Ramen

Tonkotsu, Birmingham

Tonkotsu comes to this city on the back of high praise, beloved of paid food critics and those pesky bloggers alike, throughout the six locations across London.  The groups first steps outside the capital is a curious one; being the food hall of Selfridges, where shoppers presumably show what taste they lack by going between Yo Sushi and Krispy Kreme.  We go three days into the launch and already the fifteen or so counter chairs are almost full.  Either Birmingham has a very knowing food crowd or I have underestimated just how hungry shopping for a Michael Kors handbag makes you.

 

The name Tonkotsu apparently translates as “pork bone”, which makes up a large portion of the menu – a long simmered stock of piggy bits that would normally be discarded as waste.  The result of this process is the backbone for this type of ramen; a stock soup with noodles and a few added bits and bobs that the Japanese have been chowing and slurping on for decades.  Ramen verdict later, we start with pork gyoza and chicken kara-age.  The gyoza’s are a disappointment, watery and flat on seasoning, only springing to life when dredged through the soy sauce.  Much better are the kara-age, crisp bits of deep fried chicken thighs, with a batter that snaps like fortune cookies when tore apart by hand.  They do a burger here with this chicken which on this form will be the sole reason for my return.

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The Tonkotsu arrives in branded bowls.  The signature bowl is a murky off-white colour of pork stock, creamy in texture with thin bouncy noodles that they are rightly proud to say they make in-house.  There are thin slices of pork belly, half a boiled egg that has discoloured in the stock, spring onions and bean sprouts.  The first slurp is comforting, thereafter it is too salty.  I persist in the name of gluttony and awake the following day so dehydrated I feel hungover, despite sticking only to the yuzu lemonade that evening.  Another bowl with a pork and chicken broth is cleaner in taste and vibrant with a homemade chilli oil that first smacks the mouth and then the lips.  The chicken portion is meagre and we find it difficult to get excited about.  It reminds me of a similar dish at Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York which punched well above its weight.  This version was only just treading water.

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We play it safe and go for dessert elsewhere, not before being passed an incorrect bill which requires amending.  I welcome London’s finest coming to our city, though it needs to be done with the same quality.  No doubt others will love it, but crispy chicken aside, Tonkotsu left me underwhelmed.

5/10

Momofuku Noodle Bar, New York

The queue at Momofuku Noodle Bar reminded me of home.  Person after person, all lumberjack shirts, beards and beanies, waiting in line for a bowl of soup with bits in.  How very British.  I know people back in UK that would have joined the back of it for fun.  Me, I hate queuing.  Its wasted time that I could be spending doing more important things.  Like drinking.  Or being obnoxious.  But the original offering from the Momofuku group was high on the NYC hit list, partially due to it being a block away from our accommodation, though mostly down to it being a David Chang restaurant.  I like what I read about Chang; in every printed interview he embodies the ‘fuck ’em’ attitude that I love about his adopted city.  He is a sweary, belligerent man, with an apparent dislike for vegetarians and food bloggers alike.  Two dislikes which I happily share in the majority.

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We eventually sit on a communal table in the brightly lit but narrow, canteen-esque space of pale wood.  We would have liked to have sat at the long counter and watch the open kitchen in action, though this is the kind of place where you don’t ask questions and take what you are given.  The menu is concise; some stuff in buns, other stuff in bowls.  There is a smattering of other stuff from which we order a moreish soft boiled egg, marinated in soy sauce and topped with crisp onions and chives.  We cannot resist going back for seconds whilst waiting for the hot stuff to arrive.

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It was the steamed buns which started the hysteria here many years ago.  Today we take the beef brisket that requires minimal jaw work, sandwiched between a thin spread of horseradish and pickled onions which still retain some bite.  The buns themselves are a delight; little pillows of rice flour which offer a beguiling textural contrast from the braised meat.

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From ‘bowls’ we order two riffs on ramen.  A pork one has tangles of shoulder meat and a wedge of gelatinous belly, the comforting stock which is central to the dish owed to a long simmering of discarded piggy bits.  The triumphant noodles, full of bounce and restraint, are even better when the runny egg yolk finally reaches them.  Another with morsels of smoked chicken thigh meat has a stock enriched with miso.  Its an addictive mix of umami, salt, and heat.  As far as ramen goes its about as authentic as a drag queen in a kimono, but Oh does it taste good.

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Incredibly, a glass of wine here costs the same price as a main dish, so I’ll leave it to you to decide if the food is excellent value or the booze overpriced.  For me, Momofuku Noodle Bar takes the best of the flavours and textures from Asia and transports them to the western palate.  I just wish that we had somewhere in the UK with similar panache and without the piss-taking prices we are so used to.  Earlier, whilst stood in the warm autumnal evening waiting in line, I ask generic bearded bloke in front if the queues were always so bad.  His response; “yeah, its fucking good”.  David Chang couldn’t have worded it better his sweary, belligerent self.

8/10

Momofuku Noodle Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato