During the event “Nanban: Japanese Soul Food” (read about it here), chef Tim Anderson mentioned the famous Japanese ramen chain Ippudo was about to open its first ramen restaurant in Europe and London was the chosen city to start their European adventure. Ippudo has currently 43 restaurants all over Japan and other stores in Asia, but with the opening of Sydney’s and New York’s branches, the chain started another chapter of their entrepreneurial adventure for the promotion of ramen outside Asia.
I never had the chance to try Ippudo in Japan as I always idealistically preferred the little family owned Ramen-ya (ramen restaurants), fantasising about secret recipes passed down from the old generation to the younger ones. However, I’m not in Japan at the moment – I would add unfortunately – therefore the combination of my insatiable curiosity and, most importantly, my weakness for food was enough to lure me into the brand new Ippudo London restaurant at the base of Renzo Piano’s bright orange building in Central Saint Giles Piazza.
The location is trendy and modern, perfectly embracing the urban design and the style of the area with a hint of sophistication. In fact, the restaurant is surrounded by glass walls, whose brightness contributes to create a contemporary ambience, enhancing the contrast between the wood materials and the bold interiors. In all fairness, I would expect such a stylish atmosphere to be associated more with high end restaurants rather than ramen bars, which in Japan are often unsophisticated, definitely less bright, and more cramped places.
While I was lost in this reasoning and in the meantime I was questioning the suitability of my casual clothes for the place, I was surprised, and admittedly a bit scared, by the entire staff greeting us with a loud “Irasshaimase!!!!” (lit. welcome) in unison.
After few minutes I realised there were precise guidelines for greetings: every time new customers were assigned to a table, one of the managers escorted them while shouting in a very polite Japanese something like: “There are 2 new customers!”, so the staff would reply with “Welcome!”. Then, after placing the order the waiter/waitress would shout: “Table 13 has decided!” and the chefs would reply “Correct!”. Then when the order was ready the waiter/waitress would shout that the food was leaving the kitchen and again the chef would respond something like “Correct!”. Needless to mention the choir of “Arigatou gozaimashita!!!” (lit. Thank you very much) with the entire staff smiling and staring at the customers when they leave.
The hearty welcoming atmosphere and the related loud greetings seem, at first, to be tailored exactly to bring the authenticity and informality of the original Japanese ramen restaurant, which are mainly visited by students and salary men, therefore not a really refined or exclusive target audience.
However, in Ippudo London’s case, this way of dealing with customers seemed to me too much forced as well as clearly contrasting with the trendy environment of the restaurant. I really hope the members of staff don’t lose their voice at the end of each shift, otherwise it would be a huge problem!
I cannot judge the entire menu, as I was at Ippudo’s only for their famous ramen, but I can openly express a bit of disappointment because I sincerely expected more to choose from, rather than only 2 types of pork ramen along with their two vegetarian version with seaweed and fried tofu. Don’t get me wrong, it’s undoubtedly positive that they don’t have 20 or even more different types of ramen on the menu, otherwise I would start questioning the quality and the freshness of their products. However, another two variations – say a seafood and a seasonal recipe – would have been a nice addition.
My fiancé and I went for the two original signature recipes, the Shiromaru Hakata Classic and the Akamaru Modern.
Shiromaru Hakata Classic according to Ippudo’s menu: “Our original tonkotsu pork broth; homemade thin noodles topped with pork loin chashu, sesame kikurage mushrooms, bean sprouts and spring onions.” The broth was so rich and thick that its opaque surface covered the noodles underneath. A bold statement of a full intense flavour, and it was indeed: meaty but at the same time smooth and mellow, I would say also reassuring.
Although this ramen was served piping hot as it should always be, noodles were al dente and kept their perfect texture for the whole time I was waiting for the broth cool down a bit. Pork was tender and succulent retaining all the juices of the soy sauce sake and sugar seasoning used for the marinade before being slowly braised. Kikurage mushrooms and spring onions added respectively earthy and acidic notes, contrasting the smooth flavour of the broth. I chose to add a seasoned boiled egg as extra topping for £1.50, because a ramen bowl wouldn’t be complete without it.
Akamaru Modern according to the menu: “A bolder translation of the original pork broth; homemade thin noodles topped with Ippudo’s secret Umami Dama paste, pork belly chashu, bean sprouts, sesame kikurage mushrooms, spring onions and fragrant garlic oil.” The bright red spicy miso paste slowly melting in the broth, together with the sharp garlic oil and the nutty sesame, gives the soup a daring kick to the overall well balanced meaty flavour.
So you liked your noodles very much and you almost finished them but still have plenty of soup, what do you do? if you are anything like my fiancé you would shout “Kaedama please!”, and soon a waiter would bring another serving of noodles for £1.50.
My vote for Ippudo London is 8.5 and here’s why: I loved their ramen because it’s prepared with excellent ingredients and traditional methods. I frankly believe it is one of the best, if not the best, ramen in town, but I don’t feel like giving Ippudo London a higher vote because I would like to try more ramen variations. Ippudo cherishes tradition, but the team behind it’s always open for testing of new ingredients and combinations, so who knows, let’s give them time to familarise with the European tastes and its influences and let’s see how it goes.
I’m still not convinced about the contrast between the trendy modern interiors and the idea of the typical ramen bar, but if this strategy works for all their restaurants, then it’s a winning one.