Business Times - 18 Apr 2009
Oodles of noodles
Hakata ramen is making its presence felt in Singapore, with several specialised outlets opening here this year. BT Weekend speaks to two fresh entrants and one established restaurant
Ippudo (to open in October)
333 Orchard Road
IT'S difficult to be a judge of good Hakata ramen - a thin, straight variety of ramen cooked in a milky-coloured pork-bone broth - without having visited the district in Japan's Fukuoka city. But come October, a new entrant to the local market may offer as authentic a bowl as you're going to get anywhere.
Ippudo is a Hakata ramen restaurant started by Shigemi Kawahara, who is also chief executive officer of the eatery's parent company, Chikara No Moto. (Chikara No Moto owns 34 Ippudo outlets in Japan along with a number of other ramen-related businesses throughout the country.) But he's better known in Japan as the King of Ramen: the restaurateur and chef is the only person to have won, three times in a row, a nation-wide competition testing the skills of ramen experts - no mean feat considering the number of ramen chefs in Japan and the different variations of the noodle available.
His Singapore outlet will be located on the fourth floor of Mandarin Gallery when the shopping centre reopens after extensive renovation. It will be one of just two or three restaurants in the mall, all of which promise to offer fine food in a chic ambience.
The upcoming restaurant is Mr Kawahara's second overseas venture - in March last year, he opened his first in Manhattan's East Village, a modern 80-seat brasserie, to critical acclaim. New York magazine called 'the frenetically complex hodgepodge of the akamaru ramen' - Ippudo's signature dish with red miso, black garlic oil, and ivory slices of Berkshire pork - 'a revelation'.
What makes the brand's noodles different is its combination of noodles and broth. The ramen, for one, is made from several types of flour imported from around the world and kneaded to a glossy, springy consistency.
The broth - there are two main types, aka (red and spicy from a secret sauce) and shiro (white) - is rich and creamy but not overly porky, a result achieved by at least 15 hours of boiling thoroughly-cleaned pork bones. During this period, soup is extracted at three different times, then mixed together to produce the final recipe.
While Ippudo has not revealed many details about what it has planned for Singapore, what it will say is that the menu here will offer more than 20 different items as well as seasonal ramen menus. The restaurant also typically creates one special version of ramen for each location it operates in, so that looks like something it will do for Singapore as well.
Expanding overseas, says Mr Kawahara, will help to 'continuously spread the new ramen culture beyond Japan'. But he is quick to add that 'we are highly selective in our expansion plans'. Singapore - and Mandarin Gallery in particular - he explains, is a 'good fit because of its prime location and target customer base'.
While it remains to be seen if his Hakata ramen will satisfy diners here, the Ramen King is confident that his product will win over loyal local subjects. 'Ippudo has successfully redefined and established ramen as the soul food of Japan and we are confident that it will also attract a strong following here in Singapore,' he says.
Attracting attention in Holland Village...
Yoshimaru Ramen Bar
31 Lorong Liput
WITH so many types and 'brands' of Japanese food inundating our F&B scene these days, it's not just a simple matter of saying you want ramen anymore. You have to specify what type you want, either Sapporo or Hakata.
While the Northern Sapporo-style ramen has been more widely available here, with only a couple of places serving Hakata noodles, this is about to change with the new Yoshimaru Ramen bar brought in by Jumbo Seafood restaurant.
The homegrown seafood restaurant has plans to open three to four more outlets in Singapore this year, after its first eatery at Holland Village. This also marks its foray into another 'brand' of eateries that has nothing to do with local seafood.
'The Japanese food culture is popular in Singapore and we would like to play a part in this dining concept,' says Ang Kiam Meng, Jumbo Seafood's general manager, adding that the restaurant group is gradually seeing itself as a lifestyle brand now.
Jumbo Seafood's venture into Japanese noodles isn't too unusual given that it has a joint venture in Japan. The group opened Singapore Seafood Republic in Shinagawa last year, and the second outlet opened this year in Ginza.
The contact for Yoshimaru came about from there, so Jumbo has partnered with several parties to bring Yoshimaru here and manage it wholly. It already has a chain of 13 outlets in Japan and the Singapore ramen bar is its first overseas outlet.
Yoshimaru's specialty - you guessed it - is Hakata ramen, which is a thinner type of ramen noodle, served in tonkotsu (pork bone) soup. This type of soup is found througout Kyushu, in the form of a creamy white broth.
Tonkotsu ramen is apparently the 'king' of regional ramens, says Yoshimaru's webpage, with Hakata ramen becoming synonymous with tonkotsu ramen.
What's Hakata ramen like? It's a close cousin to wonton noodles, in fact, as it's half the size of Sapporo noodles. At Yoshimaru - decked out like a noodle bar - the noodles have a slightly chewy texture as well.
Diners can choose from eight different types of noodles, from the signature tonkotsu to the spicy and nutty 'dan dan' soup base. Besides noodles, there are a few standard appetisers like gyoza or fried dumplings.
The tonkotsu soup there is slightly 'porky' though if you order the dan dan soup, it'll be masked by the chilli and peanuts. The cold ramen dish is yummy too - as it comes tossed in a chilli-soy-based dressing.
The thin noodles are a winner - even if they do seem very much like springy wonton noodles - and another plus is that the soup isn't as salty as the miso-based Sapporo noodle soups.
Within just a few weeks of opening, Yoshimaru at Holland Village is already drawing night crowds which seem totally at home with the concept.
And why not? Noodles in any form are comfort food for the Singapore palate, and one can often bank on a Japanese brand.
... and a hit in Mohamed Sultan Road too
Hakata Nihon Ryori
33 Mohamed Sultan Road, #01-03
STEVEN Liaw learnt how to make Hakata noodles from his Japanese shi fu (teacher) more than 20 years ago. His master is retired now, and has returned to Japan, but for a while, Mr Liaw was the only restaurant serving the Southern Japanese style noodles in Singapore.
He opened Kyushu Nihon Ryori in West Coast Way more than 10 years ago, and the second outlet - opened three years ago - is located in Mohamed Sultan Road, but called Hakata Nihon Ryori.
Although both his restaurants have full-fledged Japanese menus albeit helmed by local chefs, their signature is Hakata noodles. And it looks like that's how the Japanese round up a meal there, with small bowls of Hakata noodles at the end of several shared dishes of everything from sushi to teppanyaki.
The Mohamed Sultan Road outlet was very well-patronised by Japanese diners when we dropped by earlier this week, with most tucking into the noodles. Even the tatami-style private rooms that seat six to eight people each were full, making us feel as if we'd stumbled into a well-known food secret among the Japanese community.
But one can understand Hakata Nihon Ryori's appeal. It has that homey feel with personable service given by Mr Liaw, and with prices that are among the lowest in town, it's not a surprise that the restaurant seems to be a household name among Japanese foodies.
While the fare is of average quality, the Hakata noodles are totally slurpworthy and priced reasonably as well from $10 to $12. Smooth thin noodles are served in hearty pork bone soup which was full-flavoured and yet refined, with no porky smell, but robustly peppered.
The signature Kyushu ramen is good, topped with black fungus, seaweed and beansprouts, and comes with a side dish of tempura prawns and fried chicken. The chicken was good although the tempura batter was too heavy.
Mr Liaw says he imports his noodles from Japan, which accounts for their smoothness and slightly sweetish taste. Then at the restaurant, pork bones are boiled for some 10 hours, to draw out their essence.
He's aware of only one other restaurant serving Hakata noodles so far. But with several new players coming into the scene, one can say that Mr Liaw has a comfortable headstart so far, and has certainly set the benchmark for Hakata ramen as Singaporeans know it.