Wednesday, July 12, 2017

New Ramen Joint with a Queue

It's not uncommon to see long waiting lines outside the newest and hottest restaurant in town, at least until the next newest and hottest one came around - thanks for the patience and persistence shown by many food lovers in Hong Kong who always want to be the first to try just about anything. Lately we have witnessed another such new entry to our local dining scene in Tsuta, the ramen joint in the unofficial ramen street in Causeway Bay recently making Hong Kong their third overseas home after Singapore and Taipei.

And there's a good reason for Tsuta getting all the attention since its opening late last month. Tsuta honten, the original branch in Tokyo's Sugamo neighborhood, is long considered the nation's best (with the high Tabelog score to show forth) and they were also awarded a Michelin star since the 2015 edition, being the first-ever ramen joint receiving such rating. With a daily limit of the number of bowls they serve each day, the restaurant is also the hardest to get in in Tokyo, with people lining up hours before the restaurant open trying to get the admission ticket to get in.

Okay, I did bypass the line this time when I visited the place a couple of weeks ago as an invited guest of the restaurant, but nonetheless I found out the line was surprisingly manageable if you go during non-peak hours (either after 3pm weekday afternoon or late at night before it closes) Unlike many other ramen joints with rustic décor and tight space, Tsuta was bright and spacious, with black and pine wooden tone, minimalist style and large window facing the street, and a long counter which seats 20 or so on high chairs facing the open kitchen and more seats along the wall for people waiting.

Their menu was pretty straight-forward - one can choose the noodles with the two soup bases available - shio (salt-based) or shoyu (soy sauce-based). For both soup base the most basic version came with a slice of char siu pork, and there are options to add extra pork, noodles, marinated bamboo shoots, and a soy-marinated egg as optional topping. The shio soba (they called their noodles soba rather than ramen) came with leeks, diced purple onions and green olive paste as garnishes, while the shoyu soba came with a dab of truffle sauce and oil – that explained the enticing fragrance as I walked into the shop. Like a typical Japanese ramen shop, ordering is based on a ticket system – customer need to select the dishes at a vending machine as they walked in and paid in advance before they were seated and served.

While I was told shoyu is the more popular one, I wanted something different so I picked the shio soba with the half-boiled egg added. My bowl of noodles arrived in about 10 minutes upon being seated. In ramen standard, I would say the bowl was of medium size (if you have a big appetite you may want to order an extra portion at the time of ordering your bowl, unlike the conventional kae-dama system when you can order midway through). Also another distinctive feature of the restaurant is there’s no additional seasonings or sauces provided at the table – the manager later explained that it’s Tsuta’s philosophy that their noodles are perfect as is and there’s no need for additional touch of extra flavors.

I first reached out to try their tare, or soup base, since that’s what they are most famous for. One obvious difference one can spot is Tsuta uses a clear, consommé-like soup base, unlike most that use a milky-white Tonkotsu base. But don’t be fooled by the clear appearance, the soup was intensely flavorful and complex – I got chicken, maybe some pork, and definitely seafood which gave the soup a rich umami taste. Well, the soup was said to be salt based, and actually two kinds of salt were used – the Okinawan sea salt, and Mongolian rock salt. But I think what truly set the soup apart was the addition of mint, diced purple onion and olive paste, which all together gave a refreshing contrast in the midst of all these rich, emphatic tastes.

Their noodles were made in-house – one can see the preparation process using a specialty machine to knead and cut the dough through the window from the street – again there’s no choice of firmness of the cooked noodles unlike some chains, but the noodles were on the thin and firm side, which I thought worked particularly well with the clear soup base. The half-boiled egg was well-cooked infused with soy marinate for a pale pinkish color and with oozy bright orange yolk inside. The char siu pork meat (probably from the shoulder cut) was sliced with a machine by the counter just before the noodle was ready to served – I personally could live with a fatter cut but again it’s tender and paired well with this combination of ingredients. The thin stalks of bamboo shoot had a mild flavor and only lightly seasoned, but again, it's just blend right into the bowl of noodles for added texture.

In addition to the noodles, Tsuta also offered two types of rice on the menu - intended to be ordered in addition to the noodles as a full meal, not as alternative. One can either choose the diced pork bellies or sliced ones as topping, both torch-grilled and served with caramelized onions. I loved the bite-sized diced pork bellies with a great smoky flavor, though I wasn’t so much a big fan of the rice, which I thought was cooked with a tad bit more water than required. That could be a teething issue as the weather (particularly humidity) does play a factor in the right water-rice combination.

The bowl of noodles didn’t come cheap at Tsuta, especially compared to other high street ramen joints, but I loved their food, and Tsuta is definitely a positive addition to the increasingly competitive scene of ramen shops at this narrow street in Causeway Bay, which has slowly become our very own version of Ramen Yokocho!

Where? Tsuta, Ground Floor V-Point, 18 Tang Lung Street, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Shio Soba with Half-boiled Egg

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