One pricey bowl of soup noodles

Overwhelmed with popularity, Chef Shoichi Fujimaki responds with high-end ramen

by Brett Bull

A bowl of noodles at a typical Tokyo ramen joint is cheap — usually around ¥800 — and served in a convenient location. Fujimaki Gekijo, situated between Nakameguro and Yutenji in Meguro Ward, is neither. And the owner and chef, Shoichi Fujimaki, would have it no other way.

His shop is tucked into the first floor of a concrete building at the end of a winding residential road and serves its signature Spicy Castle ramen dish for a seemingly hefty ¥3,000.

“People will pay more for nice things,” rationalizes the 40-year-old, sporting closely cropped hair and a white chef’s coat pulled over a pink, collared dress shirt. “If I thought it was too expensive, I wouldn’t be in this business.”

The rich and spicy tom yam soup — a pork- and chicken-base broth topped with celery and garnished with a flower and lemon slice — is Fujimaki’s attempt to create the first high-end ramen, arriving on the counter next to a rolled napkin and shiny silverware. Even in these dire economic times, the chef is confident about the viability of his product, which was born due to a mad rush of customers two years ago to his former Ikejiri shop, off Route 246 in Setagaya Ward.

After his restaurant was reviewed by noted food critic Hideyuki Ishigami and featured on the TBS program “Osama no Brunch” (“Osama’s Brunch”) in October 2006, a line formed out onto the sidewalk each day. The chef figured this condition would last for two or three days — a week, tops.

“But they kept coming, and I was working like a robot,” he remembers. “I felt that this was not the life I wanted.”

So he upped his price incrementally from ¥1,000 until it reached ¥1,500, which he rationalized by the addition of expensive green papaya. With the line as long as ever, though, he closed the Ikejiri operation and opened the current shop in May last year.

He justifies the doubled price by the improved atmosphere. A rock-walled fountain with colorful fish greets guests at the door. The large two-floor space, outfitted with red carpets, has only eight seats but includes a waiting area with two tables and a recreation room downstairs adorned with photography and calligraphy displays that customers can enjoy following their meal.

Further separating his business from a run-of-the-mill shop, Fujimaki provides as a cleansing finisher a small mound of jasmine rice, wasabi and herbs on the side, upon which a few ladles of the soup can be poured when the noodles have been slurped.

“Usually a product is 80 percent materials and 20 percent effort,” explains the chef. “But for me, it is the opposite. To be honest, my ingredients are basically the same as when I was selling ramen for ¥1,000.”

This attitude might be best reflected in his Emperor Ramen, available for ¥10,000 and requiring a reservation three days in advance. The key, Fujimaki says, is in the preparation of the soup stock, which is derived from shrimp heads.

“This is a once in a lifetime experience,” he proclaims. “Not two or three times, but once.”

Such statements could be construed as a bit arrogant, and bloggers tend to give Fujimaki’s shop mixed reviews. Some feel the taste is superb, but on the Web site Ramen Database, a visitor writes, “The overall atmosphere created by the host gives off a feeling that I don’t want.”

Business at the location was slow at first but picked up pace in September. Fujimaki plans to convert his eatery into a members-only operation next year.

“I want to bring this ramen to the top of the top,” he says.

Fujimaki Gekijo, 3-36-28 Kami-Meguro; open noon-3 p.m. and 6-9 p.m.; reservations are mandatory. For more information, call (03) 3792-7743 or visit www.fujimakigekijou.jp