Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Tonkotsu - Another mean eat on Dean Street

63 Dean Street, London, W1D 4QG

Today I'm again reviewing a new Dean/Frith Street restaurant. I promise that there'll be some geographical variation in the future! Tonkotsu is a new Japanese restaurant, with a familiar concept of being a ramen bar with a sort of informal cafe atmosphere. However, there are a couple of factors that do set it apart. The first thing you notice are the big bubbling vats of stock preparing the broth for the next day's ramen. A very deliberate move to show people walking past where the food is coming from, breaking down the barrier between the dining room and the kitchen. This is supplemented by information on the menu as to the origin of the ingredients and the preparation of the meats. We're certainly moving towards the age where people are becoming very mindful of sourcing, and this can only be a good thing.

The second unique factor is the size of the menu. There are only 3 types of ramen, 3 types of gyoza, 4 sides and 1 dessert. This makes for a small menu akin to that offered at Burger and Lobster (from across the road) and Mark Hix's Tramshed. This is another promising London trend, as a smaller menu means hopefully (!) more focus and attention on the individual dishes and by extension less wastage of food. Who knows what happens with all the ingredients in places with 10 page long menus?

Hiya Yakko Tofu

We took our space at a table upstairs as it was quite busy. I would say the downstairs area does have more atmosphere. Also, there's only one member of staff catering to the upstairs area, so I don't know if service is more attentive downstairs. Certainly, it seemed to be a difficult job to handle the upstairs area alone. We started off our meal by trying some of the side dishes. First up was the Hiya Yakko Tofu, which was a slab of silken tofu, garnished with raw spring onion and shaved bonito (tuna) flakes. I would say that the tofu itself was nothing really special in terms of taste for me, but in combination with the tuna it did work, with the charred and salty taste of the bonito adding an extra dimension to the creamy tofu.


Next up, a perennial favourite of mine, the gyoza, which is a type of pan-fried or grilled dumpling filled typically with pork. We ordered the shiitake and bamboo shoot gyoza, to try something a bit different. The dumplings tasted good, but I found them a bit to delicate to the bite as they fell apart a bit too easily in the mouth compared to the more robust gyoza found on the streets of Tokyo (or Soho for that matter). If I was to order it again I think I would try the prawn or pork dumpling, as I don't think the mushroom and bamboo flavours did enough to tempt me from the more orthodox choices.

So onto the mains. There are three types of ramen available on offer here, each quite distinct from the other:

Miso and Shimeji Mushroom Ramen
The miso and mushroom ramen is the vegetarian option. The base of the stock in this case was made from miso, konbu and shiitake mushroom (umami and then some!)  and so had that characteristic rich, savoury flavour without being overly heavy. The noodles used here were the golden coloured ramen noodles. After getting used to having the thicker udon variety in Japanese noodle soup at so many restaurants (Koya, Misato, Eat Tokyo, etc), it was refreshing to see proper ramen noodles back in the dishes. They were nicely tender too with the characteristic strong egg taste that ramen noodles have.

On top of this were the shimeji mushrooms, spinach, menma (pickled bamboo shoot), spring onions and best of all, their seasoned egg. It's unusual to talk about ramen and go on about the egg, but this really was special. The white component was miso-soft whilst the golden yolk was glutinous, almost jelly-like. I could have probably dropped another one of these in the ramen (you have the option to), they were so good!

However, I think in terms of the other ingredients, it was not a particularly special dish. I think it's obviously great that they have a solid vegetarian option, but Nathalie did say she would prefer to order one of the other ramens in the future.

Tokyo Spicy

I ordered the Tokyo Spicy option. The broth here was soy, chilli, pork and chicken based. It was quite spicy, but not too much so. Certainly for me it wasn't so spicy that someone with a reasonable tolerance  can't handle. This is a good thing as I don't think spiciness should scare people away, it should be used in order to add another dimension to a savoury dish. On top of the ramen noodles, this dish again had spring onions, menma and the seasoned egg, but this time had pulled pork as a topping. I have to say it did work well, even though I've tired slightly at how ubiquitous pulled pork is becoming in London (sorry Pitt Cue Co!). It works here because the acidity from the chilli broth cuts through the tender, fatty meat. This dish really is London-meets-Tokyo, and I enjoyed every bite of it.

Last up is the best of the bunch. Tonkotsu is probably the most authentic ramen of those on selection, but is still quite different from others that you will find in London. Firstly, the stock was made from pork and sea salt base. The consistency was thick and gelatinous, no doubt from the pork bones used to make it. I thought it was excellent, and the seasoning (so crucial here) was spot on. The toppings in this case also included menma, spring onions, seasoned egg, but this time pork belly was used. The pork belly added a really authentic Japanese taste to the dish, and added some extra gelatinous texture to the mix, along with the seasoned egg and broth. This dish was excellent, although anyone who doesn't like heavy, gelatin-based textures should probably go with one of the other options...

Ice Cream Little Moons (From Left to Right: Salted Caramel, Black Sesame, Yuzu)
To finish off, we ordered some ice cream little moons. These were basically mochis (glutinous rice cakes) filled with ice cream. The three flavours given were salted caramel, black sesame and yuzu, which is a type of citrus fruit commonly used in Japanese cooking. I love the idea of picking up the little rice balls with my fingers and nibbling away. Makes for easier sharing too! All the flavours were good, although for me the black sesame is the winner because...well, I just love black sesame. Call me biased but it's one of my favourite ingredients in East Asian cooking and I'll have it in just about anything!

Salted Caramel Mochi Ice Cream...delectable!
Overall, I really enjoyed Tonkotsu. It's very good quality food, with careful attention to ingredients. The small, information-laden menu is a reassuring indication that a lot of thought has gone into the dishes and the concept behind the restaurant. Again like with the case of Shimogamo, I would say overall the noodles are better at Koya, but if you like ramen in particular I think this makes for a great alternative in Soho. Finally, it's very well priced. The mains run at about £9, the sides at £5 roughly and the desserts at £4. All of which will leave you feeling very satisfied. In that terms, for the quality you get and the price you pay, it's a far better option than something like Wagamama, where you will pay a similar price and get lower standard of food, in my opinion. Sit downstairs if you can and slurp away at the delicious won't regret it!

Square MealTonkotsu on Urbanspoon

Photos by Nathalie.

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