but for the time being I may have to continue to boil pork bones myself.