Wednesday, April 16, 2014

More Tokyo - Good ramen at Kudan Ikaruga

I managed to check out a few other new restaurants in my recent trip to Tokyo, and one of which is a ramen place called Kudan Ikaruga (九段斑鳩) in Kudanshita. To outsiders, the place may not be as famous as the likes of Ichiran, Ippudo or even Menya Musashi (all of which have opened shops in Hong Kong recently), but it's often mentioned by many ramen aficionados as one of the best kept secrets in town.

The location of the original store of Ikaruga (which literally means a certain species of hawfinch bird) is a bit out of the way from major tourist areas, but it's in the neighborhood of the controversial (yet beautiful) Yasakuni Shrine in case that's in your sightseeing itinerary, and for me, it's only a comfortable 15 minute walk from my Tokyo office. (they also recently opened a branch in Tokyo JR Station in the "Ramen Street" which is probably more convenient for most)

I did my due diligence before hand, and it's said that waiting line was not uncommon at this popular place especially during peak lunch hours. So I tried to beat the crowd by arriving a little bit earlier at around noon, and I am glad there's no one waiting outside and I could go straight in.

Setup of the shop is very typical of other ramen place - it's of medium size with both counter and table seatings for 16-20 people altogether, and the seats were actually quite comfortable with plenty of space in between, unlike some smaller restaurants where you literally rubbed shoulder with the person sitting next to you as you eat and slurp. Just like most places, you paid and ordered from the vending machine outside the door, and pass to the server working at the open kitchen behind the counter as you walk in and settle in an empty seat available.

The menu was fairly straight forward - the regular ramen, the "richer" ramen and occasionally, a seasonal, limited edition is offered. Then it's the question of extra servings of noodles or pork, and whether you want tamago (either the runnier onsen egg or the firmer half-boiled one) to be served with the noodles. I quietly sat down, offered the ticket of my ordered item to the server, and patiently waited while having a good look at the "production line" at the open kitchen right behind me.

The noodles did take a little longer than usual to arrive, but it's well worth the wait. It's served with the halved half-boiled egg, dried seaweed, green onions, and three generous slices of pork in a bowl - the way it's presented did resemble the face of a bird which I am sure they did this on purpose (given the restaurant was named after a bird). There were a handful of optional seasonings available on the table, which includes shichimi togarashi, grinded sesame and white pepper. The portion didn't appear to be particularly big, but definitely sufficient for normal appetite.

While I like the firm texture and the strong flavor of the noodles (despite the long cooking time the noodles were firmer than average - bouncy but not hard though), but to me, what set their bowl apart from others was its soup base and the egg. The tonkotsu, or pork bone, based soup was among the richest I have ever tasted, yet there's an after-taste of almost soothing flavor, unlike other that left you with a greasy and salty tongue and the urge to reach for water immediately. Apparently it's a mixture of tonkotsu and bonito broth, so maybe that does the trick of this complex and balanced flavor.

The tamago - half-boiled egg - was cooked to the perfect done-ness with the creamy, bright-color yolk in lava-like texture and subtle smokey soy flavor infused on the firm egg white. It's prepared in advance, peeled and left in a bowl in room temperature, and sliced to serve by a server specifically assigned for that task. I always prefer my egg to have firm egg white and runny yolk, and here they did it marvelously. The three thick pieces of pork was soft and tender, juicy without being too fatty. I could live with a bit more green onions but it's not a big problem to me as it was - I am sure if I asked for it I would get extras anyway.

Guess it's easy to dismiss ramen as just a common street food with just soup and noodles (and maybe a few slices of pork), but it's so hard to excel and stand out with so many other components came into play - the soup, noodles, pork, seasonings, portion cooking time, etc. It's almost an art of making sure everything were well-prepared individually and also work together to achieve the right balance overall. While I am still learning to appreciate ramen better, I would say the bowl at Ikaruga was a notch better than most mainstream ones I have tried, in Tokyo or elsewhere. I am glad to have found this spot relatively close to office that I could easily return to if I ever need to come back here on business.

Where? Kudan Ikaruga, Kudankita 1-9-12, Chiyoda, Tokyo, Japan
九段 斑鳩 東京都千代田区九段北1-9-12 九段下ビル1F

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