It’s summer: You’re not supposed to have an appetite. All you feel like is eating noodles? Welcome to the club. Here’s one place where I’ve been finding nourishment in this most difficult of seasons.
In the muggy heat of a Tokyo evening, six or seven minutes feels like an awful long way to walk just for a bowl of noodles. But the red glow of the aka-chōchin lantern hanging outside Marusen Seimen is like a homing beacon drawing me in from a distance.
It’s worth the walk at any time of year. Marusen (the seimen part just means “noodle maker”) is far from your run-of-the-mill ramen counter. Marusen’s specialty is Hakata noodles, the style popular in the area around Fukuoka and northern Kyushu. But you won’t find the usual tonkotsu ramen, with its thick, white, savory broth cooked down from pork bones. Instead, the soup is made entirely from chicken: Daisen jidori chicken, free-range and organic.
The birds are cooked down whole, bones and all. This long, slow process draws out the collagen to create a mizutaki broth that is rich and milky, with a good mouthfeel and depth of flavor, but considerably lighter than classic tonkotsu.
This comes in three variations: shio (plain salt), the lightest; shōyu (soy sauce), to enhance the umami goodness (each ¥680); or thickened with fish powder (toto-aji, ¥740) to impart a heartier, soupier character that is filling but better suited to the cooler seasons.
The noodles, made in-house (as the name suggests), are light, thin and smooth. That’s just the way I like them at this time of year. In terms of volume, a single serving is never quite enough, but refills arrive promptly (ask for kaedama; an extra ¥100).
More noteworthy, though, is the meat served on top. Just about everywhere else in the city, char siu means pork. At Marusen you get chicken, a couple of slices of the same Daisen jidori fowl. If you want the rolled pork instead — and it too is very good — you have to ask for it specifically.
All the options for noodles, toppings and side orders of rice are spelled out on the menu. And here’s a surprise: Not only does the English version come in the same colorful laminated format as the Japanese one, it is clear and accurate, with illustrations and virtually no errors.
The seasonal specials are not rendered into English, but they can easily be identified from the pictures on the menu inserts or on the wall. Right now there are two chilled noodle dishes. The hiyashi-chūka is the more standard of the two: It features the colorful additions of tomato, julienned cucumber, slivers of ham and shreds of egg, garnished with fine-chopped negi scallions and nori seaweed.
Even better is the other summer noodle, hiyashi goma-tsuke tantanmen. The noodles arrived adorned with plenty of cucumber, scallions, cooked moyashi been sprouts and crispy deep-fried wonton strips. This is served with a garnish of lightly spicy miso on top and a creamy sesame dip on the side. Highly recommended.
So, is Marusen good enough to deserve a trip across town? Probably not. But it’s definitely worthy of a detour if you find yourself anywhere close, and comfortable enough to linger a while once you’ve got there.
While the slurp-and-run crowd veer to the bar stools at the central counter, there are tables along the side where I like to settle in, order a beer — Yebisu lager on draft; Yebisu Black or Heartland in bottles — and chill a while.
There is also a substantial selection of side dishes to go with your drink, though the list for this too is only in Japanese. As on the rest of the menu, chicken features prominently here also.
Don’t miss the cigar-shaped pan-fried yaki-gyōza pot-stickers or the steamed sui-gyōza, both stuffed with minced chicken. There are various organ meats too, such as the confit of gizzards (ask for sunagimo), which make tasty nibbles to go with a drink.
Another favorite of mine is the kaoyapin, cold slices of chicken that you wrap up in a soft wheat-flour pancake and daub with rich, dark Peking duck-style sauce. And I’m always pleased to see vegetable dishes, such as pan-fried aona greens in garlic sauce.
There are plenty of other excellent touches, such as the special kids’ ramen for just ¥100, the fact that it’s entirely no-smoking and the constant soundtrack of good, hip modern jazz on the sound system.
Quality ingredients, no chemical taste enhancers, a cheerful environment: In many ways, Marusen feels more like a ramen house you’d find abroad than in Japan. That is no coincidence. Owner-chef Tomonari Chiba has a long connection with Britain, first as sushi chef at the London branch of Nobu, then opening his own restaurant, Dinings (www.dinings.co.uk), along with several other Nobu alumni, to considerable acclaim.
Not that you’ll find any of his contemporary Japanese tapas at Marusen. Nor for that matter are you likely to spot Chiba there too much. He now splits his time between Tokyo and Fukuoka, where he launched another restaurant last year, also serving chicken noodles but with more creative side dishes. The name says all you need to know: Noodle Company (www.noodle-company.com).
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.