Finding salvation in a bowl of ramen

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By Joseph L. Garcia, Reporter

SALVATION FROM the woes of the world can be found in a bowl of noodles. Each country has its own version of noodles and meat cuts suspended in broth, serving as palliatives for conditions ranging from drunkenness to despair. Rarely has a bowl of noodles achieved such a cultural impact as Japan’s own ramen. The soup has achieved worldwide recognition and serves as one of Japan’s cultural icons.

Ramen restaurants are a staple in Japan and in many parts of the world, and instant versions of the thing are found on supermarket shelves, peddling themselves as the revered noodles, but the difference between them is akin to comparing a fling to a lover: while the cheap versions are consumed quickly, with a little guilt and with very little care; a good ramen is something you pay attention to — listening, breathing in, and observing each one of the nuances that make it so, from the steam rising from the bowl to the aroma that it brings to the nose.

No, we didn’t get that from a book. During the opening of a branch of Tsuta Japanese Soba Noodles’ (the only ramen restaurant in the world with a Michelin star, which was awarded in 2015 and sustained in subsequent editions) in the Philippines last week, gossip and chatter gradually died down as the noodles arrived at the table. Each diner approached the bowl with reverence, and nobody gobbled, gulped, or wolfed down: everybody sipped and nibbled, each quiet bite a prayer of thanks.

Tsuta Ramen, at present, has seven branches in the world — the first one in Japan (which opened in 2012), then spread out across Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. It was brought to the Philippines by Foodee Global Concepts which is also behind bringing to the country FOO’D by Davide Oldani and Tim Ho Wan, each awarded a Michelin-star in their own countries.

The Manila branch seats 48 in both bar and table seating. A press release from Foodee Global Concepts promises that the ingredients used will be imported from Japan and the chefs trained by the founder in order to guarantee the quality.

BusinessWorld had the stomach to eat all three of the varieties served in Tsuta: the shoyu soba (soy-sauced based), shio soba (Okinawa sea salt and Mongolian rock salt-base), and miso soba (Hatcho miso-flavored).

The shoyu soba (P390), its most popular variant, tasted aggressive, melding all the flavors of the bamboo shoots, and was topped with leek and truffle pureed in truffle oil, along with a slice of char siu (barbecued pork). This isn’t your drunk ramen; be a gentleman.

To be honest with you though, I felt that it was a mistake to have the shoyu soba first, when there was shio soba (P390) which felt like it had spent its time waiting for me, so it could release all its charms. It had with a minty scent that did not hold back, flush with the taste of what I could only describe as a garden after a spring rain. The freshness of its flavor was accented by the leeks and green olives pureed in truffle oil that served to flavor the light salt-based broth.

Then came the miso soba (P410), which tasted quite complex; intimidating, even. It boasted of a broth that was almost like a thick sauce, brightened with hot sauce, porcini mushroom oil and watercress; the had a nuttiness to it that gave it a certain raw earthiness.

Uniformly, all the noodles had a silky texture that was yielding and seductive. Combined, all the elements gave an almost complete sensorial experience: from the sound of your slurp to the noodles’ slip towards your lips.

Chef Onishi Yuki was at the launch in the Philippines, and he was every bit as stylish as the ramen he served. Due perhaps to his previous work in fashion (where he would buy goods from overseas and bring them to Japan to sell), he had a certain flair evident in his choice of work clothing. While other ramen chefs content themselves with boots, and towels wrapped around their heads, Mr. Yuki had his navy chef’s jacket cut like a blazer, wore a Gucci watch, and a diamond-studded cross dangled from his neck and rested on his chest.

According to his interpreter, speaking in a mixture of English and Filipino, Mr. Yuki has always felt that ramen was something cool, something that looked good, and he wanted to be seen as looking just as good. Just as well, because according to his interpreter, Mr. Yuki serves his customers in his nine-seater Tokyo restaurant himself. “He wants to serve only nine at a time because he wants to make sure that he really serves quality,” she said in a mixture of English and Filipino.

“He’s happy to get the Michelin star, but for him, it makes him happier when the customers he serves himself appreciate what he does.”

Tsuta Japanese Soba Noodles is located at C3 Bonifacio High Street Central, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City. It is open daily from 11:30 a.m. and onwards so long as supplies last.