Two ramen places in less than 24 hours and I’ve got a lot to say.
If there’s one thing 2012 will be remembered for, it will be the year that saw a resurgence of ramen-yas in Manila. Noodles and mami will always be a hit for Pinoys, and why not? Few things can beat a bowl of noodles immersed in a searing broth, its fragrant wisps of steam stoking nostrils and stomachs.
House of Tsukemen
Mitsuyado Sei-Men (herewith called Mitsuyado for brevity) opened to wild anticipation just this past month. Slow service notwithstanding, it’s the curiosity of its star dish, the tsukemen, that keeps the crowds coming. Currently quite the rage globally, tsukemen or dipping noodles comes with a dipping sauce and toppings that range from boiled vegetables to those irresistible tamago, soft-boiled eggs (above) that are cooked just ‘til the white is opaque but the yolk remains runny (hopefully).
Mitsuyado, the Sei-men in its name refers to noodle-making, is all about the noodles. The tsukemen (both regular and special), and some of the ramens come with udon noodles, and they are outstanding. Long and demonstrating impressive tensile strength, the udon is perfectly al dente, bouncing with each bite and pushing back in protest when pressed with teeth. Of an uncommonly delightful texture, they slip and slide down the throat. You’ll be given a choice of whether you want your udon hot or cool, and I strongly suggest you go for the latter. There’s a thrill about dipping cool udon into a warm dipping sauce.
What you need to know about the dipping sauce is that it’s a sauce not a soup. When it’s served, I’m expecting a hot soup that hurts going down, as I expect of all my soups. No, the dipping sauce is warm at most, the forefront flavor being a shoot of citrus. All the tsukemens come with a yuzu (Japanese citrus) infused pork broth that sends sparks through the taste buds spreading a pleasant sourness on the sides of the tongue. Salty-sweet-sour, the sauce arouses appetites, making tsukemen frighteningly habit-forming indeed.
Aside from the tsukemens, I avidly recommend the gyozas (“Best in Manila!” My Bin crows), and the Tan Tan Ramen (below). It’s in this particular dish that ramen shows its original colors: that it’s Japan’s national dish in hiding by way of China. The key is the deeply flavored pork broth seeped with a sesame paste made from ground and roasted sesame seeds. Think: tahini with an Asian accent.
The soup’s layers of flavorful depth unfold to the back of my palate: nutty first, then nips of chili pepper heat followed by nibbles of meatiness from the ground beef. I close my eyes and think inexplicably, of laksa. The udon here is not as springy as that in the tsukemen but it’s of no matter. A murmur of satisfaction escapes from my mouth like the wisps of steam spiraling off the soup.
#22 Jupiter St., Bel-Air Village, Makati
(02) 511 1390
On Facebook: Mitsuyado.seimen
Kichitora of Tokyo
The latest ramen ya in Manila is so new that by the time you read this, it will have been open for only six days. Yes, you know that I prefer to visit restaurants when they’ve taken down their “Soft Opening” signs but as one of my lunch companions today remarks, “It’s nice to see what there is to look forward to.”
Kichitora is an amalgamation of two Japanese words that translates to lucky tiger. The restaurant’s Japanese aesthetic seems strikingly authentic down to its trio of visiting Japanese chefs, but make no mistake about it, Kichitora is a locally conceived concept. Very clever, and as owner Larson Chang tells me, “We conceptualized Kichitora for international expansion.” Its dishes are based on what he and his family deemed the best from selected ramen-yas in Tokyo.
It’s disheartening to see several items plastered with a Not Available sticker but at least the star dish is very much available: Paitan (White Soup) Chicken. In the Japanese language, paitan denotes a (soup’s) milky nature often contributed by, in this case, chicken and/or pork bones. It’s the fat and collagen from these that are responsible for the broth’s opacity and viscous mouth feel. Choose from either Paitan Ramen or Paitan Tsukemen and for the latter play with the toppings offered – everything from chashu (grilled pork or chicken), bamboo shoots, and again my favorite, tamago.
Above is the Paitan (White Soup) Chicken Ramen. The immediate flavor that unfurls is yes, milkiness, rich and thick. It treads a fine line between too salty and just right and somehow, the thin, thin somen don’t stand up to the burly broth. I feel however, that this might be more a matter of my preference than anything else.
What’s truly exceptional here is the chicken; see the photo above and notice how white it is. I’m eating with two chefs and I can’t help but listen to their almost reverent utterances. “So pure and perfect,” says one. “Sous vide. Definitely sous vide,” proclaims the other. Initially, my mind rejects the cooking method mentioned: I don’t see any thermal immersion circulators in the open kitchen. But I can’t deny the chicken before me. Utterly immaculate with a texture like butter. ‘tis a pity that there are only two small slices given.
This is an “exploratory lunch” akin to say, an ocular visit so I don’t get to try or order much. The Spicy Mabo Tofu with Pork Tsukemen has one foot in China, the other in Japan, red and fiery and quite the experience to be eating this Chinese restaurant staple with noodles. I’m not too happy with the gyoza – while it’s made with the dual function Japanese machinery that steams then pan-fries, the texture is quite homogeneous, the flavor even more so without the distinctive gingery top note.
My chef-friend nabs one of the only ten Special Miso Chashu Ramens available today. It’s very, very big in flavor, like a large man with an exceptional bass voice. The broth coats the tongue, embraces it mightily and is “…very ‘chicken-ny’,” comments my friend after a single sip.
I’m looking forward to re-visiting Kichitora once the service gets better and they’ve ripped off all the Not Available stickers from the menu.