There’s a basic rule dedicated ramen devotees abide by in the search for proper ramen (for which this city offers scant nourishment): it’s all in the broth. Good ramen takes considerable care, time and money to cook. Generally, if ramen is a footnote on an all-encompassing, catch-all Japanese menu, chances are the restaurant hasn’t bothered emulsifying pig or chicken bones for between nine and eighteen hours or sourced specialty salts from Okinawa or used small-batch soy, charcoal-filtered water or sun-dried konbu (seaweed). They likely haven’t added dried fish such as niboshi (sardines) at painstakingly devised intervals or thrown in raw apples just to see what happens or measured water content to the tiniest percentile (the list is endless: every serious ramen chef has their secret)
Nope, they’ve used an instant mix from a packet, probably not even made their own noodles and will be hoping, say, the quality of the pork they’ve used picks up the check. Ebisu comes probably the closest to defying this rule in a while.
Its ramen (42RMB) is fairly by-the-book, the broth is better than expected although lacks nuance and is nothing too intense flavour-wise. The cuts of pork, though, are impressive, tender and not at all chalky (the most common misstep with crap ramen). Noodles are the let-down, like the bamboo shoots, too soft (fine if you order them that way; we didn’t). Still, passable and good value even if it’s nothing that would rock the mantle of Ippudo, which has proved a massive morale boost for Shanghai’s ramenistas since it opened at the ifc mall last year.
Otherwise, the menu here is interesting and the cooking is consistent. From a fairly accessible yakitori menu, we order the pork cheek (12RMB) and a number of other skewers that arrive erratically. The tender chicken-wasabi (12RMB) has lots of temper and the bright, bacon-wrapped quail eggs (15RMB) are excellent, a sweet soy sauce balances the salty bacon nicely.
The stand-out is the beef tongue (12RMB) which comes in thick, tender cubes and, again, is given a sweet, delicate lift that cuts the savoriness of the meat. Teppanyaki is an easy order and the pork loin and ginger (42RMB) makes a simple but pleasing dish. Prices allow for some exploring, though. A light, well-cooked flammuline-filled omelette (20RMB) is great value and the salmon head (45RMB) is another specialty popular here.
The atmosphere is upbeat and it’s already buzzing with a mix of pre-bar groups and lone salarymen at the counter chugging Asahi (2RMB/400ml glass for the opening offer). The service, though, often goes awry. The staff are a bit jelly-legged; all nervous smiles and hands on foreheads. At times, it’s a bit like watching an over-forties egg-and-spoon race. Or a TV show, perhaps, where the answer is obvious to everyone except the contestant. Still, they’re committed and well-intentioned and though mishaps are frequent, in the end, it’s almost kind of endearing. As we get up to pay the bill at the exit, a server chases behind with a single plate and a smile that could melt a snowman. ‘What’s that?’ we ask. ‘Pork cheek’.
By Alexander Barlow