The essential Tokyo ramen guide
Words & Photography: Robert Spangle
Tokyo: a city of infinite depth. Immediately upon arrival, I knew that if I only scratched the surface in my lifetime it would be time well spent. At all hours there is an ordered hum to things. Extending in all directions, especially up, the city is deficient on dead ends and sleep, but nothing else. The sprawl is unpredictable and devoid of boundaries: a self-writing map limited only by my comprehension of the place. A strange coding mixes shops, studios, and sporadic shrines amongst neighbourhoods, with a pleasant, persistent illusion that the city could be expanding with each turn.
The urban spread seems in proportionate to the population. I ran into the same Harajuku hype kids on three sides of the city with two different hair colours in the same week. Nearly devoid of tourists, Tokyo is a magnet for designers on pilgrimage. In front of the Kapital store in hilly Ebisu, I found Nick Fouquet, Alessandro Squarzi and Fernando Ruiz (of 1k Corp) completely unaware of each other and unable to explain how they found the place. It was Fernando who introduced me to Abram Plaut, the legendary sneakerhead turned international Ramen Beast - my saving grace for all things edible in Tokyo.
Abram gave me the short version of the past 17 years he's spent in Japan: Wu-Tang, his taste buds, and school took him to Japan and he's never looked back. An early and avid sneakerhead, he embraced the cult-like collector culture of Japan and was soon doing good business selling his rare Tokyo finds, most notably: early Air Jordans.
Ramen quickly took over and Abram found his place in the spotlight reviewing sushi for publications like Playboy Japan. Reviews and interviews pilled up, and soon he had helped put together a Ramen Beast App and his own store in the US.
Spinning, and out of my depth linguistically and culturally, I turned to Abram to show me the best eats in Tokyo…
Bear Pond Coffee
Notwithstanding the language barrier and cultural hurdles just to get a table, coffee seemed like familiar ground on which to start my exploration. I've seen coffee taken to extremes before (baristas helicoptering onto Swiss glacier tops to brew, 4,000km motorcycle roaster pilgrimages, Columbian beans laced with other Columbian exports) but nothing prepared me for Bear Pond’s famous owner/roaster/Barista, “Katsu” Tanaka.
It took a few morning trips to the hip, vintage shop-rich neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa to actually taste one of Katsu’s famous creations. To maintain his focus and quality, he limits himself to making only a few per day, and only before noon. Photos are allowed only through an additional round of emails through his PR agency.
But hype and ritual are laid bare by experience. The first espresso I had floored me: I was hooked. Jarringly syrupy, its consistency can only be compared to Southern Italy's spoon-standing traditions. The depth of its darkest muddy nectar, I can only recall encountering before in Djibouti.
Katsu’s intense, precise understanding and control of every element in the process yields unique creations that, as much as they may read as a gimmick, unquestioningly deliver new sensations to any coffee aficionado. It's coffee turned to math in the hands of a genius.
His crowning creation, “The Dirty Angel” was the perfect result of his control and understanding. Two separate espresso shots, each pulled according to their unique flavour profiles (one bright, tropical and fruity, the second rich, chocolatey and sedimentary) then dumped into a chilled glass of cold milk such that the two plumes of espresso intermix across the first three sips, each sip delivering an entirely new flavour.
Steeped in caffeine, it was time to take the plunge into Sushi.
25-6 Mishiikebukuro 3-Chome, Toshima, Tokyo
Sushi houses are generally quiet, tucked away spots. Signalled with small signs (if at all) and frequently next to or stories above larger restaurants, they are cult within a society that already fetishizes perfection in service. They follow these ideas to the extreme conclusion of reservations only, with weekly or daily fixed menus delivered directly from the chef's hand to yours.
Abram showed me a new and somewhat less conventional restaurant, Ichuryuan. Sushi is a purist food, but Ichuryuan excelled in its unconventional approach, punctuating sushi with small soup and meat dishes from across Japan. Pulling no punches for foreign guests, the first jarring course was crab head served cold - the delicate head meat marinating in its own broth.
'Eat, don't think' became a rewarding mantra.
Sake did wonders to cut into what proved to be a meal of heavy, small portions. The cold milky “Namasake" flowed between courses after a more traditional bottle of “Nigorisake”. Monkfish liver, dubbed "the Foie Gras of the sea”, stunned with its leaden and earthy, yet indescribably rich taste. The fish sperm sack that followed was - jokes aside - creamy, dizzying, and tasted (in the best way possible) like the sea. Charred duck surprised with its sweet smokiness. Choice BBQ, sans the sauce, leading into another unexpected dish of Deer tendon which was sonorous and as tender as any of the fish served.
The casual and often humorous conversation between Abram and the chef quickly became central to the experience. Having the chef visit your table anywhere else on Earth is a rarity, but here it was a matter of course that had real bearing on the course of the meal.
Floor 2, 4-4-16 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo
SUSHI 10 was slated for the following night and with another ramen legend, Hiroshi Shimakage, joining us, I was now happily outnumbered by experts. Known for pure sushi, the menu builds course by course, ascending to dizzy heights. Pure drama for the taste buds.
Down a side street and up a narrow set of stairs with no sign, Sushi 10 opened onto a wide L-shaped bar that took up 3/4 of the restaurant, with low clean light giving the bar a radiant glow in front of two sushi chefs. Again the menu is fixed (fluctuating weekly based on the ingredients in season), but the wise chefs tailor each meal to their patrons.
Starting with squid, Sea urchin, then flat fish set in a self-liver sauce. Fresh oysters from Hokido to cleanse the pallet, Crab in shell, choice cuts of Spanish mackerel, and then the richest cut of yellowtail arrived practically wriggling. Rich fish sperm sacks, again - this time with a little less hesitation. Sardines followed with oysters from Hokkaido, then a small soup of cream cheese smoked miso led to another round of clams and buttery tuna. Each course building to the effervescent refreshing Uni masterfully balanced with sharp pickled radish.
The anago sea eel that followed was a stand out plate. Warm and vibrant with a long sweet finish that smouldered like a campfire caught in an offshore breeze.
Dessert was startling in its simplicity: a single. fucking. grape. The shine muscat grape was sweeter than water to a man dying of thirst. Icy cold, clear as a bell, sobering in its contrast and divine in its simplicity.
At 12 courses this was no small meal, but each course compounded the last leaving me in a sensory existential funk for the next 3 days. I looked back on 28 years of meaningless eating, and forward knowing I was cursed to descend these great heights via aeroplane, my ticket booked to take me home in less than a week.
Living up to his title as one of Japan's most famous ramen connoisseurs, Abram saved his best for last.
Mensho is the famed series of restaurants owned by ramen master Tomohary Shono, who now has lines of patrons queueing up for his noodles on both sides of the ocean, with his recent state-side opening making waves in San Francisco.
While I’d already tried a few kinds of Ramen in Tokyo, I kept hoping to encounter something that fit my idea of ramen noodles: bowl and broth The bachelor life essence I’d weened on in my university years, but much, much better. I’d had dry ramen (Mezesoba), nearly black ramen, and wheat noodle ramen, but so far not a trace of the familiar.
My ramen Mensho arrived in Tsukemen style: noodles, broth, and toppings separate. Two fatty cuts of duck and pork stare up at me, and I'm completely lost at what to do next. I peered down the bar at the other customers for tips, but not until I began doing the wrong thing, (adding the broth to the noodles) did one of the chefs peek over the counter and offer some direction and all was made right with the world.
There is something primordially satisfying about good ramen. The rich, oily broth's swirling steam seems to have mystical properties. The traditional and completely savage slurping method of consumption.
Good ramen leaves you hungering for more, yet full beyond comprehension. Good ramen is Tokyo in a bowl.
This article was contributed to END. as part of the ongoing 'Highly Recommended' series, providing an insider/outsider experience of global cuisine, nightlife, and travel as experienced by industry leaders pushing the boundaries and defining the zeitgeist in their respective fields.