Saturday, March 5, 2011

Bon no Kaze 凡の風

Shio, salt ramen, as a concept is usually overlooked. It is the simplest flavor of ramen, usually just a chicken broth with nice noodles. It's easy to see how this could be boring to the palate in contrast to strong, pungent miso or creamy pork bone. Shio isn't about smacking you in the face with flavor, it's simple, clean and light. Indeed, Shio is by far the healthiest ramen you can eat, as it contains far less fat or calories than the others.

Naturally, shio's dragging popularity has obvious reasons; to the newer generation of rich fatty flavor loving teens, the old world style of shio doesn't hold up.

But there's a restaurant keeping Shio in the culinary spotlight, and that's Bon no Kaze, 凡の風.

"Wind of Mediocrity". I am not making this up.

Bon no Kaze is a ramen restaurant who was recently discovered by Yashoku, the legendary Sapporo ramen shipping company that sells top quality newcomer ramen shop product across Japan. They specialize in Shio ramen.

We can infer then, that this is a relatively new restaurant. It's got a remarkably good rating on Tabelog, around 3.6/5.

The outside exterior is kind of... strange. The shop is contemporary, but looks imbedded into the side of an apartment building. It's almost like a mix between super old school ramen shacks, and new world ramen emporiums.

The interior is more fitting. Warm, dark wood, glass sculpture, and the kitchen is surrounded on almost all sides by chairs. It really shows off the ramen making process, which was certainly time consuming.

Again, something about old world meets new here. I like it though. A pretty nice look thus far.

But let's take a look at the namesake dish; shio ramen. Yashoku claims it will look like this.

My photo, by the way, does not do this dish justice in terms of looks.

This thing is incredible looking. The soup is a shocking, bright gold color, but absolutely clear, which plays well with the curly, semi-thick noodles. The small droplets of fat on the surface glimmer like gold flakes, and all the toppings compliment the bright, intense color of the soup. This is honestly a gorgeous bowl of noodles

The taste, on the other hand, is confounding. Initially it's kind of simple, a basic, strong chicken stock, with classic onion notes. But then it starts to get more complex as you continue to eat. Hints of garlic oil and ginger pass on the nose, a bit of shitake earthiness, maybe a little bonito smoke, all the while mantaining a sort of "grandma's chicken noodle soup" feel.

I don't totally get it, because on one hand it's deceptively simple feeling, noodles and chicken broth really, but at the same time, I feel like the dish is based on incredible restraint and skill. Just hinting enough complexity in each variable to make the soup interesting. You keep drinking it because, "wait, did I just taste garlic? Was that a bit of carrot?" sits in your brain after each sip. Making the soup so ridiculously pigmented and crystal clear, but holding back on obtrusive levels of herbs or spices.

The noodles are surprisingly Sapporo style, classic wavy yellow, perfectly cooked of course. Chashu is good. Egg was good. Nori was a nice touch, and looked incredible. Bamboo shoots were thick and substantial. No problems on Gu.

I suppose then, that this restaurant really is like a combination of old and new world ramen. It has the classic, simple, filling ideas of old world, while also showing incredible technique and craft.

I loved this ramen. It was eye opening, especially for a bowl of Shio Ramen.

This may be one of the best bowls of Shio Ramen you can find. Shio is easily the healthiest ramen out there, so for those who are a bit conscious of the diet, this would be a good choice.

It's a little hard to get to for the tourist; you'll need to take a train and then a tram, but... well... it's really good.


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11:00 am - 8:00 pm, or until soup runs out.
Closed on Wednesday, and national holidays.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Aji no Kura 味の蔵

Some restaurants actually come to Sapporo in their attempts in food stardom. In particular instances, this creates a sort of push in the Ramen scene, as influence from other areas of Japan can be helpful in boosting the concept of ramen.

In comes Aji no Kura, 味の蔵, The Taste Shack.

Aji no Kura is a recent restaurant being heavily, I mean heavily, advertised on Tabelog. Every time you search for Ramen in Hokkaido, this restaurant pops up in the sponsored area. It's also seemingly popular, usually a few people out the door waiting, and it mantains a 3.5/5 rating online. If anything, the first reason to the shop's popularity just comes from their hours.

Open 24/7.

Ramen tends to be well associated with the late night dwellers of Japan, the drunk masses hungry loners looking to fill up after their alcohol fill up, and a 24 hour spot in downtown drinking central Susukino pretty much can't be beat.

There's a couple issues pushing folks back however. The initial one is that this shop isn't actually Sapporo-grounded at all, it began in Shinjuku, a ward of Tokyo, and to many Sapporo ramen purists, this is a negative characteristic. Can we truly call it Sapporo ramen if it didn't start in Sapporo?

Well... why not? With modern technology allowing transportation of all sorts of agriculture, do the lines of what is genuinely Sapporo blend? Restaurants like this somewhat suggest that question.

Perhaps the reason the reason it doesn't scream Sapporo Ramen is because the menu attempts to replicate ramen from all over Japan, rather than focusing on one style. It feels like a shop importing ideas to Sapporo, rather than making new ones.

Well, we've heard the shop background so far. It's open all day and night, and has a pretty remarkable location.

How about the goods?

Aji no Kura is famous for their Pork Bone broth, a broth apparently simmered for more than 12 hours to extract as much rich, milky flavor as possible. They are not, however, famous for Miso, or really any particular style infact.

This shows quickly in the above miso dish. It's composed much like a Pork Bone soup, but the miso is put largely, if not completely on the back burner.

Furthermore, although you're able to pick one of two noodles, both of which are made by the company, they're both thin and fairly un-curly.

So on a basis, it doesn't really even share the miso characteristics Sapporo folk love. No thick noodles, no powerful miso flavor. It reminds me of Kyushu Ramen to be honest. Which is not a bad thing at all.
In fact the food is pretty dang good. As a Pork Bone soup, it's very tasty, a good balance of rich and light. Some garlic oil drizzled on top adds good complexity and character, and the noodles pair up well with the soup's characteristics (though I thought they were soft).

The shop also provides a laundry list of toppings you can freely add, including crushed by yourself garlic, stewed spicy vegetables, and pickled ginger, among others. This can at times be overwhelming, but at the same time, fun to customize a bowl.

If drunk at 3 am, this might be the closest option you have for that late night ramen fix. And you certainly wouldn't be disappointed.

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Aji no Kura
Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

赤星 Akaboshi, Red Star: With Interview

In our quest to find the best of the best, there is one spot that encompasses the evolution of Ramen in Sapporo.

That place is "Akaboshi", a 6 year old newcomer that is dominating the competition with its quality, popularity, and taste.

Akaboshi's claim to fame is it's business concept: sell delicious food for cheap. A bowl of Salt or Soy Sauce ramen runs you 500 yen. This is an unbelievable price. It's easily the cheapest in downtown Sapporo; nothing comes close. Naturally as a place with such cheap food, the restaurant has garnered a bit of attention. A lot of attention really, there's usually a bit of a line out of the door for the food.

But the attention spans just the price; Akaboshi is one of the top 20 rated ramen shops in all of Hokkaido on Tabelog, with a 3.7/5, significantly high for a ramen shop.

I had the honor of interviewing the owner and head chef of Akaboshi, a ramen guru by any standard. He had worked in Kitchens for decades prior to opening his tiny 8 seat shop in Tanuki Kouji. An unbelievable spot for garnering attention and easy access. He was certainly ready to talk about his restaurant, we spoke for around 40 minutes. In fact, he has already done a few interviews for TV laying out the majority of the ramen making process.

The objective was simple: Sell it for less, and make it taste just as good. I was surprised by his honesty in the interview; he told me essentially everything there is to know about how his ramen is made, without hesitation, and without secrets. He explanation for doing do was just because he wants people to enjoy this food, and even get a chance to make it them selves some day. This is extremely endearing. And this honesty is extremely rare in the food world.

For instance, he spoke at length about the variety of cost cutting strategies he implemented, many of which are merely part of the way the ramen is made. As an example, everything is made in house. Noodles, broth, toppings, as much as possible to reduce cost. This cost cut however, gains the benefit of added quality, without relying on factory produced items, the shop can have perfect control over what goes out to customers. Preparation of these ingredients is kept to lowest cost as well, the stock is cooked for only 3 hours to reduce gas use time.

I won't over elaborate with the details, but everything is meticulously planned to appeal to the consumer and reduce cost.

The shop, despite it's young roots, feels established and inviting. A few Ramen cooks and a waitress take your order after you sit down, and you watch the cooks make it in front of you, their eccentric behavior intriguing and enjoyable.

They reccomend Salt or Soy, though they also have Miso. The three Sapporo tastes after all.

This is Shio.

I ordered Gyoza as well. Considering how much money you save on the ramen, sides are extremely appealing. This is also part of the reason Akaboshi's "Seared Chicken" side dish is so popular, for 50 yen, you get this:

The chicken actually comes from the carcasses used to make the chicken based soup. Rather then just throwing away the meat, he flame broiled it and decided to initially give it away. But it became so popular that he now sells it for a whopping 50 cents. To elaborate on its popularity, If you arrive at dinner, it will be gone. More cost effective business, obviously.

The ramen itself is a wonderful representation of Sapporo's historic Ramen world. It takes the concepts of cheap and filling that historic places like Aji no Sanpei were built on, while also keeping with the times, catering to consumers tastes. Most ramen foodies currently steer away from overly rich soup, and indeed this soup has the perfect balance between light and heavy. The flavor is simple and clean, unmistakable chicken. The noodles are semi thin and curly, but white, perhaps a jump away from normal Sapporo standard thick yellow, but this was also part of cutting cost. Taste wise, the noodles are still lovely, cooked just right, pairing well with the clean. It comes with fragrant Nori and an egg, and the owner recommended adding a bit of their house made "Mackerel Garlic" powder, which adds a little complexity and further accentuates the warm chicken feel. The bowl feels well planned and constructed, intricately laid out for the diner.

This is an extremely enjoyable bowl of ramen. Perhaps I am biased because the owner was so kind and open with me, but even so, others agree. It's unanimously good stuff, and unbelievably cheap.

But why the name Red Star?

Well... the red Star is a Symbol of Sapporo, it used to ride the government office building, and Sapporo Beer uses it on a few of their products, so much so that in the early days people would order a "Red Star" when they wanted a Sapporo Beer. To take this name is to suggest a symbolic relationship to that which is Sapporo. But really, Akaboshi is this exactly.

The owner, towards the end, mentioned something to me that I found striking. He told me that places like "Aji no Sanpei", the creator of Miso ramen, and "Junren/Sumire", the brothers that evolved the concept of Sapporo ramen to luxury, aren't actually very popular among normal people in Sapporo; they are lost in the ways of being a symbol of old, and they haven't been able to escape their roots to appeal to the ever changing tastes of individuals. I agree with this completely, and it shows the business savvy of the owner.

In short, Akaboshi is a culmination of what makes ramen so enjoyable, since it captures the foundation of ramen's popularity in Sapporo with it's price and taste, but it does so without an expansive history, thus avoiding the trap of getting caught up within it's own popularity. Akaboshi is a reflection of what people of Sapporo really want, cheap, delicious, and quick food. The name Red Star is very fitting then.

This is a must go to ramen shop for any sight seer, without question.

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Sapporo Akaboshi