Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Queue and eh? - Butao Ramen

Let's start with the good:
How beautiful is this onsen egg?
Gooey but set yolk, like thick, wet clay; whites cooked and not runny... It could have been good.


Now the bad:
Queue queue queue
Even before all the TV shows, reports in local mags and the Weibo love from local celebs, there were queues. Not this long, maybe 10-20 people a time, and naive stupid little me wouldn't wait because, 1. I hate lining up for something I'm paying for, 2. I have to do this thing called work in a place called an office that allows me a ~1hr lunch break (which, with a 15-min return walk, maybe 40-min wait, leaves me too little time and too much anxiety. (By the way, I noticed one of the girls in this line was holding a Lanvin x H&M clutch. She must really like queuing up for things...)

This ramen place is part-owned by Meter Chen, a native HKer and Nipponophile who spent most of his formative years (and more) in Japan and is now the local media's go-to guy for all things Japanese.

And the not so great:
Green King
This was the 'fusion' creation - a pesto-like soup of with basil and parmesan. There are 3 other choices - Butao King (original tonkotsu), Black (squid ink) and Red (spicy miso). While waiting, you're offered the menu and a ticksheet to choose which soup you'd like, as well as how much onion, miso, oil etc. and the firmness of the noodles. Apparently this is common for Hakata-style ramenya (ramen shops), and this is a Hakata (northwestern Kyushu, famous for ramen)-style place. All good thus far.

Okay, back to this bowl. The basil just nuked my tongue and nose. I couldn't taste anything else. Plus it was pretty oily. Now, I love oil. I even ask for a slice of butter in my Hokkaido-style ramen, but oil is there to make things tasty, not weigh the dish down and rob it of all complexity. After this, I felt like someone had tried to drown me in an oil barrel full of pesto. (Maybe I've been watching too much Dexter...) Not a good feeling.

There was also chashu (roast pork) which is supposedly slow-cooked in red wine, and was so tender it fell apart at the touch of a chopstick, but as much as I would have liked to taste it, I couldn't. (For the record, the best ramen chashu I've had was at another hole-in-the-wall called Afuri in Tokyo - they meticulously grilled each slice before serving giving it an awesome smokey flavour and some crispy bits on top of the usual marbled porcine goodness).

Butao King (original miso)
Five of us went together (thank goodness, otherwise the lining up would have been unbearable - the first of us got there at 10.08am and was first in line. Props!). Three chose the original Butao King and two (including me) had the Green King. While my senses were being nuked by my own soup, I decided to steal some original soup off my neighbour for respite. I was expecting porky miso goodness, but got thick miso with a twang of chilli. I wasn't amused (and neither were the others (Jen, Dim Sum Diva) who chose the original).

Beauty (left) and the Beast (right)
My onsen egg (extra $10) was a beauty, Tom's was an overcooked blunder. Brilliance without consistency is just luck. And luck, while jolly nice, is not business.

See the eggs in the blue-ish vase on the counter? If the eggs hadn't been put in iced water long enough after cooking and were then placed in a vessel like this, they would keep cooking - is this vase to blame for the overcooked onsen egg above?

Noodle close up
On the ticksheet, I chose "normal" hardness for my noodles. They came out pretty soft - a totally different experience from the thicker, chewier, 'al dente' yellowy ramen noodles we're (okay, I won't be presumptuous) I'm used to. This was a white-ish, straight, floury noodle like central/northern Chinese la mian. I doubt much (if any) kansui (alkali) was used - or if it was, I couldn't taste/feel it. I'd blame the soup, but that would be me being whiney. (Kansui makes noodles bouncier/more elastic and tinges the dough yellow). I think these straight white noodles are characteristic of Hakata-style ramen, which is fine by me, but given the richness of the soup and the noodles' tendency to absorb liquids, it gets doughy pretty easily, adding to the heaviness of the whole experience.

On a side note, they limit the sales to 200 bowls per day (which Life as a Bon Vivant also mentions). That raises some questions about 1. how they pay the rent, and 2. their plans for expansion. All this media frenzy is bringing much more demand than supply, and it seems to me that it would only make business sense to use the "limit" as part of the marketing plan (since it doesn't or barely pays the rent). Riding on the hype, they could easily open a branch to scoop up the excess demand. I wonder if that's part of the plan. There's also a rumour that the Japanese chef will only be here for a while to train local staff, after which he'll leave - let's hope that's not the case. If anything, they need more help from Japan to make this truly work.

Butao Ramen
11-12 Wo On Lane (off D'aguilar St., Lan Kwai Fong)
Central
Hong Kong
(no reservations)
Mon-Sat, from 11am till sold out


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8 comments:

  1. "If the eggs hadn't been put in iced water long enough after cooking and were then placed in a vessel like this, they would keep cooking - is this vase to blame for the overcooked onsen egg above?"

    My understanding is that you want to cool Mollet eggs for ten minutes. If the eggs are still cooking in that vase, then that's a pretty unappealing idea, from both a hygiene and culinary perspective.

    Could be that the eggs went straight from being cooking to being served in the soup. Add a little waiting around in the kitchen and that could give you the 5-6 minutes between the eggs on the left and the disaster on the right.

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  2. I'm pretty sure the egg didn't go straight from cooking because they had a slight soy tinge from marination after the shell came off. The overcooking could also have occurred if the just-boiled egg was kept standing at room temp for too long before being dunked into an ice bath, or simply that it was overcooked in the hot water to begin with. I guess I'm not a good enough culinary scientist to know!

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  3. The Friend's egg seems to carry that dark greenish-black sulphur tinge? :O So I think you're right its most probably cooked in very hot boiling water then not long enough a cool down.

    Hard to perfect a beautiful mollet egg that is also warm! But cold ones should be easily repeatable - no excuses for Butao ! :P

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  4. I want to try making those eggs myself now.

    If I went again this is what I would do, take 4 friends, take 4 smaller bowls each, order each of the ramens (going light and/or undercooked on every option) and then separate into "flights of ramen" at the table. Would be interesting to see their reaction.

    Tom

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  5. @HK Epicurius Now you seem like the eggs-pert (sorry, I love bad puns :P)! I really want to buy a tray of eggs and make some at home now... They're so yum (when done properly!)

    @Tom As mentioned above, I want to make some eggs too! The flights of ramen thing is a brilliant idea - you certainly have the mind of a true #ramendork haha

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  6. A true #ramendork, LOL! Well, I never really fancied ramen in the first place - I always associate it with spiciness, and I am impartial towards spiciness at the best of time - so for what it was worth, publicity and all, this is a place to miss for me.

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  7. I'm fascinated by these special eggs. Can you tell us more about them? I've been experimenting with how to get a soft-boiled ordinary egg just right every time....

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  8. As someone that travels to Japan yearly, I have to say butao is actually quite good. Is it the best in asia? Not necessarily, but I'd say it's better than a good number of ramenya's in asia. Better than places in japan? of course not, but if it were to open in japan, it would hold it's own.

    I think your experience has more to do with the initial few slurps destroying your sense than the overall quality being poor.

    As for ippudo.. I agree. Its not that "great" anywhere. Then again, you weren't expecting world beating ramen from such a large chain right?

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