While walking towards the Toni and Guy Academy for a haircut, one worth a measly fiver – and not too bad haircut at all I might add, just not worth the four hours spent experiencing your hair being fumbled over by a student – I made note of the Shoryu Ramen across the road, a ramen joint I’d not come across before. It looked like a nice cosy place from the outside, jam-packed with people, looking rather promising for someone who could not remember the last time he’d had a decent ramen.
Besides the trauma inflicted at Talli Joe some days ago, I’d been on a streak of vegetarian-friendly meals that, although were good for my body, did not necessarily reach my heart and soul. I wanted to get some good old-fashioned fat in me, warm, dripping, unctuous, palate-coating fat, a longing that eventually lead me to Shoryu on a cold and wet London afternoon.
Shoryu was just as brimming with people as it was when I first saw the place. And because it was so chilly outside, wind blowing minute ice-picks into my uncovered face, I made sure to enter and join the huddled group of people waiting past the threshold to be seated.
I wonder if the restaurant had to spend very much at all on heating. There were just so many people in, and with the few waiters waltzing around the room, there was enough body heat to spark a fire. Plus, Shoryu has got an open kitchen with hot aromatic steam spreading from bubbling broth pots, boiling noodle water behind the counter and hot ramen bowls on every table. Sooner than later we were all taking off our jackets, scarves and headgear.
Since I was just one person I was able to quickly get a seat at the bar against the kitchen counter. I didn’t expect my order to be taken anytime soon so I decided to make the best of my vantage point overlooking the ramen station, and see how things were done. The chefs in white, wearing some colourful bandanas, were stylish, swift and clean with their cooking, moving like actors to meticulous direction in a production that seemed to have been worked down to an entertaining and efficient mechanism. No matter who was manning a station, they moved exactly the same, wiping down surfaces and popping dirty bowls into hot wash water when unoccupied.
But there were very few of these unoccupied moments. As orders soon stacked up, so did the bowls on the prep counter waiting to be filled and adorned. Broths at the ready, both the vegetarian and the pork, and noodles pulled from a wooden box and put into strainers in boiling water, the captivating assembly would thus begin: first, the empty bowl is taken to a shared mise-en-place where lashings of different sauces from shoyu to miso are dropped into the bowl depending on the kind of ramen ordered for; second, a single ladle of the broth is poured into the sauced bowl and mixed around with a chopstick that is then put aside to be used again; third, noodles are taken from the water in their strainers, theatrically shaken, and then allowed to cascade into the redolent broth, after which two new chopsticks are taken and used to mix and tumble the noodles for proper integration; and finally the bowl is garnished with thin slices of grey pork from a tray that looked like it had been out for a while, or seafood or chicken similarly stored, soft boiled eggs that are piled on top of each other in large Tupperware containers, and other small bits like chopped spring onions, neatly cut nori sheets and pickled onions from the seemingly bottomless metal draw. The whole thing reminded me of a set up much like Subway, pre-prepared and ready for the rush.
As you can imagine I was not too impressed with the end of the performance. I was not too keen on the idea of having to eat ingredients that have been sitting around festering since prepped earlier in the day. Added to this, about twelve or so minutes into my wait, I noticed that when the broth pot runs low, another from the inner kitchen is not brought through to replace it. Instead a guy just comes through with a sealed plastic bag full of milky broth fluid, rips the bag and pours the contents in. It reminded me of the practice at KFC where the sachet of the secret spice mix is poured into the flour and mixed through before the chicken is dipped in. Except in this case it was the whole shebang. No, I was not impressed at all, but when you take a look at the number of people dining in and the ever-growing line that now extended into the street, you can sort of understand why.
When you think of Shoryu, I suppose it is worth thinking of them as a chain on par with establishments like Wasabi and Itsu– albeit not with as many branches. They’ve homed in on a product that people seem to love, and found a way to make production quick and efficient so that they can serve as many as possible. It was evident that quality was intentionally sacrificed to a certain extent, standardised for more monetisation, but I was still intrigued. Just because cup noodles are processed and unhealthy, does not seem to stop some of them from being deliciously addictive.
I knew the Shoryu bun starter would be rubbish even before it came to me. These were karaage bao buns filled with a singular piece of chicken about the size of a McDonalds chicken nugget, more cucumber and lettuce than is proper, and a mix of sauces that dominates your taste buds with the decadent savoury-sweetness that is excessive by far. The buns were fresh… out the packet, and only steamed about a minute before heading my way. They were hence chewy and cold; indubitably the worst bao I’ve ever had.
The signs weren’t good. But I’d only tried one sorry dish and people were still piling in, so there must have been some magic stuff going on in their ramen, surely. It was only proper to reserve judgement until after my meal.
Some words about traditional tonkotsu ramen before we discuss Shoryu’s iteration. Tonkotsu ramen or Hakata ramen, hails from the Fukuoka Prefecture of Japan. It is fundamentally a rich, creamy pork-based broth, made through boiling pork bones (tonkotsu) and sometimes pig trotters for anywhere between eight to sixty hours to release every ounce of pork flavour from the meat and bones. It is sometimes common to enter a restaurant that specialises in tonkotsu and be able to smell the faint funky stench of boiling bones – there was no such stench at Shoryu because the initial stages of the broth were done elsewhere. The ramen noodles used are thin and long, and are traditionally cooked to customer preference. The other essential components are the char siu pork or chashu pork which are slices of luxuriously tender pork belly that are made through simmering in soy and mirin in Japan (as opposed to roasted in China), and the soft-boiled egg, boasting firm albumen and a still runny yolk.
While the broth of the Shoryu Ganso Tonkotsu, their signature ramen, was tasty, robust and distinctively moreish, the chashu pork slices were near wafer thin, tasteless and unimpressive. The eggs, suited more for storage than for the bowl, had yolks that were congealed and jelly-like, effectively just overdone, which was not as pleasing as the beautiful lava flow of a golden half-boiled yolk would have been. The dish didn’t do it for me, which is not to say it was bad tasting. Much like the infamous katsu curry at Wasabi, it’s not difficult to see why people keep coming back, but it’s most definitely not the best you can get.
To my surprise, dessert came just as I was about to call for the bill. I had completely forgotten it came as part of the Christmas set menu I’d asked for. The sakura and azuki chiffon cake was nothing much to look at, just a simple sakura pink sponge cake with a tiny pot of deep red cherry coulis. But I loved it from the first bite. The cake was moist and fragrant and absorbed the coulis as soon as it was poured over, even before any of it could trickle down onto the plate. With the sugary tartness of the coulis, the dish was the perfect finale after a significantly heavy course.
Leaving out the sorry excuse for a bao bun the meal was not too bad. I left Shoryu with a good taste in my mouth and a mind at relative ease, which is more than I can say for many prior dining experiences. For the number of customers they serve, at the speed at which they do, whilst delivering on flavour, for the most part, I think their cutting a few corners to make things run smoother becomes more a strategy than an issue of negligence. At the same time, cutting those corners do relegate them to a rung not too far above the mundane fast food joints you see just around any corner in central London, which I think is a just assessment.
If you are a student or just someone who is tired of cup noodles and fancy a lively atmosphere to share bowls of hot fatty soup for just over a tenner, then head over to Shoryu Ramen. It’s not the kind of place you go to be discerning, rather one that you visit when you want to stuff face, slurp and have a laugh amongst friends. Chances are you’ve got to wait for your table, but if you like your ramen and aren’t too fussy about your personal space then it might be worth your while.
35 Great Queen St, London WC2B 5AA
Ramen Noodles £10.00-£18.00; Shoryu Poke £9.50-£9.90 ; Sides £4.50-£16.00; Desserts £5.00-£7.90