It's not clear when the word 'ramen' arrived in Foodieland. In Alan Davidson's magisterial Penguin Companion to Food (2002), there's no sign of it. It seemed to turn up one day – a word that means 'noodles' but signifies a complex Japanese dish of sliced meat floating in stock with other bits, to be eaten, or drunk, with a large and awkwardly angled wooden spoon.
No wait, that's not entirely true. The first time ramen appeared in London was on the menu at Wagamama, Alan Yau's industrial-canteen restaurant chain. But your true ramen fan would spit on the floor if you mentioned the W-word, or Yau's name. Because, you see, Mr Yau is considered inauthentic – a Hong Kong Chinese who specialises in mimicking cuisines that aren't his own. He discovered ramen in Japan, brought it to London served in larger-than-usual bowls, and cleaned up. Now chaps who make the real ramen in Japan are trying to steal their dish back. You can hardly move in Soho without being handed another bowl of noodles in soup: Bone Daddies in Peter Street, Kirazu in Rupert Street, Ittenbari in Brewer Street, Tonkotsu in Dean Street…
This is the younger sister of Shoryu Ramen that opened last year in Regent Street. It specialises in tonkotsu ramen, from the Hakata district of Fukuoka city, in Kyushu, southern Japan, where the finest ramen is supposedly found. Walk into the new place, off Shaftesbury Avenue, and you'll find it packed with young people, about half of whom are Japanese. They're not the only reason to feel you're in a school refectory. Most tables are to be shared. The young staff are kitted out in hachimaki headbands. A sign on the wall reads 'Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen – it's in our bones'. Another sign, on the packs of wet-wipe towels, says, 'Like mum always told you – wash your hands before dinner'. There's a bright and studenty atmosphere here, combined with a slight hint of infantilism.
We started with Gyoza pork dumplings, which were utterly generic – putty-coloured, seared on one side, served with soy sauce. Ours were suspiciously tepid as if they'd been left lying around for hours. Tezukuri smoked salmon okura rolls meant salmon wrapped around pencils of okra and slathered with orange fish roe: fishy, crunchy and slimy in that order, the roe like little bubbles of fish soup. Hirata buns with tempura prawns weren't a wild success; they resembled a Japanese version of a McDonald's Filet-O-Fish, the tempura overly thick, the steamed buns clinging like demons to the roof of my mouth.
All the main courses offered, essentially, the same thing: tonkutsu (pork-bone soup stock) with barbecued pork and ramen noodles, plus egg, mushrooms, beansprouts, spring onion, sesame, ginger, nori and mayu garlic oil.
Angie had the house signature dish, Shoryu Ganso Tonkotsu, featuring all the above with added spinach and garlic. "The broth is both milky and buttery," she said. "If I could imagine myself as a Japanese truck driver, I'd enjoy it." My Hokkaido curry ramen was more pork broth, an un-milky version, and tasted fine. But the chicken had been fried in its skin and biting into it left me with a mouthful of grease. Hard-boiled egg, seaweed, spring onion and fish cake contributed a confusing gallimaufry of textures, but it made for a hearty supper.
The cocktails here are made with sake, rather than gin or vodka, and rely heavily on those curious salty plums called umeboshi. My Calpico High (the nearest thing, they said, to a martini) was like watered-down sweet vermouth. Angie's smartly-named Geisha Le Fizz involved prosecco and half a tin of lychee juice and lacked excitement. The sake I chose, from a list of 120, was milky and frothy and only part-distilled, but I blame my ignorance of rice wine.
The puddings were mostly cheesecakes or 'rolled cake', so I asked our sweet waitress (the waiting staff are, without exception, enthusiastic, charming and patient) to recommend one. She suggested Dorayaki. It's an azuki bean pancake. It looks like a chocolate hamburger, and tasted of cardboard, ashes and stale kidney beans. It was one of the nastiest things I've ever put in my mouth.
The management at Shoryu insist that their food is 100 per cent authentic, prepared by a chap born and raised in Hakata. I'm sure for the south Japan locals, it's the last word in ramen paradise. For some of us, I'm afraid it remains an acquired taste.
Shoryu Ramen Soho, 3 Denman Street, London W1. About £90 for two, with sake
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