I’ve looked forward to the time I could try out Tonkotsu. When the minds behind this were still looking for a space and ran Tsuru Ramen pop-up to test out recipes, I was a frequent customer going to no less than 3 of their pop-up sessions. Each time, I loved the ramen that was served up, devoured as many servings of gyoza and kara-age as I could, and revelled in the sweetness of the Umeshu and the dry crisp flavour of the cold sake. My main gripe was that it was bloody hard to get tickets for the very limited seating pop-up sessions so the idea of a permanent location serving such wonderful noodle offerings was A+ in my book.
Unfortunately, like so many pop-ups/food trucks turned brick and mortar, something has been lost. I don’t know if I should attribute this to the need to be more cost-effective, the difficulties in catering to larger numbers of people continuously, or a transition from owner-driven to employee-prepared. Whatever it is, the end result is a poor shadow of the glory of the Tsuru pop-ups and it seems that they’ve taken all the great research and feedback they must have got during the pop-up time (and I know that a number of Yelpers and myself had a long chat with one of the owners during the pop-up meal) and thrown it out the window. Even in its relatively short life as a brick and mortar, Tonkotsu has modified its menu with the most notable change being the replacement of the Tokyo Spicy broth (which alone was a reason to go) with a generic shoyu (soy-based) broth.
Alright, let’s get into the detail of the experience. First, this is a no-reservation place to be prepared to wait. We were crowded into the narrow entrance/exit portion which meant you get pressed into everyone like sardines (think the Northern line at peak times) and even more so when someone tries to get out. The only benefit is that you get to watch the guys make the Ramen but the chefs studiously ignore everyone. Come on, guys, if you are going to have an open plan kitchen in the window and next to the line of hungry customers, get some entertainment going which would make us all a lot happier about waiting.
Finally, after about 20 minutes, the two of us were lead to an upstairs table. Now they’ve crammed the covers in (which I don’t mind too much) but it does mean there is no space for jackets, bags, and anything else you may be carrying (in my case, cycle helmet and some shopping). The menu is fairly limited with a handful of starters and sides and three types of Ramen: Tonkotsu (pork broth), Tokyo (soy-based broth), and a mushroom and miso broth.
The gyoza looked a bit gummy (we got a close view of the table next to us who ordered it) so we opted for the kara-age and tempura prawns. Both were decent with a good crunchy coating and very little oiliness. Both could also have done with a bit more seasoning or perhaps a bit more sauce to dip in but overall an adequate start to the meal.
Ramen-wise, we ordered a Tonkotsu and a Tokyo. I asked what happened to the Tokyo Spicy and was informed that I could just add chilli oil to the Tokyo to make it spicy. Now, first off, that’s completely different from a broth that has been designed to be spicy and second, the chilli oil had about as much heat as a snowball.
The Tonkotsu was extremely disappointing and lacked in flavour. Now I don’t mean it wasn’t as meaty as I wanted it to be, but rather that it wasn’t meaty at all and tasted of water that may have seen some pork in passing. The pieces of meat were limp and greasy (not in a good way!) that made you feel as if they had been boiled down for the stock and then thrown back in. Which would be acceptable had there been any taste to the broth. So my question, Tonkotsu, is what did you do with all the meaty goodness?!
The Tokyo was better although the meat was still disappointing. The egg was tasty and well seasoned but there were few veggies and the noodles could have done with a little more cooking time. I’d wager the broth wasn’t hot enough before being poured over the noodles which caused this problem. A bit unacceptable when this is quite literally your stock in trade.
The best part of the meal was the end, and I mean that only partially due to dessert. We got a selection of mochi to share: chocolate dusted salted caramel, yuzu (a lemony fruit), and sesame. The chocolate powder and dough were good but a bit generic and the salted caramel ice cream was tasty although could use a bit more salt for my personal tastes, the sesame a bit weak, and the yuzu incredible. Yuzu has a delicate lemon flavour that both teases and refreshes. In a mochi (a ball of ice cream covered in a thin sweet and soft dough), the balance between sweetness and tartness is perfect.
Drinks were average with two of the four cocktails involving umeshu, a plum wine. Which is fine, as long as you have umeshu…which of course they didn’t. How do you run out of something that central to your cocktail menu at 7pm on a Friday? And if you do, run down the street to Chinatown or Japan Centre and buy it! So a drinks fail as our first two choices were not available and we ended up with some tea.
Overall, a pretty poor Ramen experience which puts it squarely in last place for London Ramen joints. Bone Daddies still holds the top spot for best all around bowl and egg, Cocoro for best spicy broth and meat, and Ittenbari for the noodles and shoyu broth. Nagomi and Shoryu also pip Tonkotosu in the overall standings so all that’s left is to try Koya. Bring back to pop-ups, Tonkotsu, as the brick and mortar isn’t cutting it!