The real Ramen experience at Ichiran Ramen, Tokyo (Shinjuku)

Monday, October 14, 2013

Ichiran is ramen on steroids. Gourmet ramen, if you can call it that. An amazing foodie adventure full of ramen, tempura, udon, ramen, soba, rice was the main highlight of our recent holiday to Japan and Malaysia (besides the occasional pizza, which turns out to be not that unusual in Japan..).

One of the most memorable eateries we visited was Ichiran, a popular ramen chain in Japan that focuses on savouring the perfect personalised Tonkotsu ramen experience. So focused on flavour and experience are the creators that most of the seating at their restaurants is single-counter seating at which you are to sit at your own personal booth and be served your steaming fresh bowl of ramen from behind a semi-concealed kitchen that sits just on the other side of the wall partition.

Our discovery of this specialisation eatery started with a queue. We quickly learned in Japan that any place that has a queue must be a hit among the locals, and therefore must serve top-notch Japanese food. One night walking around the dazzling lights and commotion of Shinjuku we came across a line that snaked all the way up the stairs from the basement level onto the street, and all the people in the line seemed to be locals who were waiting to get in for their dinner. Curiosities overwhelming us, we nonchalantly joined the line, the anticipation of what we were lining up for not yet revealed. But alas, once we reached the bottom of those stairs, it became clear that all the commotion and queuing was for the sake of ramen. And why not? The Japanese take their ramen very seriously.

Oogling at what was behind the curtain!

According to their website, there are 5 steps to the Ichiran system:

1. Buy your meal tickets
Once we reached what we thought was the beginning of the line, we were brought into the main eatery entrance where we ordered our ramen from a vending machine. Of course, since we couldn't read Japanese, we used the pictures to work out what we wanted. The main base Tonkotsu ramen cost 750 yen, with the larger size 900 yen. You get a ticket for each ramen you buy, and an additional one for each topping. Toppings were of the traditional kind and included seaweed, a half boiled egg, woody ear mushrooms, corn, shallots and extra slices of pork.

2. Find a vacant seat
Then we joined another line, from which we could see a huge board full of blinking lights of all the seats in the eatery that blinked blue, red or yellow. Not quite sure what colour meant what but it was pretty cool to see. Then once seats were available we stepped inside and sat at a stool in our own little semi-sectioned off booth. It had its very own water dispenser and button to refill your ramen bowl, as well as a little bamboo 'blind' that was rolled down once your ramen was served.

Individual ramen booths

3. Customise your ramen
The fun part! Waiting for a seat we were handed a form that asked us our ramen preference based on flavour strength (weak - strong), richness (none - ultra rich), garlic, spring onion, pork slices, secret pepper sauce and noodle firmness. This was definitely something that got us excited about the ramen at Ichiran, and what was what made the ramen there so special. Each individual bowl is customised to it's noodle-slurper's preference, something that you can't get anywhere else.

Ramen preference form and meal tickets

4. Press the button in front of your to call staff
The second time we went I ordered a half-size noodle refill. The only thing required when I got this was that there was enough broth left for the refill. Once you're ready for your extra noodles you press the button in front of you, and a magical sound fills the whole restaurant, notifying other eaters and the chefs. At first we weren't quite sure what the sound was, but once we pressed our own buttons we discovered that that chime that rang out was from each eater who wanted their own refill. I think.

5. Concentrate on The Flavour
The chef behind the blind wall bows to you when you receive your ramen! A clear reflection of the polite and friendly Japanese mannerism. The purpose of the individual booth seating is that so each patron can focus solely on their own bowl of personalised ramen without any distractions. It's especially good for solitary eaters, but even with a family of 5 we were still able to sit within proximity of each other and enjoy our ramen by ourselves. And the booth walls fold down halfway, so if you wanted to you could make your experience less private if sitting next to someone you know.

Ramen ready!
The ramen itself was amazing. The personalised aspect of it means that you can never have a ramen that is too rich, too strong or too soggy. You can get it just as you like, and it's not heavy or oily at all. The pepper sauce is the chilli element to it, and the broth itself had a deliciously porky, ramen-y taste. It was the best ramen I had in Japan, the country of Ramen. I loved the noodles in particular because they weren't the curly, 2-minute noodle kind you get at most ramen joints and instead really lovely and thin. 

There are Ichiran restaurants all around Japan, but the one we went to was in Shinjuku, Tokyo, on the east side of the JR line along one of the many shop-lined side-streets. There are also take-home packs you can get from Ichiran after your ramen-splurge, which feature dry wata-noodles and Tonkotsu ramen sauce and a citrus dressing. Personally, though I'd make the trip there just to have the ramen. Just the way I like it.


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