In the past month, two new ramen restaurants have opened up in London. Both are outposts of popular Japanese eateries, both specialise in tonkotsu ramen, and both have their roots in the Fukuoka region of southern Japan, on the island of Kyushu. Oh, and they’re both right opposite each other in Covent Garden.
They follow a line of recent ramen bar openings (Bone Daddies, Shoryu, Tonkotsu) which have helped propel the humble noodle soup from something expats might order in Japanese restaurants to an on-trend London favourite.
The origin of these new restaurants is significant. While most areas of Japan will lay claim to a ramen dish of sorts, it is Kyushu that is considered the home of tonkotsu ramen. Tonkotsu is made with a pork bone broth, and is the kind that’s most commonly found in London — including at all the restaurants mentioned above. So, basically, these ought to be the real deal.
We decided to put these two new ramen rivals to the test by comparing bowlfuls from both of them in one belly busting night, judging them not just against each other but also the ramen we’ve tried in Kyushu ourselves. Here’s how we got on:
Ippudo opened on Friday (10 October), and forms part of the brightly coloured Central St Giles development on St Giles High Street. It’s the first European venture for a now sizeable chain that started in Fukuoka back in 1985. As well as having branches across much of Japan and several other Asian cities, there are also Ippudo restaurants in Sydney and in New York.
If you’ve been to Japan, you’ll be familiar with the way in which diners are greeted on entering a restaurant (or just about any other establishment for that matter). If you’re not, the welcome at Ippudo could seem a tad odd. “Irrashaimase” — which roughly translates as “welcome” — say the door staff and receptionists, and the entire chef team shout it out as we pass the open kitchen on the way to our seats. They do the same for every single party which goes by, adding a quirky eccentricity to proceedings but leading us to worry about their throats.
The restaurant has two floors and has gone for a slick, modern look that’s heavy on black and red; combined with beat-heavy music there’s a risk of it feeling a little like eating in a club. Tables are laid out in a conventional restaurant fashion, as opposed to the bar-style seating or communal tables which are common in ramen bars both here and in Japan. It feels quite formal considering we’re just having ramen. Service is efficient.
It’s a big one. In fact, ramen dishes don’t feature until the last page, despite being the main draw. Other dishes include gyoza, hirata buns, carpaccio and even chicken wings. Hefty selections of both starters and puddings suggest Ippudo is encouraging diners to stay for longer than at your typical noodle bar. Vegetarian ramen is available.
A big drinks list includes a lot of sake, as well as shochu, plum wines and Japanese-inspired cocktails. There’s also a decent range of Japanese beers (including Asahi on draft — £5 a pint) and other wines and spirits.
A bowl of the classic ramen costs £10, with toppings such as extra pork belly, curry balls or eggs available for a little extra (£1.50 for a boiled egg). The stock is exceptional: rich and creamy with deep meaty notes and a slightly sweet edge — and tastes exactly the same as at the Ippudo we visited in Fukuoka. A large slice of pork loin which sits on top is pleasingly tender, though not particularly strongly flavoured.
We’re disappointed that there are no additional toppings or condiments to be added at the table; it is common for sesame seeds, garlic, chilli, pickles and other spices to be available, but here there are none. At Ippudo in Japan they even offered raw garlic cloves and a garlic crusher; it’s a shame that London doesn’t get this. Spring onions and bean sprouts do, however, add extra taste and texture and our boiled egg is pleasantly gooey, though could have been a little runnier. The noodles themselves have a pleasant bite to them — al dente in Italian speak.
Kanada-Ya opened in early September across the road from Ippudo on St Giles High Street. The original branch launched in the Yukuhashi area of Fukuoka prefecture in 2009, and this is the third outlet worldwide with another branch in Hong Kong.
On a cool evening, there was something incredibly inviting about the steamed-up windows of Kanada-Ya, and when we step inside we’re treated to a free steam room session as we wait the few minutes it takes for a couple of the 20 or so seats to become available. The space must be a quarter of the size of Ippudo’s at most, and the basic white and wood Ikea-style furniture is far more modest. We also note the different music choice: both Bowie and The Beach Boys play during our visit.
A small paper menu — complete with a pen and tick boxes — is similarly scaled down compared to across the road, with just ramen, some extra toppings, onigiri (rice balls) and drinks to choose from. The ramen selection is almost identical, but on ordering, we are asked how we would like our noodles (“soft”, “regular, “hard” or “extremely hard”); in the name of balance, with stick with regular.
We’re not sure how to break this to you, but Kanada-Ya serves no alcohol whatsoever. What it does have is a pretty impressive selection of green tea and fruit-based drinks in bottles and cans.
A bowl of the classic ramen costs exactly the same amount (£10) as at Ippudo, and is really very comparable in quality. At a push, we’d say that the several small pork slices here are a touch more fully-flavoured than at Ippudo, and the fact that an additional boiled egg (£1.80) comes tea-stained is a welcome touch (it’s also ever-so-slightly gooier). To our taste there were a few too many bean sprouts, but we’re sure others would disagree. Although we’d still have appreciated more toppings, a couple of pickles and a grinding mill of sesame seeds are provided to add at the table free of charge. As for the all-important stock, it’s certainly rich and creamy but definitely less meaty-tasting than at Ippudo. Flavours of nori and mushroom compete with pork for top billing and leave the broth slightly less exhilarating.
For us there is only one winner, but it comes with caveats. Kanada-Ya is the more fun, friendly venue, it has more personality, it gives you free toppings and it has music to match the comforting feel-good food. In comparison, the setting and atmosphere at Ippudo doesn’t feel right for us: when you have your head in a bowl of noodles even a little formality doesn’t go down well, and we’ve never been convinced by restaurants that feel like clubs. That said, the ramen stock at Ippudo is definitely richer (though not by much) and the fact that they serve booze is a bonus.
The winner: Kanada-Ya
Find Ippudo at Central St Giles, Covent Garden, open 11am-3pm and 5pm-10.30pm. Kanada-Ya is literally over the road at 64 St Giles High Street, Covent Garden and is open Monday-Saturday 12pm-3pm and 5pm-10pm.
UPDATE: We're told that Kanada-Ya is in the process of getting a licence and aims to serve alcohol soon.