Showing Ippudo and Shoryu how it’s done
I’ve always considered ramen to be a cold-weather dish, as it’s so hearty and warming, so it was therefore a surprise to discover ramen restaurant Muga opening during the height of balmy June. This minimalist restaurant is spread over two floors in an unassuming premises on Panton Street and was surprisingly uncrowded across both of my visits. This is both good and bad – good in that I can get a seat without any hassle, bad in that Muga clearly isn’t getting the attention it deserves. And it deserves its fair share.
Although shio, shoyu and miso ramen are available on the menu, my first and only ramen love is tonkotsu. Although Muga’s version isn’t quite as superlative as the versions available from Kanada-Ya and Bone Daddies, it still ranks among the best in London. The broth was pleasingly creamy and not too overpowering. A few choice dabs of sesame seed oil and punchy pickled ginger went a long way, also helping to make up for the rather drab fungus and soft boiled egg. Although small in size, the thin slices of pork were delightfully earthy, moist, woody and fatty. The noodles are available in thick and thin varieties, although this made little discernible difference to their reasonably springy texture.
The only ramen that uses a soup stock not based in some way on animal flesh is the vegetarian Yasai ramen. Wicket, who has recently become a vegetarian, was pleased with the peppery, umami broth. I found it a little generic, but it’s more than acceptable for meat dodgers. The mass of carrots, cabbage, bean sprouts and bamboo shoot slices, while unimaginative, gets the job done. The same reasonably firm and thick noodles available with the tonkotsu ramen make a repeat appearance here.
Muga’s selection of non-ramen dishes is larger than what you’d get at, say, Kanada-Ya, but still less voluminous than the smorgasbord at Shoryu. Lightly spicy and wrinkly Padron peppers grilled and dressed in crunchy salt are competently done, if a tad dull. Far more interesting are the takoyaki – light, soft doughy balls with a firm octopus tentacle nestled at the centre. The doughy balls are a tad too oily, but it’s not too noticeable – especially when you’re distracted by the topping of quivering bonito flakes with its umami punch.
Chicken sandwiched between two slices of lotus root and deep-fried was something of an oddity. The normally distinctive flavour of lotus root was absent here, but at least the lightly battered root slices were crunchy and not excessively oily. The chicken seemed very out of place too.
If you have a hankering for chook then you’re far better off with the chicken karaage. The lightly crisp coating gave way to reveal unctuous chunks of meat flecked with ginger. No reconstituted mush here.
The agedashi tofu arrived with some its bonito flake topping oddly subsumed into the small pool of soy ginger sauce rather than sitting gracefully atop the tofu cubes. Still, this did make for an especially moreish sauce that went well with the soft quivering tofu cubes and their slightly chewy batter skins.
The bean paste filling inside the soft fluffy dorayaki was disappointingly bland. I’ve had store-bought dorayaki in a packet with more character. A more interesting, if still flawed dessert was the mochi ice cream. The thin, slightly chewy rice-based skins were wrapped around bone-chillingly cold but ultimately quite tasteless vanilla ice cream. This dessert was saved from mediocrity by the nutty dusting of soybean powder and a treacly sweet molasses-based syrup which combined together to provide a surprising depth of flavour that puts many more expensive desserts elsewhere in the shade.
Muga’s tonkotsu ramen doesn’t quite match London’s very best, but it’s still far better than versions of the same dish from other, bigger name noodle restaurants and I’d happily scoff it any day of the week and twice on Sundays. Not all of the non-ramen dishes are unqualified successes, but the hits outweigh the misses. Muga deserves to be far more popular than it actually is and if this is the standard of tonkotsu ramen that London can expect once the trend-chasing, bandwagon-jumpers have moved on, then I’ll be very happy indeed.
What to order: Tonkotsu ramen; takoyaki; chicken karaage
What to skip: Dorayaki; lotus root chicken
Address: 5 Panton Street, London SW1Y 4DL
Phone: 020 7930 5088
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon – 14.30 and 18.00 – 22.00
Reservations: not taken
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service: £30 approx. (you’ll pay a little less if you’re not as bonkers with the side dishes as I was)