By Ben Booker
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
In Tokyo Ramen is less a heart-warming winter noodle soup and more a way of life. It was with such sentiment that when in Tokyo I sampled plenty of the stuff and by god is it good. Rarely does a broth contain so much flavour, accompanied by succulent pork and perfectly cooked noodles. It is a wonderful thing, a joy to eat (and undoubtedly incredibly messy) and so it is with excitement that Tom and I ventured to Shoryu, a Japanese inspired restaurant predominantly focused on that earthy bowl of goodness: ramen. It is worth noting at this point that Tom and I had planned to go to Nanban, the incarnation of Masterchef winner Tim Anderson. It is a great shame that we did not but let’s face it, getting back to Wapping from Brixton at 11 pm is about as much fun as being held up at gunpoint.
So we settled on the Carnaby, Kingly Court branch of Shoryu. We arrived during a busy period but were seated fairly quickly and announced to the restaurant by a gong upon entry. As those of you that have read previous posts will know, gimmicks do not go down well with us. We are not in Tokyo or a remote corner of wonderful Japan, we are in one of the most densely populated and touristy parts of London, by all means set a mood but do not announce diners to the restaurant as if every single one of them is the bloody Shogun.
Now that is off our chest we can talk about the food. In a minute. Let’s talk beer first. In one of Tom’s earlier reviews he comments on the frozen beer top served at Kurobuta. I shared this revolutionary experience with him and was delighted to see the same idea exercised at Shoryu. Alas, it was not in any way, shape or form a re-incarnation of the divine. It was a hoppy block of ice sat precariously on top of beer that it took twenty minutes to get to and by that time was warm. The ice-top works in a wide rimmed glass so you can dunk your face right down to the cool refreshing hops. In a regular pint glass the ice-top serves purely as a barrier to one’s beer and that is an affront, particularly after a long day at work. Simple things, but points that really did affect both Tom’s and my mood going into the food.
The menu consists of ramen of different varieties and a number of side/starter dishes. To start we shared a crispy chicken bun and some prawn tempura. Our mood did not improve. Now neither of us has been to Bao (yes, we know, sacrilege, but it’s on the list) but I can concur that so soft is the look of their bun that every time I look at another Instagram I have to fight an internal battle between whether to eat the damn thing or sleep on it. Shoryu fails this test, not only would I not sleep on it, I would not force Cara, my 18 month old black lab to sleep on it. It was over-worked, heavy and domineering. The chicken itself was deep-fried and tasty but there were two issues – it was a piece of chicken, some sweet chilli and a mayonnaise (which quite frankly is about as inventive as a ham and cheese Panini) and moreover there was not enough of it for the size of the bun meaning the bun to filling ratio was about as pleasing as a slap in the face. The whole thing was just very ‘vanilla’ and we were sceptical about the tempura too, so pale was the batter. I will digress back to Tokyo here and the last time I had prawn tempura, served in a tatami room on a small table and golden, crispy and light. Fast-forward to our evening at Shoryu and the story is rather different, the batter is beige, and rather heavy. It was crispy but I am afraid the right texture does not make up for a lack of flavour. I appreciate that I was not going to be whisked back to that wonderful thing in Japan but this was at best a mediocre effort at something a Japanese-inspired restaurant should be banging out perfectly with their eyes closed. Note to Shoryu: less prawns in the fryer and stop rushing, wait for the oil to get hotter!
Right, that was all rather negative. The ramen (to an extent) is passable, it is not excellent (as I suspect Mr Anderson’s is) but it is good and enjoyable. Tom went for the souped-up (couldn’t resist) version of the classic Tonkotsu ramen. This includes an earthy miso/pork broth with pork belly, a Japanese style marinated soft-boiled egg and some additional goodies. Tom was happy with his order, it was packed with flavour, not overbearing and slightly delicate as well which is difficult to achieve with ramen, so bold are some of the flavours. But this particular variation is intended to be simple, a staple of Japanese life and something in which you can taste every ingredient. Tom confirmed that this was not the real deal but not bad.
My dish was something a bit different – piri piri ramen. What!? Piri-piri? That’s ridiculous we are trying to do something Japanese here! I agree, which is exactly why I ordered it, what on earth is piri-piri doing on a ramen menu? In addition I wanted something with a bit of heat (it had been one of those kinds of days). I will say this, the broth was good, slightly hot with tender moist pork (an underestimated meat) and to a large extent I enjoyed the taste but I didn’t enjoy the experience, I wanted ramen and I simply was not getting it. Why on earth use jalapeno and piri-piri to spice up ramen when Japan has some of the oldest, most tried and tested and spectacular flavours in the world including ones pertaining to heat. Using piri-piri and jalapeno is lazy, overtly in contradiction to the tradition of the foodstuff you are selling and quite frankly insulting. That is not to say it wasn’t tasty, as I have already stated, but it is not what ramen is and I loathe changing something that is not only good but a veritable institution in a culinary heartland. If you want to imitate something, do it right, because no matter what it won’t be the same. The skill in imitation is not making you believe something is the same but putting you in a position that is as close as possible to the real thing. Putting piri-piri flavour into ramen is like putting bavette steak in your granola – it might end up tasting okay but it’s ludicrous in the extreme, and more importantly totally unnecessary.
Let me explain myself a bit. Take pizza and pizza pilgrims (another restaurant in Kingly Court) where two young lads pump out very good pizza under the mantra that it is the closest thing to Neapolitan pizza you will get in London. Now, that is an arguable assertion, but by all accounts it is a very good recreation of the Italian staple. That is exactly why pizza-pilgrims works, it is not trying to actually be a Neapolitan pizza restaurant, it can’t be, it is not in Naples. Instead it bills itself as giving its customers something close to that experience here in London. Shoryu would do well to learn this lesson. Instead of ‘Japanifying’ the restaurant to make us all feel like we are in the land of the rising sun, please for goodness sake just cook something that will remind me of it faster than the 13 and a half hour flight it takes to get me there. For that reason, I beg of restaurants, strip it all back, get rid of the gimmicks and ask what it is really about, namely the food. If it is about ramen then ditch the mediocre starters (that you fail to do properly) and focus on doing ramen in a way that ever so slightly brings back the memory I have of ramen in Tokyo. Do that and you have provided a good recreation. Unfortunately Shoryu does not get anywhere near. Without being particularly poor food it still manages to infuriate, disappoint and leave you wondering “why on earth didn’t I go to Brixton” and THAT in itself is perhaps the only thing that should be announced by a gong.