Japan Eats

Restaurant Review: Ivan Ramen (Rokakoen Station)

Christopher Pellegrini samples the noodles at Ivan Ramen

You should definitely try Orkin's roasted tomatoes (Roast Tomato Meshi).

Ramen is one of those dishes that people will travel considerable distances to consume. It’s kind of like the trouble die-hard fanboys go to when trying to get their hands on a freshly released edition of a franchise–they’ll wait in line for it. They’ll make plans days in advance to be in another part of the country just to have dibs on the best seats for the big event.

And if you understand that, then you can comprehend with reasonable accuracy the lengths to which true ramen fans will pursue their addiction. They’re as obsessive as any other foodie out there, and in many cases more so.

And while I’m not the fanboy type, I must admit that I planned nearly a week in advance to visit Ivan Ramen, a corner ramen shop less than 10 minutes on foot from Rokakoen station in Setagaya Ward (Keio Line) that is owned by American chef, Ivan Orkin.

The shop is a very simple square with an L-shaped counter and space for about 10 customers. There is nothing significant going on with the decor, and the concrete-floored kitchen space is both well-organized and spotless. The focus is clearly on the food at Ivan Ramen, and that’s how it should be.

Ivan Orkin is something of a celebrity both for successfully wedging his way into the secretive ramen world here in Japan and for doing things his own way. His ramen soup is not rammed with lard as is customary, and he makes his own noodles with a dough that utilizes three types of flour. There’s also a very strong dependence on fresh ingredients. In that sense, even though this is technically ‘B-class’ Japanese cuisine, and is often referred to as fast food, dining at Ivan Ramen does not exact as much of an attack on one’s health as ramen customarily can.

After ordering your food from a ticket machine out in the alley, diners are encouraged to find a seat and enjoy the soft music playing in the background for just a couple of minutes. Jazz was on the airwaves when we visited, and we were grateful for the attention to detail on the proprietor’s part.

The wait doesn’t last long at Ivan Ramen. Most orders will be in front of you in less than a couple of minutes. Ivan himself explained recently in the first edition of Lucky Peach that his ramen noodles take 40 seconds to boil, but we were still surprised how quickly our meals arrived.

One special currently on the menu at Ivan Ramen is the “Fresh Salad Hiyashi Chuka” which is a blend of garden

Fresh Salad Hiyashi Chuka Ramen

salad and cold soup and all with a bit of Chinese cooking thrown in for good measure. And we were pleased that we grabbed one of these (only 15 are served daily) because the freshness of the ingredients (the tomatoes are absolutely out of this world!) and the marriage of the soup and noodles led to an exceptional and filling meal.

It’s important to note that the specials change regularly, so it’s worth it to either check the restaurant’s website or make a return visit every once in a while.

We also tried the Cha-shu- Spicy Red Chili Men (noodles) and the Roast Tomoto Meshi (rice). The former features the house’s signature thin ramen noodles and a small puddle of chili soup with half of a hard-boiled egg bobbing in the shallows. The regular menu also sports several shio and shoyu-base ramen dishes, tsukemen, other sides, a ‘beer of the day’ for 400 yen, and homemade ice cream.

Ramen dishes are mostly priced between 800 and 1,000 yen with topping upgrades such as extra cha-shu- and menma costing 100 yen each. A range of rice bowls range from 200 to 800 yen and are available in two sizes.

It’s very difficult to go wrong at Ivan Ramen. We would highly recommend anything with Orkin’s roasted tomatoes in it. The preponderance of fresh and healthy ingredients in Orkin’s creations will make you rethink whether ramen is a Japanese version of fast food.

And for those who enjoy the innovation that is part and parcel with his take on ramen, then you are encouraged to visit Ivan Ramen Plus, a second shop that he opened last year.

3-24-7 Minami Karasuyama, Setagaya-ku Tokyo, 157-0062
(Rokakoen station on the Keio Line)
Ph: 03-6750-5540
Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri 5:30 PM – 10:30 PM (closed Wednesdays)
Sat, Sun and Nat’l Holidays 11:30 AM – 5:30 PM
Also closed the 4th Tuesday of every month.
http://www.ivanramen.com/top_en.html


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Boozehound: Kuroki Honten Distillery

Christopher Pellegrini tours Kuroki Honten in majestic Miyazaki Prefecture.

Click here to read the first Boozehound report from our recent trip to Kyushu.

After a day and a night in Kagoshima City, we hopped on a northbound train headed for Miyazaki Prefecture. Our ultimate goal for the day was to visit Kuroki Honten, the makers of well-respected shochu labels such as Kiroku, Nakanaka, and Hyakunen no Kodoku.

Planting sweet potatoes.

To our pleasant surprise, we were in for an incredibly educational and inspiring tour conducted by the president of the shuzo, Mr. Toshiyuki Kuroki himself.

Mr. Kuroki is the fourth generation to have piloted the family distillery, and it was under his watch that business flourished during the past 15 years. A trim and jovial family man, Mr. Kuroki is an executive with a serious hop in his step. He’s difficult to keep up with.

One thing that stood out about Mr. Kuroki is that he has a clear affection for his employees. That evening, and the next day, we observed countless instances of him talking to and joking with the distillers, bottlers and field workers. Solid sales will put smiles on many people’s faces, but it was obvious that the working culture at Kuroki Honten is buoyed by workers who share Mr. Kuroki’s passion and believe in his vision.

And another thing that grabbed our attention, and something that Mr. Kuroki is very proud of, is the shuzo’s determination to recycle everything they possibly can. This includes using the lees from the distilling process to make both fertilizer and livestock feed. Their efforts to make the shochu production process as circular and socially responsible as possible are detailed on the Kuroki Honten website (Japanese).

We later tasted several of the shuzo’s less widely available brands, such as their unfiltered Kiroku and Bakudan Hanatare. The latter, an 88 proof imo shochu that is best kept in the freezer, is supposed to be consumed like a shooter even though there tends to be served in vessels much larger than shot glasses. That might have been the highlight of the visit, but I don’t recall.

Casks of mugi shochu.

While Kuroki Honten doesn’t normally do tours, shochu fans can take solace in the fact that the shuzo’s exemplary products are easily locatable around Japan. In Tokyo, for example, one can purchase Nakanaka, the company’s smooth sipping mugi shochu, at vendors as diverse as Shinanoya (chain liquor store) and Bic Camera (chain electronics store).

Anything made by Kuroki Honten or their sister shuzo, Osuzuyama (the shuzo detailed in my next Boozehound article), is well worth your time and hard-earned cash.

Boozehound: Satsuma Musou Distillery

Christopher Pellegrini visits Satsuma Musou Distillery in Kagoshima City

Doing the research part of writing a book is arduous, especially when there aren’t any resources available in one’s own language. I’ve read nearly everything that exists on the subject written in Japanese, but there just really isn’t that much content out there in general.

So I decided to go straight to the source. Kyushu, that is. Because I’m writing a book about shochu.

Mai Miyauchi of Satsuma Musou Shuzo.

Mai Miyauchi of Satsuma Musou Shuzo.

About a 20 minute walk from Goino train station in Kagoshima City is Satsuma Musou Distillery. Partly supported by the prefectural government, this distillery is an ideal place for tourists as it has a well-planned tour and large gift shop/tasting area. Much to my surprise, I was treated to a tour of the facilities entirely in English by the knowledgeable Mai Miyauchi who has gone so far as to attend industry-related classes at Kagoshima University.

The distillery that we toured is a smaller operation set up for the benefit of tourists. They were still working on batches of imo shochu even though the season ended in February or March for most other distilleries in Kyushu. This meant that we were still able to see the workers unload check frozen potatoes before they were dropped into the steamer. We also had a chance to see the mash bubbling away at different stages of fermentation in open earthenware pots half submerged in the facility’s concrete floor.

And of course, we sampled several of the distillery’s liquid treats. Even if you can’t travel to Satsuma Musou in Kogoshima Prefecture, you can probably find their Satsuma Musou ‘Red Label’ (Aka Raberu) or Kuro Mugi at finer liquor shops around Japan.

Satsuma Musou is recommended as an introduction to the complex process of making Japan’s wonderful distilled drink, shochu.

Website (Japanese): http://www.satsumamusou.co.jp/

Japan Booze Blind: Nippon Craft Beer Festival (Part IV)

Christopher Pellegrini is joined by Teruya Hori of Laff International.

Happy New Year! In the final edition of our four-part NCBF 2010 series, Japan Booze Blind’s Christopher Pellegrini interviews one of Baird Brewing’s go-to engineers, Mr. Teruya Hori. Hori-san offers a unique perspective because his job is to make sure that beer is stored and poured under the best conditions possible.

While talking with us, he hinted at a challenge that was not mentioned in the first three parts of this interview series. Politely put: most bars and restaurants in Japan have little more than a vague understanding of how to care for and serve draft beer. Indeed, Japan Eats has seen kegs sitting out in the sun on landings and back balconies across this fair city. Granted, they’re normally cylinders of run-of-the-mill beer, but it is easy to imagine what might happen to a craft beer’s quality if it is forced to endure consecutive Tokyo summer days unprotected. Just like we heard back in part one of this series, “Bad Beer is the Enemy” rings true in the overall message of this interview as well.

Greasy Spoons (and Chopsticks): Budoka Ramen

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In the fourth of a series on the Baba-Waseda ramen belt, Nick takes his sticks to the legendary Budoka.

“Suuuuuuiiiii!”

Your guide knew he’d found his kind of place from the moment he walked through the chained-open door to stand before the simple ticket machine and was greeted by a guttural call from the dimness within.

It was a Sunday evening just as the college guys were leaving for winter vacation, but the couple of open seats available at the counter were an anomaly even then. The ten seats in the narrow space between the counter and the wall are far more often being waited for by a line out the door than empty.

I went with the chashumen and, before I even turned to sit down, the strapping youth running the shop gave a friendly shout for the specifics of my order (these being how you want the noodles and the soup). I settled in to see three young guys negotiating the tight kitchen, adding entire porcine rub cages to the giant stock pot. They all had their sleeves rolled up onto their shoulders, tightly-rolled white towels around their heads, and rectangles of wood with their names written in black marker on them hanging from their necks on strings.

At my back was a wall covered almost floor to ceiling with the business cards and expired train passes of appreciative customers (go have a look for Nick “The Sticks” Kowalski).

Budoka has a big reputation and lives up to it. The noodles were thick and slightly chewy, the toppings were copious and neatly arranged to make everything look nice, but the kicker was the soup. It was thick and meaty without being salty, which is a rare, but lovely flavor. The textures of this soup make it something you’ll want to roll it around your tongue.

This is what a bowl of ramen should be like, especially in the winter. Heavy, flavorful, and interesting. Yours truly isn’t getting any younger and fills up quicker than he used to. The young guys on the other hand gorge on the bottomless bowls of rice you can get for a pittance.

Budoka is near exit 3B of Tokyo Metro Tozai line Waseda Station, on Waseda-dori, past Genten. Turn right once you reach the top of the stairs and look on your right, it’s set back a bit from the sidewalk, less than a minute from the station.

Greasy Spoons (and Chopsticks): Genten Ramen

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In the third of a series on the Baba-Waseda ramen belt, Nick swings by Genten.

Having found a certain atmosphere, but not the satisfying bowl he was hoping for at Merci, your humble guide turned in the opposite direction and went to Waseda-dori, where, next to exit 3B of Waseda station, he saw Genten.

Genten is a newer shop – ticket machine at the front, all bright lights, clean interior, long counter down one wall and tables at the back. Not exactly the traditional ramen shop configuration, but one that’s popular with chains.

Now, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect something special at a place whose name literally means “origin” (as in a mathematical reference point from which other things are measured). I know me some braggarts, but publicly advertising your business as that from which things should be measured is quite a boast. I took it as a challenge.

Genten is a chain, with branches all over the country and it does have its own following, but it is not top shelf.

There’s a moral: Don’t boast.

I ordered “Genten Ramen” (800 yen), which was a fair, but uninspired tonkotsu with a smattering of the usual toppings. This was the soup of a discount fast-food chain, not of ramen specialists. The noodles were thin and overcooked.

Genten gives free upgrades to large size, which is a hit with the students who go for volume above all, and has a menu made up mostly of tsukemen, which is maybe the way to go. The photos on the walls of noodles being lovingly crafted and the shaft of wheat in the logo on the door are misleading.

Next up is a legend almost next door, let’s hope that lives up to its reputation.

Genten is next to exit 3B of Tokyo Metro Tozai line Waseda Station, on Waseda-dori. Turn right once you reach the top of the stairs and look on your right.

Greasy Spoons (and Chopsticks): Merci Ramen

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In the second of a series on the Baba-Waseda ramen belt, Nick settles in for a bit at Merci.

From Shichifukya, where to go, where to go? Down the road on an express route to the finish line? That ain’t never been Nick’s way.

To school, then. Leaving Shichifukuya and turning right, you can travel but a few stretches of the pins to old Merci, also on your right, not far from Waseda station.

“Old” is the key word here. For a guy like yours truly, Merci has two appealing points and one important thing to be wary of, just like a good dame.

Fancy name aside, everything about this place is straightforward, which, oddly enough, gives it a kind of subtle charm. From the white plastic katakana sign hanging over the sidewalk to the old style display case showing off dusty plastic ramen and omu-rice next to the door to the big plate glass window fronting the place – you know what you’re getting into before you even walk through the door.

So what is it that you’re getting into?

A fairly spacious, veneer-paneled, tiled room, sans the usual counter. Instead, Merci has neatly-spaced wood-grain formica tables surrounded by two to six plastic chairs each. The kitchen is in the back and has a big pass-through, like most non-ramen restaurants. The feeling that Merci was not originally a ramen shop is strong.

The menu is simple, relatively brief, and printed in black and white on the wall. Your guide went for the chashumen, which, at 630 yen, was just about the most expensive thing on the menu, including the beer, which was 530 yen for a big bottle of Super Dry.

The wait for the ramen was not long – Merci has prompt, courteous service, if not the garrulous buddy-buddy-ness of many newer, trendier noodleries, which seems to suit it’s all but 100% male, student and salaryman clientele just fine.

The crowd seemed split about two to one between small groups of students lingering over cigarettes and sports papers or manga and salarymen who bolted (their food) and bolted (for somewhere else to linger).

There was a distinct, sour old ramen shop smell, not really a pleasant odor, even if it is kind of familiar, but I soon got used to it and, unlike another place I shall later review in this space, it wasn’t enough to cause discomfort.

Before the big kerosene heater by the table had time to warm my toes, a perfectly ordinary bowl of shoyu ramen was set down next to my beer. A bit of seaweed, a bit of corn, and some pleasantly thick chasu slices topped a bowl of very ordinary noodles – neither thick nor thin, neither hard nor soft, in a bowl of very ordinary soup – salty, a little oily – no secret ingredient, no texture, no intrigue. This was not Goldilocks’s “just right” so much as eminently forgettable.

That’s not the point, though. Merci has a different crowd (and it does have a crowd, especially at lunch time). I love a place that is so very Showa. That reminds of a time before I was born, but without being retro. This is not the time of movies recounting an elderly director’s childhood, but the time of his late 30s and 40s. The time of architecture and furnishings that would be forgettable were they not so pervasive, if overshadowed these days. This is the real “delightfully tacky”, which has nothing to do with dolls pretending Mötley Crüe is going to come back for real. This is a little taste of a time not so long ago, the boom time, when there was no time decorate with taste or build to last.

Merci‘s crowd, though, seems to love different things: it’s cheap, it’s fast, there’s a basket of manga, and the staff don’t mind if you hang around for a while after you eat in the afternoon.

Merci is near Waseda station on the Tokyo Metro Tozai line. Take the elevator up, turn right out of it, go past Shichifukuya, pas the SMBC ATM, and you’ll see it on your right. Big plate glass window. Ramen from 400 yen.

Greasy Spoons (and Chopsticks): Shichifukuya Ramen

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In the first of a series on the Baba-Waseda ramen belt, Nick samples the wares at Shichifukuya.

Let it never be said that Nick’s word is not his bond. As promised, today begins our tour of the rich vein of ramen that extends from the college neighborhood of Waseda over to the home of Astro Boy, Takadanobaba. I’ll start with the highlights and add in the often older, but not always as noteworthy others afterwards.

Chashumen

Chashumen

To keep your mother happy, we begin near school, and a prestigious one at that. If you take the elevator out of Waseda station (Tozai line), turn right and walk just a bit and you’ll come to Shichifukuya, a fairly new place with the traditional-looking front and ticket machine that most new ramen shops favor these days.

Before any of that, though, the smell is going to hit you. Not like a fist, not like a dainty hand in a white glove, but like a doll jumping into your arms, only in this case, the dame is huge and it’s you being picked up.

Lovely smell. This can’t always be said, even of the best ramen, so it’s a bonus for Shichifukuya.

There’s a ticket machine outside, with a bill slot high enough that anyone who doesn’t need to duck when playing leapfrog might want to bring a taller friend to help out.

I went for the chashumen (850 yen), which was the second-most popular item according the stickers on the machine, and went inside.

Shichifukya is done out in wood, with kind of a rustic thing going on. It has the usual counter seats, but more of them than usual, as the kitchen has an L-shape. There are bigger tables at the back.

The ramen did not disappoint. The noodles were on the thick side and were good, if unremarkable in their own right (by which I mean above average in total, average for a good ramen shop).

The soup was a thick, textured miso-tonkatsu – the kind of soup it’s nice to let roll over the tongue for a while. No mere oily medium for noodles was this. The smell led to a broth that kept its end up. Large sheets of nori gave a strong marine hint to the porkstravaganza, but it was welcome.

A good start to a good tour and a solid anchor at the Eastern end of our route.

Shichifukuya is near Waseda Station on the Tokyo Metro Tozai line, across Tsurumakicho from Waseda Middle and High School. Take the elevator up, turn right out of it, go past the soup curry shop and you’ll see a black wood-fronted shop with an inviting smell that precedes its appearance on your right.

Greasy Spoons (and Chopsticks): Ryoma Ramen

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Nick Kowalski visits Ryoma in Nakano

Nicky’s back, grease-fans.

In my gustatory peregrinations, the cheap eats, tasty as they are, lead your humble interlocutor to washing them down with even cheaper Volstead Act violations, which then leads to renewed hunger and a certain old stand-by: the ramen shop.

So it is that on one recent chilly evening, I found myself at the friendly ramen atelier Ryoma, in front of Arai-Yakushimae station on the Seibu-Shinjuku line, in Nakano.

Ryoma is a classy joint in many senses of the word – when I showed up, the last two seats at the counter of this relatively spacious noodlery were filled by the proprietor and an apparently disoriented old dame who’d seen better days decades ago. He fed her, figured out where she was headed, and helped her on her way. Sense of community and all that. Good stuff.

More important to you, though dear reader, is the type of class that surrounds an inventive competitor in the increasingly tough world of good ramen.

With half a dozen counter seats and a pair of tables that comfortably seat four each facing a big, deep version of the normally long, cramped ramen kitchen, Ryoma feels a bit more open than some of its counterparts.

Ryoma has gained a certain amount fame for their Italian-esque tomato-cheese ramen, which is well worth a try.

The menu also offers new takes on old classics as well. Ryoma alternates days between shoyu (soy sauce) and shio (salt) soups, offering two versions of each: with or without katsuo. Their other step in an original direction is using thinly-sliced chicken breast as a topping.

The day I stopped by was a shio day, so I went for the signature tori-chashumen (?880) with futomen (fat noodles) in the regular shio soup.

A revelation.

Most shio soups are thin and mild – the light ramen, if you will. Not this one – it was thick and rich, full of flavor and satisfying in its own right, bringing shio to the big leagues, where good soup often carries the day. Into this lovely broth was plunged a mass of well-balanced noodles – good, chewy, and filling. Along with the nori and other usual toppings came the chicken: thinly-sliced and lightly cooked, it was still pink in the center and, thus tender and flavorful as it cooked in the soup.

Now I realize some of you may not be aware of modern food hygiene and the like and may balk at the idea of chicken being anything other than charred into a dry, tasteless husk. I also realize that, if this is you, I’m not going to change your mind about fearing a bit of pink.

Luckily, there is an easy solution – the one old Nick goes for. When you get the bowl, invert the contents.

No, not the whole thing, you jerk. Just the noodles and toppings – make them bottomings instead. The chicken goes down under the hot soup and not only cooks, but allows you save some of it for later in the bowl – a little treat.

Throughout the whole meal, I had no complaints. Beyond offering something original in the bowl and having it work, Ryoma also has possibly the most genuinely friendly service and atmosphere of any ramen shop I’ve been in, and that’s a lot.

In addition to the tomato-cheese ramen and chicken, they offer gyoza bigger than my ego and other sides as well.

Sadly, the Takadanobaba branch recently closed, but it did me to thinking of that vaunted precinct. The stretch of Waseda-dori between Takadanobaba and Waseda might be the world capital of ramen. It is to noodle fame what Hollywood is to movies or Vegas is to mediocre shameless singers.

I shall take you on a tour. Watch this space.

Ryoma is mere meters from the South exit of Arai-Yakushimae station on the Seibu-Shinjuku line. Go out the gate and turn left, before you hit the main street, you’ll see it on your right.

Boozehound: Suntory’s Yamazaki 1984 Wins Int’l Whiskey Prize

It was recently reported that Japanese beverage giant, Suntory, brought home top prize at the recent International Spirits Challenge held in London, England.

Entered in the ‘Whiskies – Other’ category, Suntory’s Single Malt Yamazaki 1984 won one of several gold medals awarded to whiskey distillers from around the world. Later on, in a second round of blind tasting by several international judges, Yamazaki 1984 was awarded top prize in the category.

While this category does not include Scotch, which has a category of its own, Yamazaki 1984 beat out major competition from several Irish labels (Jameson, Bushmills, etc.) in taking the trophy.

Suntory was then awarded “Distiller of the Year” honors for its contributions to the global spirits industry. And on top of that, Yamazaki 1984 came away with the “Supreme Champion Spirit” award. Both honors are a first for a Japanese distiller and product, respectively.

Yamazaki 1984 sells for nearly 100,000 yen per bottle (700ml) in Japan, and Suntory actually had several other entries in the same category that were also assigned gold medals by the auditors.

Asahi also managed to score two gold medals for Japan in the same category with its “Taketsuru 21 y.o.” and “Yoichi 15 y.o.” labels.