Review: Chonmage – San Rafael, CA

Chonmage Ramen on the left, and Samurai Ramen on the right

Neighborhood ramen spot has great vibe and good food, but inconsistent.

One of the most important qualities of a good restaurant is how consistent their cooking is. Are their dishes reliable, or do they change day to day, week to week, or from one cook to another, whoever might be cooking that day? Will flavors change from season to season? Maybe, and I would expect that kind of variation. But, for me to return more than once to a restaurant, they need to be both good and consistent.

We visited Chonmage on consecutive Thursdays. The first visit, the food was very good. We tried the Chonmage Ramen (miso broth), Samurai Ramen (shoyu broth), and Sasuke Ramen (tonkotsu broth). They offer two sizes of bowls, and the smaller size is great if you want to try a couple different dishes, which is what we did.

For me, the winner that first night was the shoyu broth – among the best I’ve ever had, bringing a smile to my face with each spoonful. However, the Samurai Ramen had thinner noodles in it, and it simply didn’t come together – that elusive act of the sum of the parts being more than the whole. The Chonmage Ramen, however, came together quite nicely, and was a very good bowl of ramen, as was the Sasuke Ramen.

Our second visit, I had high expectations for this place, ordering their Chonmage Ramen again, along with some sweet potato tempura and shrimp tempura. The ramen was between okay and good, and the tempura was only below mediocre. Nothing was bad, but nothing was good. The experience was disappointing, and left me wondering how they could have strayed so far in just a week.

I’ll go back to try it one more time, but I’m not excited about it. Overall, I’d give it only 2.5 stars (out of 5). For just the ramen, I’d give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Review: Ichiran – Ueno, Tokyo

Ichiran Tonkotsu Ramen in Tokyo’s Ueno location.

Well, I’m not sure what all the acclaim is about.

I’ve heard from so many sources that this is the best, or among the best, ramen (specializing in tonkotsu). While it was very good in some respects, it did not live up to the hype for me. Highlight was the broth, a very nice umami flavor and light in texture (not creamy). Noodles were good. Pork slices were soggy but had good flavor – but were still a weak element overall.

No egg included, but I got one as an extra. It was not soy-cooked and came separately (not in bowl) — with the shell on!! Really? I realize in my ramen travels that there are so many types of ramen, and that much of my commentary is informed by my preferences. That said, all in all, I’d call this a decent quality bowl, but – in my opinion – not at the level of Ippudo, Nagi, Mensho or Iza Ramen in San Francisco. I’ve certainly had better tonkotsu. I do like the preferences sheet you get to fill out.

Ichiran order preference sheet.
Ichiran boxed take-home ramen is available all over Japan. Around $18 US.

Ramen Club 5-Star Rating System:

Food: 3.25 stars

Service: 3 stars

Atmosphere/Comfort: 3 stars

Note: I’m not keen on the industrialization of ramen at Ichiran: you sit in a slotted cubicle and slurp in private. You never even see the face of the person serving you. Some locations have 6 floors of such cubicles. And the worst piped-in music.

Tsuta is coming to San Francisco!

Tsuta in Sugamo, Tokyo

Tsuta, the Tokyo restaurant that was the first ramen spot to secure a Michelin star, is opening up a San Francisco location.

I nearly dropped my chopsticks when I read about this in the San Francisco Chronicle. Tsuta joins Nagi, Ippudo, Mensho and Ichiran as notable Japan ramen specialists which have moved to the U.S. I’m pretty damn excited about this, as I had one of my rare transcendent ramen experiences at Tsuta. Notable because shoyu ramen, Tsuta’s specialty, isn’t typically my favorite.

The restaurant will open in mid-September and be located at 155 4th Street. For updates and other info, check out Tsuta’s U.S. website at http://www.tsutaramenusa.com.

Full review of Tsuta Tokyo coming soon.