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Friday, Aug. 1, 2008
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Chilling with chuka soba
Japan's infatuation with ramen can seem bewildering to the uninitiated. When you see lines around the block outside nondescript noodle joints in remote locations, with waits of up to an hour, it's hard not think the obsession is verging on the pathological.
At least Suzuran looks the part. With its whitewashed clapboard exterior, old-fashioned wood-frame windows and timber signboard above the door, you start to sense that tradition and craftsmanship may be factors behind its considerable reputation among real ramen aficionados.
In fact, it's not that old at all, as evidenced by its spick-and-span interior. And its location, behind the Shibuya Police Station just a few minutes' walk from the JR tracks, is hardly obscure. But once you see for yourself the extra care and attention lavished on the noodles here — and the soup and toppings too — you'll understand why Suzuran might be worth a wait, even in the muggy heat of mid-summer.
What's special? First and foremost, the noodles themselves, which are all produced in-house. Much the same as homemade pasta, they come in five different styles and gauges. These range from fine threads (think spaghettini) to chunky and substantial (along the lines of chitarra) to flat, wide ribbons (much like pappardelle).
Unlike regular ramen-shop noodles, they are not crinkly. Nor do they have that underlying back-taste that comes from using too much kansui, an alkaline powder added to ramen that typically gives the noodles their characteristic flavor and egg-yellow shade. What they do have is a firm, satisfying texture that provides plenty to chew on but also slips down smoothly.
As if to emphasize that it is different, Suzuran prefers to call itself a purveyor of chuka soba ("Chinese noodles") rather than a bog-standard ramen shop. Usually the two terms are interchangeable, but here they seem like chalk and cheese.
The difference extends to the way Suzuran serves its noodles. Certainly, you can order them in the usual way: in a large bowl with a hot broth (miso or soy-sauce flavor; from ¥650). And very good they are, too. The alternative, though, is even better: Served in the style known as tsukemen (but here called tsukesoba; from ¥750), the noodles arrive on a separate tray, with a rich dipping sauce on the side. Since this doesn't heat you up so much, the style goes down a treat in summer.
The menu lists a dozen variations on this theme (half with soy sauce, half with miso). But for a first-time visit, the place to start is with the miso-kakuni tsukesoba (¥1,250), with cubes of rich pork belly — from Kyushu hogs, they state — slowly cooked down for six hours until the fatty meat is melt-in-the-mouth tender.
Suzuran is so proud of its recipe that it places chunks of this delectable meat right on top of the noodles on their tray — much like a meat sauce adorning a plate of pasta — rather than incorporating it in the dip, which is the more standard practice.
The dip is prepared from a broth made of pork bones and chicken skins, along with those Japanese stock ingredients konbu kelp and katsuobushi fish flakes. A blend of three different kinds of miso is added and simmered for an hour to imbue its deep savory taste.
This is the kind of information that ramen obsessives relish. For the rest of us, it's enough to know that it tastes outstanding.
And it gets even better. Every week the chefs at Suzuran produce a special limited-edition "noodle of the day." This might feature chicken instead of pork, sake-steamed asari clams in a seafood-based soup, or simmered beef sinew (from wagyu steer, of course).
Right now, they are offering some equally distinctive summer specials. Banbanji-men comes with cuts of simmered chicken breast, a preparation commonly found as a starter in Chinese restaurants, here adorned with a rich sesame sauce. And koho reimen (literally "red-treasure chilled noodle"; ¥1,450) features tomato and ground pork flecked with finely chopped scallions, served on top of chilled noodles.
Only a limited number of servings of these specials are made each day, and they usually sell out within the first hour or two at lunchtime. So, frustratingly, we have still never managed to actually try these. But we are big fans of another special that is perfect in this trying summer climate: hiyashi chuka (¥1,400).
The noodles are a mixture of thin, flat ribbons — some white, others flecked green with spinach leaf — served chilled in a glass bowl in a clear broth. They are topped with ground chicken meat, lightly blanched white-and-red tiny tomatoes cut into quarters, along with slivers of okra, finely chopped molokhia greens and nameko mushrooms, each of which adds a soothing, gelatinous quality to the thick broth.
The bowl is garnished with some shaved ice, a wedge of lemon and a sprig of leaf coriander. It comes with a small side salad, mixed leaves topped with slices of chicken breast seasoned with a Sichuan-style chili dressing. And it's every bit as appetizing and refreshing as it sounds.
There are plenty of other little details that raise Suzuran well above the pack. The beer (Yebisu) and shochu (a small selection) are served in chilled ceramic mugs. The jars of drinking water contain sticks of charcoal (to purify them). The boxes of tissues on the counter are enclosed in rattan baskets.
In one respect only is Suzuran like other ramen shops. It's not a place for banter or hanging out. You order, eat, pay up and leave as soon as you're done. But that is only fair, given that there are likely to be plenty of people waiting outside for their turn.