Ramen is no longer just ramen. Japan’s favorite noodle is changing in front of our eyes, evolving into new forms that have little in common with the classic soul-food bowls of the past.
Some bemoan this as the end of an era. Others call it the most exciting thing to happen to Japanese cuisine in a generation. Tomoharu Shono stands happily in the latter camp. Of course he would: His restaurants are leading the way to this brave new future world of noodles.
Still in his 30s, Shono already has six locations in the Tokyo area and another in San Francisco. None are what you’d call traditional. But it’s at his newest venture, Mensho, that he is really charting new territory.
The sign out front proclaims “A bowl for tomorrow,” and it certainly looks that way inside. The dark counter running two sides of the spotless open kitchen; the crisp designer lighting; the chunky metal bar stools — everything is gleaming and precise. Welcome to Shono’s laboratory.
The walls are covered with manifestos, chemical symbols and explanations about kombu seaweed and katsuobushi (bonito flakes). It is their magical symbiosis that creates dashi, the soup stock that underpins Japanese cuisine — and also Shono’s noodle dishes.
His signature seafood ramen is a remarkable creation. It arrives in a stylish white bowl with a wide rim on which morsels of cooked scallop are balanced, scattered with yellow karasumi (bottarga) and carbonized negi (Welsh onion) powder.
Delicate light-brown noodles are submerged under a clear broth prepared from sea bream and scallops, and seasoned with sea salt. The toppings include slices of lightly cooked chicken that have been pressed overnight in layers of umami-rich kombu, plus a couple of silky-smooth wontons stuffed with tuna and chives.
It is outstanding on numerous levels. First, the dashi-enhanced seafood broth is so tasty, but contains no artificial additives. Second, the noodles are made from whole-grain wheat that is freshly stone-ground each day in the adjacent milling room. Third, Shono lists the provenance of all the ingredients he uses. Hence his slogan: Farm to Bowl Ramen.
He has put just as much thought and flavor into his tsukemen (dipping noodles). He serves them with slices of duck breast, and there’s plenty of duck goodness in the hot dipping broth, too. But you also get a small cup of water on the side. It’s from a Kyushu hot spring, some of the softest water in all Japan. Dip those chunky brown noodles in it and you’ll really appreciate their taste.
Currently those two are the only noodle options. But the ticket machine by the entrance suggests that a shōyu (soy sauce) bowl is in development, and a spicy vegan tantanmen as well.
One last thing: If you’re super hungry, don’t miss out on the rice dishes. Order the tamago kake gohan and what you get is a conical mound topped with a whole raw egg yolk that oozes its dark-orange richness into the warm grain.
This is the future and it cries out for a “#foodporn” hashtag.
Noodles from ¥1,000; Japanese menu; some English spoken