Ramen-ya or Ramen nah?
Update 20/10/14 – for the latest tonkotsu ramen coverage check out my group test
Ramen restaurants are like buses – you wait ages for one, then three come along all at once. I’ve visited Tonkotsu before, but that little Soho gem has now been joined by Bone Daddies and Shoryu and all three are within easy walking distance of each other. Although all three serve the basic staple of tonkotsu ramen, they all do so differently and wouldn’t be mistaken for one another except by the very stupid.
Bone Daddies occupies the site of the old Melati Malaysian restaurant and has a vague post-war Rockabilly theme thanks to an unusual silkscreened photomontage that dominates the wall to your immediate left as you enter the restaurant.
My first visit to Bone Daddies wasn’t a promising one. The tonkotsu ramen arrived with a broth that looked completely unlike what I was expecting. Instead of a creamy white colour, the broth had an oily brown appearance. I thought the waiter might have brought me a miso ramen by mistake, but the the slightly tangy, mostly tart taste bordered on sour and was unlike any ramen broth I’ve had before. At least the other ingredients were up to scratch. The tender, braised slices of pork weren’t very fatty but they did have a charred quality to them, while the bamboo strips were tender, the egg was slightly runny and salty while the noodles themselves were very hearty and had a slight springiness to them.
Thankfully Bone Daddies’ tonkotsu had improved dramatically by the time of my second visit with The Lensman. His tonkotsu broth had the right colour this time around and it was creamier and fattier too. The noodles, bamboo shoots and the egg were just as good as before, but the slices of pork were still quite lean.
Bone Daddies seems to like experimenting with new types of ramen dishes, as my own Three Miso Ramen was quite unlike any ramen The Lensman had encountered during his various trips to Japan. The creamy broth had both the salty taste of miso and a subtle sweetness that was emphasised by the addition of sweetcorn. The noodles themselves were a bit too soft for my liking, but the sheets of nori, the buttery bits of chicken, the rich egg and the tender bamboo shoots were pleasing.
An unusual side dish is the serving of steamed, pale green cabbage leaves served unadorned except for a small bowl of thick, nutty, miso dipping sauce (not pictured). The lightly crisp cabbage leaves are too bland for their own good and the dipping sauce is wasted on them. The sauce is, however, a winner when paired with the separate side dish of fried chicken. The hearty chunks of firm meat are coated in a soft, moreish, thankfully non-oily batter. They’re very tasty in their own right, but taste even better when paired with the nutty miso dipping sauce.
I sampled the soft shell crab, another of Bone Daddies’ side dishes, on my third visit. The pieces of crustacean are crisp and buttery and accompanied by a zingy and punchy ginger and chilli dipping sauce. The problem is that, even for a side dish, the leg pieces of crab are very small. This would be tolerable, except that this small portion costs a steep £8.
Thankfully the tantanmen more than makes up for the miserly size of the soft shell crab. This ramen resembles Sichuanese noodle soups with the tingly, numbing heat of its broth that somehow also manages to be creamy in true ramen fashion. The lone leaf of bok choi is limp, but the tender bamboo shoots and springy noodles are complimented well by the salty, nutty mound of minced pork and the charred, meaty slices of braised pork. This hearty, warming dish is perfect on a cold, blustery winter’s day.
Both Templeton Peck and The Lensman agreed with my assessment of the tantanmen on my fourth and final visit to Bone Daddies. The hearty, mildly spicy noodle soup is just as good as ever.
I opted for the oddly-named T22, a soy miso ramen but made using chicken bones instead of pork bones like the tonkotsu. It’s a hearty, lightly salty soup. The tender bamboo shoots and firm, springy noodles are joined by meaty bits of chicken and the amusingly named ‘cock scratchings’. These are actually, crispy, fried bits of chicken and add a extra layer of crunch to the noodle soup.
While Templeton and The Lensman knocked back a couple of Asahi Blacks, I had to be content with a rather limp pair of non-alcoholic drinks. The flavour of the carrot juice was muted at best with a slight hint of ginger to it. The BD Fruity is a mixture of passion fruit and orange juices with a hint of mint, but it too was also rather tame. At least the waiter was candid enough to admit that a third option, the amusingly named Mr Sparkle which is a mixture of ooloong tea, cucumber and grapefruit, wasn’t going to be any better.
Situated insider the former premises of La Copa, a little-known tapas restaurant, Shoryu is a ramen eatery from the people behind The Japan Centre. I found this to be an ominous sign as their other restaurant just across the road, Toku, serves up an extensive range of yawingly mediocre Japanese dishes including some rather average ramen. Still, the head chef is allegedly from Hakata, a region of Japan famed for its ramen, so I was willing to give the place a chance or two.
On my first visit I tried out the Hakata Tonkotsu and was immediately unimpressed with the soft, bog-standard noodles. The broth was reasonably creamy, but instead of the fatty richness I expected to find, it tasted predominately of sesame seed oil and pickled ginger. What the slices of pork lacked in fattiness, they made up for in rich saltiness although the two, small, scanty slices seemed a bit miserly.
I was woefully unimpressed with Shoryu’s Hakata Tonkotsu, but the need for a hearty feed late one weekday afternoon meant that I found myself back for seconds. The Sapporo Miso has a mildly sweet, moderately tangy, slightly creamy and ever so slightly spicy broth, but it’s lacking the boldness and depth of flavour I’d expect from a miso and pork bone broth.
The noodles were heartier and springier compared to last time, although they’re not as firm as either Tonkotsu’s or Bone Daddies’. Both the flavour and the portion size of the pork was the same as before, but the massive heap of bean sprouts, a cheap filler also present in the Hakata Tonkotsu, was even bigger than before.
Slurping up all the broth left me with such a severe case of dry mouth that I wondered if the kitchen had taken a cheeky shortcut by using a hearty dollop of MSG. I’m not certain of this however, if only because any self-respecting ramen chef would go all Pearl Harbor on my ass unless I produced a sack of MSG smothered with his fingerprints as evidence – and even then I’d be keeping an eye on the exit.
On my third and final visit to Shoryu I started off with the pork gyoza. The thin skins held a mixture of heavily minced, almost unrecognisable pork and a hearty dollop of chives. The sliced and diced herb dominated the flavour of these pan-fried dumplings, so they ended up heavily resembling an especially cheap version of Chinese guotie dumplings.
The broth used in the Wasabi Tonkotsu was the most successful of the three I tried at Shoryu. It was mildly rich, but it tasted predominately of sesame seed oil and spring onions – far from the hearty, fatty richness that should be the hallmark of a good tonkotsu. The noodles were relatively firm and springy and the usual small slices of salty pork were present. The hard boiled egg seemed to have escaped from a breakfast table and was disappointing compared to the salty runniness of the eggs used by Bone Daddies and Tonkotsu. Of course, what really sets this ramen dish apart is the addition of hot, burning pickled wasabi but it’s really a topping that stands out too much and is not an integral, complimentary part of the dish itself.
I chose to wash all of this food down with a glass of the orange-matcha smoothie. Sadly, this watery drink tasted mostly of orange juice and not good orange juice either, but the cheap, sour tang of orange juice made from concentrate.
Although the premises at Tonkotsu remain unchanged from my first wave of visits, the menu has undergone some slight alterations. One of the more subtle changes that’s actually much more significant is the new gyoza. The pork and prawn gyoza, which was my favourite, is gone. The new prawn-only version isn’t as good – the bitty filling is unsatisfying and tastes predominately of ginger and spring onion. Even the skins are different – the skins lack the variation in texture that made their predecessors so delectable.
The Tokyo ramen has a soy-flavoured broth that was lightly salty and slightly sweet. The real highlights are the tender, fatty strips of pork, the rich, runny, salty eggs and the hearty, springy noodles. It’s far better than any of the ramen noodle soups I had at Shoryu and it’s almost the equal of the different Three Miso Ramen from Bone Daddies.
A new addition to Tonkotsu’s menu is a selection of mochi ice creams. Thin, soft and slightly chewy rice flour skins give way to either a sweet, almost caramel-like chestnut flavoured ice cream or a nutty black sesame version.
The chicken karaage was one of my favourite side dishes from my previous visits to Tonkotsu, but this Japanese version of fried chicken has changed somewhat. Although the kitchen still uses hearty chunks of chicken (rather than watery or reconstituted pieces), the previously thin and crispy coating is thicker and crunchier than before and with a heavier ginger and garlic taste that won’t suit everyone. It’s still one of the better versions of chicken karaage that I’ve had though.
The highlight at Tonkotsu remains the tonkotsu ramen which, unlike the gyoza, thankfully hasn’t gotten worse. The hearty, almost doughy noodles are very springy and outclass the competition. The slices of pork are arguably not as rich and salty as their counterparts at Shoryu and Bone Daddies, but there’s more of it here and Tonkotsu’s slices are laced with generous streaks of fat that’s very bad for you and oh so tasty. The egg was rich and runny, albeit not quite as slurpy as Bone Daddies’, and the bean sprout filler was kept to a minimum. Tonkotsu’s tonkotsu broth remains unrivalled however – its creamy, fatty, viscous, lip-smackingly addictive moreishness is simply the best. Combined with the fatty slices of pork and the firm noodles, Tonkotsu’s tonkotsu is easily my favourite.
Tonkotsu may have slipped when it comes to its gyoza, but it’s still ahead where it really counts – its delicious tonkotsu ramen is unrivalled and is one of my favourite noodle soup dishes in all of London. Bone Daddies’ tonkotsu isn’t as good and the quality of its side dishes seems mixed, but its tantanmen is perfect on a cold day and is my second favourite bowl of ramen.
Unfortunately, I’m struggling to find anything good to say about Shoryu (although other reviewers will doubtless disagree with me on this). Its shoddy, second-rate, band wagon jumping ramen just isn’t good enough, especially when compared to the competition – the Japan Centre should be ashamed of itself.
Name: Bone Daddies
Address: 31 Peter Street, London W1F 0AR
Phone: 020 7287 8581 or 020 7287 7437
Opening Hours: unnecessarily complicated.
Reservations: not taken
Total cost for one person including drinks: £25 approx.
Address: 9 Regent Street, London SW1Y 4LR
Phone: not listed
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday 11.30-15.30 and 17.00-22.30. Sundays, Bank Holidays 11.30-15.30 and 17.00-21.30 (last orders 30 mins before closing).
Reservations: not taken
Total cost for one person including drinks: £15-20 approx.
Address: 63 Dean Street, London W1D 4QG
Phone: 020 7437 0071
Opening Hours: Monday-Friday noon-15.00 and 17.00-22.30. Saturday noon-22.30 and Sunday noon-22.00.
Reservations: not taken
Total cost for one person including drinks: £25-40 approx.