Any season is ramen season. But when the heat builds and energy levels start to sag, is it really worth trekking across town and waiting in line for noodles that will only make you sweat even more? In the case of Motenashi Kuroki, most definitely yes.
Since it opened four years ago, word has spread fast about this friendly restaurant with 13 counter seats on the far side of Akihabara. It’s a brisk seven or eight-minute walk from the station, but that does not deter the aficionados who come to sup on chef Naohito Kuroki’s trademark shio (salt-based soup) or miso ramen.
As always, it’s all about the balance between the noodles, soup and toppings. The recipes for both soups are Kuroki’s own closely guarded secrets, but he will willingly admit they involve blends of salt (six kinds) and miso (three types), respectively.
He makes all his noodles in-house — in a space barely bigger than a broom closet — and they, too, are a blend of flours, all domestic, including a dash of whole wheat to add texture and bite. For the shio ramen, there are two choices: a lighter, more digestible fine-cut version, or a heartier flat version.
But it’s the toppings you notice above all. Kuroki simmers his chashu pork for two days, concentrating the umami rather than adding more salt or other seasonings. For the miso ramen he serves thick succulent cuts of chashu made with a totally different recipe.
It’s no surprise to learn that Kuroki is a trained chef. Tokyo born and bred, he started out at a ryōtei (high-end traditional restaurant) before working in both French and Italian cuisines.
The shelves on his far wall are crammed with books on all manner of cooking: from Kyoto cuisine and tofu recipes to patisserie and even French herbs.
This explains Kuroki’s predilection for garnishing his bowls with colorful twists of carrot, cabbage and even scarlet aka-kabu turnip, with nary a bean sprout in sight. It also explains why he is among the most creative ramen chefs in town — especially when summer comes around.
From July through mid-September, he discontinues the miso ramen. In its place, he offers a series of weekly limited-edition hiyashi chūka (chilled noodles). So far this year he has served spicy ground chicken and eggplant on linguine-style green noodles made with komatsuna (brassica rapa greens); roast chicken, natto beans and pickled vegetables; and homemade corned beef with roasted tomatoes.
It gets better. This past week he has been serving a special hiyashi chūka topped with a delectable roast beef. But this time, it’s the noodles that are special. They are made from this year’s first harvest of organic wheat from fields tended by a noodle shop in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture.
Part of a program called “Komogi Nouveau” (from the Japanese word for “wheat”), Motenashi Kuroki is one of just eight ramen shops in and around the Tokyo area that will be serving the new-harvest wheat noodles.
Kuroki’s version will only be available until Aug. 1, but you can be sure he will be cooking up plenty of other creative takes on ramen, both hot and cold, in the weeks and months to come.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at tokyofoodfile.blogspot.com.