Alone but want to eat out without looking like a loner? Then try a ramen bar – they should have quick service, friendly staff, mind-boggling condiment and food containers to divert you, and customers just like you.
I tried one yesterday when out in Brighton: Shogun, which opened last July. Having seen my friend off at the train station, this ramen bar which I had espied earlier on that day was intriguing enough to make me decide against returning home and walk all the way back from the train station to sup out alone.
This unassuming ramen bar met all my criteria for a successful ramen bar: my ramen arrived in 6 minutes; the waitress was willing to make conversation over the bar counter; I spent all of 6 minutes trying to figure out how to open the chilli pepper sauce gourd-shaped container, the sesame seeds container, and my bottle of marble soda; and there was a singular diner beside me. Not only were the menu descriptions appealing – anyone who has been to a Chinese restaurant knows that this is not always the case, and in fact, kikurage mushrooms, I discovered, are what the Chinese call ‘cloud ear fungus’, so I now know how to reword that ingredient next time to my fungus-fearing friend – but the menu was also long enough and had all the right items – i.e. green tea, chestnut, and black sesame ice cream instead of your usual vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry – but retained the simplicity that every ramen bar should be brave enough to maintain.
Looking at the menu from my seat at the bar, it being a warm day, I was very tempted to have a cup of Gokai (a brand of cold sake) but my head, which for some reason was aching, told me to be sensible. So naturally, I went and chose a particular non-alcoholic drink that may not have been the most sensible one to choose. For when my Ramune, listed on the menu as marble soda (£2), came, it came with a cool bottle cap and less cool instructions on how to open the tricky thing. After all that excitement, with the bemused waitress looking on and silently calculating the minutes before she had to come and help this poor girl open the bottle, my ramen arrived just as I took my first – and well-deserved – sip of the lemonade soda. I had ordered the tonkotsu ramen with chicken thigh (£8.90), and at the first sip of their broth one can comprehend how “signature” the Shogun taste really is.
Their tonkotsu pork broth is the base of all their ramen (they have two types, Tonkotsu and Spicy Miso), and it is boiled for 14 hours. It was a little salty for my taste, but I normally under-season when I cook for myself, so I would say that the broth was as delicious as advertised! I was not used to there being cold toppings on hot noodles – especially the cold egg and sweet corn, and raw spinach, which I prefer slightly wilted – but there’s an easy solution to this, which is submerging them in the broth for a few seconds before consuming. The toppings were the expected – nitmago egg, kikurage mushrooms, spring onion, sweet corn, menma bamboo, spinach, and kamaboko (fish cake) – and the chicken thigh was something I could have made easily at home, but the most important components of the dish, the broth and the ramen, were spectacular! The springy ‘give-and-take’ that the noodles gave me made me almost ‘Tigger-happy’. And the portion size was generous. Unlike what is usually the case, a small portion did not arrive in a deceivingly large bowl. Rather, a large portion arrived in a deceivingly small bowl.
For five pence more, one can order a chicken ramen from Wagamama’s, but in less tasty broth, with less authentic ingredients, and with slower service. I prefer the cosier atmosphere of a tiny ramen bar, which actually still seats around twenty-four people, I found when I ventured downstairs to the toilet. To be honest, at peak service, both kinds of Japanese restaurant are as equally claustrophobic.
As with most restaurants, there are improvements that can be made. The problem with having only two staff members (the chef and the server) in the ramen bar is that, even with a small number of customers, the turnover is too quick for attention to be paid to the toilet. Hence there were toilet paper and towels inside, just not in the containers in which they belong. Moreover, Shogun Ramen has almost no variety for vegetarians. The tonkotsu broth, as I have said, is the base of all ramen dishes, and elsewhere on the menu, if we omit the extra toppings and dessert sections, only one rice dish and six sides are meat-less. Still, Shogun Ramen is formidable in my non-vegetarian mind, and this little warrior of a restaurant really has ‘shown me its guns’.
Do stumble upon Shogun Ramen at 13 Prince Albert Street, Brighton, BN1 1HE