Samurai dramas and Utagawa Hiroshige’s famous ukiyo-e woodblock prints: Those are the classic images evoked by mere mention of the fabled Tokaido highway. These days, this busy artery, which for centuries has linked Tokyo (formerly Edo) with Kyoto, is a lot less romantic, especially the stretch that runs inland through Shimada, Shizuoka Prefecture.
And yet even here, among the mundane family restaurants, gritty gasoline stands and unlovely strip malls that line the road — now officially known as National Route 1 — there are places that catch the eye and justify a detour. None more so than Le Dessin.
The inscrutable, windowless timber-clad frontage offers few clues to its identity. From the name, you’d take it for a French restaurant or perhaps a patisserie. In fact it’s a ramen specialist. But the bowls served here by chef Toshiaki Masuda are unlike any you’ll find on other stretches of the old highway.
Where else offers noodles with dashi soup made from Iwate Prefecture guinea fowl, shamo (gamecock) or light, fragrant Hakodate scallops? Or chilled summer noodles with a choice of slow-simmered beef, natto and okra, or slivered chāshū pork and cucumber? Or plates of homemade umeboshi pickles or homegrown nametake enoki mushrooms on the side?
There are further depths to the menu. To give his ramen an extra turbocharge, Masuda prepares nine different kinds of butter to add to the broth, blending in seasonings such as green scallion, browned garlic, ginger, Parmesan cheese, even Japanese black truffle.
Decisions, decisions: there’s much to think about as you wait in line, before you reach the ticket machine just inside the front door. And once you’re shown to your table in the spacious, spotless dining room — or to the counter in front of Masuda’s open kitchen — there will likely be a further wait before your noodles are served.
Which gives you time to ponder how such a sophisticated ramen restaurant came about in the first place, and what it’s doing here in this unlikely spot, so far from the nearest major urban center. And why the French name anyway?
It turns out Masuda initially trained in painting, before turning his hand to the culinary arts. So when he opened his first restaurant in Tokyo, in 2003, he called it Le Dessin. It was modest in scale, but his brilliant French cuisine is still fondly remembered by those who had the good fortune to eat there.
Some six years ago, for family reasons, he decided to move back to where he grew up, here in Shizuoka. From the start, it was clear to him that setting up a ramen restaurant would be more viable at this roadside location than trying to serve serious French cuisine. But it didn’t mean he had to compromise on quality.
This is evident as soon as your bowl is placed in front of you. The noodles are delicate, the broths clear and fragrant, especially those made from seafood. The toppings — slices of the aforementioned fowl, tender scallop, even the chāshū pork that Masuda serves on his regular ramen — are prepared with refinement.
Add a serving of flavored butter and let it melt and blend into your soup. This is the essential seasoning that enriches and binds the flavors of each bowl. Suggested combinations include truffle with the shio (salt) ramen; browned negi (Welsh onion) with shoyu (soy sauce); and Parmesan with the thicker, more substantial soups, such as miso or curry.
The major caveat at Le Dessin is that currently nothing on the ticket vending machine is written in English. The first thing you need to know is that the color-coded buttons across the top represent the different kinds of broth.
From left to right, they are: duck and chicken; guinea fowl; scallop; gamecock; and chicken and dried niboshi sardines. The large blue button underneath is for chilled ramen with classic katsuo-konbu (bonito and kelp) Japanese dashi. And the white buttons further down on the right are for the various flavored butters.
Some other points to bear in mind: Le Dessin opens early and closes at 2 p.m. No alcohol is served, in part because most people drive there, but also because it encourages customers to linger. And, unlike most hardcore ramen joints, Masuda makes his restaurant family-friendly, with children no less welcome than the truck drivers and local mechanics for whom it is their local.
There is no dessert either. However, just a short stroll away you’ll find the well-reputed to the Kanei Hitokoto Seicha (hitokotoseicha.jp) tea store, where the full-flavor matcha soft serve ice cream and other green tea confections should satisfy all sweet tooth cravings.
Noodles from ¥650; Japanese menu; little English spoken
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5