Yuki Onishi is clearly not a chef who is ready or able to rest on his laurels. His flagship ramen restaurant, Japanese Soba Noodles Tsuta, is one of the best-known in the city, drawing legions of fans from near and far. He has won accolades, grabbed global media attention and opened several overseas offshoots. But still he shows no signs of slowing down.
Quite the opposite. Last November, he closed Tsuta — the place where he started out and occupied for seven years, and which became the first rāmenya ever to be awarded a Michelin star — and moved out from Sugamo, the old-school area he helped put on the map, at least among noodle-lovers from abroad. A month later he was back in action in a new part of town, with new premises and some great new tweaks to his remarkable ramen.
So what’s different? For a start, Tsuta is now in Yoyogi-Uehara, a neighborhood with a demographic that’s a lot more youthful, affluent and cosmopolitan than Sugamo. It also feels much closer to the vibrant heart of the city. In short, Onishi has repositioned himself not just geographically but significantly upmarket.
The old Tsuta was compact and hushed. You entered, made your selection from the ticket machine by the door and then sat in silence at the nine-seat counter waiting for your bowl to be delivered, as if partaking in a sacrament. It felt like a classic rāmenya, albeit one with an unusually rarefied sense of refinement.
The contrast now could hardly be greater. A short flight of stairs takes you down into a sleek, well-lit dining room with a gleaming open kitchen. There is room for 11 at the matte-black counter, plus seats for 12 more at tables in the back. It is bright, spacious, contemporary, relaxed.
Instead of fussing about with meal tickets, you sit yourself down and choose from a printed menu. Order a beer (Heartland) to sip on while you ponder. Shoyu (soy sauce); shio (salt); or miso? They’re all impressive. But really, there’s only one place to start: Tsuta’s trademark shoyu ramen. Is it as good as ever? Yes, maybe even better.
The noodles are delicate, prepared in-house from four kinds of whole wheat that’s freshly stone-ground. The soup is rich with natural umami, beautifully balanced, light on the palate but with a deep, lingering flavor that is derived from a blend of three different types of soy sauce.
To add further layers of complexity, Onishi has developed a black truffle sauce that’s added to each serving of the shoyu ramen, imparting earthy, musky notes to the heady, savory mix. This has long been his secret signature, the extra gastronomic depth charge that elevates the dish. Now, as a further tweak, he’s begun blending in balsamic vinegar, providing an extra spike of sweetness and gentle acidity.
It’s an exceptional bowl that more than justifies its premium price (¥1,300), but made even better with a few toppings. A serving of chāshū roast pork (from black Berkshire hogs) and ajitama egg (from Aomori Shamorock hens), will add ¥650 to the bill. Both are superb.
If you want to go the whole hog, you can order black truffle, which is shaved over your noodles (an extra ¥1,600). Flavor-wise, it’s unnecessary, a step too far even. But it certainly looks impressive, while bolstering Onishi’s new upwardly mobile credentials.
The biggest benefit of all from the move to Yoyogi-Uehara is that you no longer need to arrive early to buy a numbered ticket and then go back to eat at your allotted time. That procedure was instituted soon after Tsuta won its first Michelin star in 2016, after the lines forming each day began getting out of control. Now it’s first come, first served, which may mean long waits at peak lunchtime. But time your arrival right, say an hour or less before closing time, and you may well be able to walk straight in.
While opinion is likely to be divided over the new Tsuta, especially its elevated prices, one point in its favor is that credit cards and e-money are now accepted. The other is the background music: Onishi’s hero is David Bowie, and that’s all he plays on the sound system. As he himself writes: “I want to be the David Bowie of the ramen world, a person who … changed the world through self-expression.”
Ramen from ¥1,300; some English spoken