Saturday, January 14, 2012

Tamashii & Daruma, Causeway Bay - Ramen in Hong Kong doesn't always make sense

If you live in Hong Kong, you would have noticed a crazy number of ramen openings in the past 18 months or so. While this has done wonders to kick places like Ajisen in the butt, it's also meant that restaurants and marketers have had the chance to take advantage of HKers' relative lack of knowledge about ramen and their burning desire to find the "best" or "most authentic". Urgh. The most obvious  new ramen openings in Causeway Bay were probably Ippudo and Butao (I went to the one in Central), and I haven't been to either because of the crazy queues. Instead, I went to Daruma and Tamashii.

Daruma opened their first outlet early 2011 in Tai Hang. I haven't been to that one - it was line up or book, and for me, ramen is about convenience. (I believe that was also the reason it became popular in Japan, it was never meant to be fine dining - ahem, MIST...). Their menu is pretty simple, mostly tonkotsu-based ramen, the two most popular being tonkotsu and tonkotsu shoyu. The thing about tonkotsu is, it's really heavy, and it's definitely not the holy grail of ramen. I recommend reading Nate Shokey's "A Specifist's Guide to the Regional Ramen of Japan" in Issue 1 of Lucky Peach, which will give you an idea of the immense diversity of Japanese ramen styles.

Noodles at Daruma
I love a well-made tonkotsu (the one at Daruma was so smooth and pure*, I emptied the bowl), but the obsession with it in Hong Kong has reached the point of stupidity (like most trends in Hong Kong) where people no longer ask "why" things are made a certain way. (I'm going on and on about this because it pains me to learn that this city that I call home, so efficient, so on the ball most of the time, is prone to such idiocy). Back to the ramen. So, tonkotsu, by which I mean pork-only, is mostly found in western and southern Japan, where I presume they farm more pigs. In southern Japan, such as Fukuoka, it's mostly eaten like a kebab after clubbing - post-alcohol. The noodles tend to be thin and straight; floury almost, to soak up the soup. My rationale for thin noodles - it may not be correct - is: the soup is already thick, rich and milky (as pork bones do to a soup), so you don't need a noodle that's full of character (thick, bouncy from alkali), you need something lithe and almost passive to complement it. Which brings me to my point - I don't enjoy medium-to-thick, curly, alkali-treated (ie. bouncy) Tokyo-style noodles in my pork-only tonkotsu. It's just too much. Plus, with barely-cooked floury noodles, you 'feel' the carbs more, which is awesome after too many drinks.

*Daruma says they hired a Japanese ramen chef from Japan (presumably a good one) to teach them how to make a proper soup base. It took them a long time to get it right, apparently, the last but most crucial thing turned out to be the water. Tap water didn't work, neither did boiled tap water, they had to install a water ioniser. I don't know if that's what made the soup seem so smooth and drinkable - despite its heaviness it had a clarity that I can't quite explain (I had no knowledge of this ioniser thang when I was lapping it up like a puppy). Speaking of puppies, doggies are welcome at both branches of Daruma.

Across Canal Road and into the area around Bowrington Markets (one of the best markets on HK Island for shopping and eating, mind) is this hole-in-the-wall, Tamashii. It had been getting a bit of buzz in the foodie (apparently people hate the word, but anyway - people who like and talk about food, ok?) circles that I hang out in - metaphorically/digitally - and I was in the area (both of these places are very close to the SCMP office where I drop my stuff off for photoshoots). The place is tiny, probably about 10-12 seats. The seats in front of the ramen kitchen, where you can see the chef at work, are best for solo diners - they're partitioned off like old-school library study booths. There are a couple of small tables for 2 (or 4?) at the front. At five past noon, ie. five minutes into their opening time, the place was already starting to fill up.

The chef is Japanese, and he works with one local assistant (there isn't really room for any more in that tiny kitchen). They also offer a tonkotsu soup as their signature ramen. The other bases are kimchi-miso, squid ink and wasabi (I think - the last one wasn't available yet when I went, I'm just guessing from the name - green Tamashii). Clearly they are going the creative route. I had their signature, which was fine, maybe a bit greasy, but otherwise failed to make any impression. The soup was greasy but taste-wise, bland and unremarkable - never was I eager to take another slurp. I left about a third of it in my bowl. I really wanted to like this place, but it needs a perkier tasting soup. And seriously, pure tonkotsu with thick, alkali-strengthened noodles - who invented that? I'd be much happier if it was cut with a soya sauce base or even some chicken stock. Otherwise it's excessive, like heavily marbled beef and blue cheese - they can be good on their own, but together? Not my thing, not even when I'm drunk.

Daruma Ramen House
31 Yiu Wah St
Causeway Bay
(Original branch in Tai Hang)
Hong Kong
+852 2565 6001
Bookings taken & dogs welcome

Tamashii Japanese Noodle
18C Sharp Street West
Causeway Bay/Wanchai
Hong Kong
+852 2893 2699

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  1. I rather like the thicker version of noodles, though agree that in tonkotsu it's a bit rich. Would be interested to see how the wasabi soup broth comes.

  2. Haven't tried Tamashii yet so no comment on the taste - but I guess some shops in Yokohama/Tokyo/Hokkaido do use the more curly yellow noodles with Tonkotsu base (Musashi is one. But you're right, those aren't pure Tonkotsu they have fish stock or shoyu or miso to make it less 'lardy'.

    I actually quite like the CWB Hakata Ippudo's Shoyu Tonkotsu ramen, its lighter but addictive for me. Must add seaweed though!

  3. Anonymous9:55 am

    I have to disagree with you on the ramen in Tamashii. Their ramen personally scores the highest on my ratings with Daruma coming second to them. Ippudo and Butao are much more hefty with their soup base and as a result a much more exuberant lardy texture.