Thursday, May 13, 2010

Isono ramen, Kanda (磯野、淡路町)

Weather like this, I want to persist forever. Even better, the feeling of leaving the office, getting on my daft light-blue mama-style bike with basket and bell, and flowing along downtown Tokyo streets...relaxing on the worst of days, magic on a day like this when the air is clear and a little cool and the breeze feels like it's blowing off an ocean.

That's a hell of a lot of faux-poetic writing for a bowl of noodles.  Isono showed up on the usual Tabelog search as the best ramen on its block, and I was up for the long trip because...well, please review that stuff about the weather and the bike. Funny thing is, I could actually read the name, and for two reasons. One, I learned isobe 磯辺 when I went to Enoshima last summer - there are lots of 'seashore'-style restaurants there. Second, iso is of the course the first character of Shizuoka's famous sake Isojiman 磯自慢. I have the feeling this is the kind of character that I don't strictly need to know and should try to forget in deference to kanji like 'wait', 'walk' and 'what'.

Is the chef going for some effect here? Certainly the place is unassuming from the outside. I almost missed it from across the street. The sliding doors on the front evoke a small-town trading store to me, but the curtain is a bit too big and clean for that. The blue awning above the white curtain just reinforced the 'seaside' feeling in the air. Grecian isle ramen, here we come (no strikes, please).

Inside is neither big nor clean, with 8 or fewer seats at the counter and not a lot of room to squeeze past the sweaty asses of fellow patrons. This seems like a low-women zone. The cleanliness is probably not the cause; ramen is usually a low-women zone. These pots and exposed burners are pretty much normal tools of the trade. I also loved how there was a little pot of today's soup on the right that the master used for serving, while the burner in the left corner bubbled a massive pot brimming with seaweed and pork bits.

Odds that this is Mr. Isono? High. Young, spiky-haired without managing to be stylish in the manner of some other ramen chefs, and somehow otherworldly in his manner. I enjoyed the way he dealt with customers who wanted things from him, which was to say 'One moment please!' while going about his unrelated business with a singular lack of urgency. Perhaps his food is brilliant enough to warrant it?

Well, it wasn't bad, for sure. In some ways I feel adult, enjoying simple bowls of ramen in the last week or two rather than the currently-popular IMPACT ramen, with kitchen-sink soups made from chicken, fish, pork and vegetables all at once, thickened by boiling the bones, laden with fat (although I am getting excited just thinking about that). This was the same type of soup I had at Bigakuya a week ago - simple, traditional, some might go so far as to say elegant. Not me.  The soup wasn't as good as Biggie's; hard to put a finger on it, but it seemed obvious, lacking complexity.

The pork was well-done, the noodles were decent quality but excellently cooked. And let me add a weird note: you know my theory about how every decent ramen contains one outstanding element? In this case it was the menma! First time ever, or that I can remember, when the menma tasted deliciously like bamboo shoots and I wished I had more of them. Weird. The dried, crumbled seaweed sprinkled on is a cool idea too - better than sheets of seaweed since you can spread it out more, and better than fresh seaweed because you can eat it crunchy or else let it soften into an approximately fresh texture.

Just a bit lacking in flavor, but I like straight noodles, I like low-egg content, and I love firm noodles. If the menma hadn't been so good and the noodles had had more flavor, I would be reiterating my theory of one-element-greatness, but focused on the noodles.

Watching Chef strain the noodles, I had a weird moment. Some people assign magical powers to chefs, e.g., 'My sushi chef uses exactly 180 grains of rice in every nigiri'. Chef was using a flat strainer and chopsticks (hold the noodles on the strainer with the chopsticks, shake up and down; the alternative is a bucket-shaped strainer that you can hold up and then swing down hard to strain the water). As he did the 4 portions for me and the other guys who entered at the same time, I flashed on that sushi thing and thought 'Hey, maybe he's figured out the perfect number of times to shake the noodles!' And then he did two portions, and shook each of them 18 times. No lie. I was freaked out, but calmed down when the next portion only rated 14 shakes. Phew!

For lunch you can get a half-portion of "today's fresh-steamed rice". Today was a dirty rice featuring bits of pork, carrot and mushrooms (although if you check Tabelog, it looks like that's today's rice every day).  I couldn't help thinking it should have been made with soup, and did that myself with some of my remainders. No clean-plate action here though; the soup wasn't at that level.

Dunno, this could be a new career. If he can do it, I can do it. 18 shakes.


  1. ahh, 磯自慢! you've got me thirsty, just by mentioning it. i was told it translates to - pride of the sea-side, but my electronic dictionary says, beach boast. I refer the latter, actually.

  2. I did not know Jon was a devotee of a "Mamachari" ママチャリ.ママチャリ

  3. Seeing all these pork slices floating around I miss the old days of ramen. More pork = catering to men. But then I'm an oldie.

  4. Look at all those pork slices! I miss the old days of less "pork". Maybe more pork = less women going there?