On Wednesday there was a screening of the film Akira at a bar called in the Northern Quarter called Texture. It was part of an ongoing film night called Screened, where a group of people put on events to showcase films they love. Akira is a seminal piece of animation, based on an incredible six-part Manga by Katsuhiro Otomo. The event was an example of people appreciating a culture different from their own, wanting no more than to share it with the world, and of British people appreciating something brilliantly Japanese, that only Japan could do justice to.
In 1976 Japan Centre Food Hall came to London. They arrived with the mission statement of being ‘passionate about delivering a rich variety of quality Japanese goods to shoppers in the UK and beyond’. Japan Centre would go on to start Shoryu, a chain of ramen restaurants, and somewhere between 1976 and 2016, something went wrong.
The excitement around the Mancunion Food Desk was palpable. It seemed amazing, ramen had finally arrived in Manchester, that ineffable alchemy of broth and noodles.. When I finally got a table on a calm Wednesday evening, I was presented with one of the more abhorrent displays of service I have ever witnessed. If you want to see what a front house team can really do, go in at 10:15 on a Wednesday night. Admittedly, it is a nasty time to arrive, the kitchen was evidently in full clean down the waiters and waitresses were sweeping and refilling sesame oil dispensers. It is a ramen bar, therefore it has an open kitchen, so I got to watch the chefs sneezing, eating their dinner and dropping chopsticks on the floor.
There were six beers on the menu, they had run out of all except one Japanese craft beer made from sweet potatoes that cost £6.50 for 330ml bottle, it tasted fine. And to be honest, £40 for two bowls of ramen and a two beers is daylight robbery, I left there feeling embarrassed and hollow, like I’d just been mugged. I think it was a sign that we shouldn’t have drunk the beer in the first place, our waitress brought them over with bottle caps still in place. We ordered a seafood ramen and their signature ganso tonkotsu ramen, when our bowls arrived they were both ganso tonkotsu. I was glad to see the extra bowl not going to waste, I got to watch a waiter sit down just in front of me and have his dinner, as I sat there hungry and food-less. The whole meal was a bit of a joke, this is the typical chain insidiousness I would expect from somewhere like Wagamama. I had so much faith in Shoryu, people queued for three hours for those bowls, poor them.
I’m angry because ramen is my favourite food in the world, I’ve had bowls from the motherland, from Fukouka AKA Tonkotsu City AKA home of the ramen stadium, a floor of a shopping mall dedicated to tonkotsu broth. Shoryu is supposedly based on the tonkotsu style of ramen from Hakata, a ward of the City of Fukuoka. I failed to see the comparison, despite the Shoryu website insisting their broth is curated by an executive chef who is from there, this broth may well have come from concentrate.
The price is a huge factor in the taste of the meal. The average cost of a bowl of ramen in Japan is about £5.00 and at Shoryu you’re paying easily double, if not more. I suppose you have to make allowances for importing Japanese ingredients, but at the same time, Shoryu has eight outlets? Surely they can drive some costs down with wholesale purchases. I think it unfair that they profit from customers ignorant of the discrepancy between good, serious ramen and the Shoryu variety. It is a joke: boycott Shoryu, go to Siam Smiles if you want noodles in broth.
Say one is willing to ignore both the service and cost and judge the place by the content of its bowl. They seem very proud of how rich their broth is, but I just don’t think it anything to be proud of. It is like sipping a rich sauce, it is overindulgent, brash and unrefined. The noodles were distinctly OK, with seemingly to much fuss over how you would like your noodles cooked. The egg was probably the best element. So congratulations, they have mastered the soft boiled egg, they don’t bother to season it though. The pork slices was average at best, tasting like they could have come out of a packet, or having fallen from of a Subway sandwich, been left on the pavement for a day, then picked up and eaten. Or, as Marina O’Loughlin said in 2012: “The chashu pork in the tonkotsu has a greyish, cheap roast dinner quality.”
It is comforting to see they have maintained a certain level of consistency, not wanting to upset customers by making their food taste any better. And beware the floating bits of rubber masquerading as scallops and squid in the seafood broth… BEWAARRREEE.