By Jeremy Yap
Japanese Soba Noodles Tsuta (ジャパニーズソバヌードル 蔦) is a small, 9-seater ramen shop in north Tokyo's Sugamo, that caused a big stir in the culinary world when it became the first ever ramen shop to be awarded a coveted Michelin star in December 2015.
The trademark dish here is 'Shoyu Soba', soy sauce ramen, comprising a chicken and seafood stock base, enhanced by a delicate soy sauce blend. Thin stone-milled noodles cradle a slice of pork, topped with their signature black truffle oil. All the flavours in the bowl combine to deliver a deep, intense umami experience.
Bowled over – exploring Tsuta's ramen menu
Before you even get seated, you'll need to establish what to purchase via the vending machine just inside the shop entrance. The core menu consists of either ramen or tsukemen ('Tsuke-soba'), in soy sauce (shoyu) or salt (shio) varieties. I opted for shoyu but as I detail, the shio version packs just as much flavour.
The shoyu ramen uses a sauce of cedar cask-aged Marudaizu natural soy sauce from Wakayama blended together with two more types—a naturally brewed, aged Nagano soy sauce and a white soy sauce—that deliver a unique, powerful flavour. This is added to a soup stock itself, with kelp from Hokkaido, pike from Mie and even clam stock added to the chicken base. The bowl of ramen is topped with a high grade Italian black truffle oil and black truffle sauce to complete the signature look.
The shio ramen combines clam and red sea bream into a seafood dashi, blended into the shio soup, which uses Okinawan sea salt and Mongolian rock salt, all topped by Italian white truffle oil, green tapenade, tomato and herbs on serving, which draw out the seafood flavours.
The noodles themselves are stone-milled on-site each morning, made from 4 varieties of domestic wheat flour, with egg and natural brine from Inner Mongolia. You can admire the noodles even more, by opting for tsukemen: one packed with porcini mushroom flavours and the other with lemongrass, coriander and lime.
You can safely know that Tsuta delivers on all accounts, thanks to both expert preparation and creative audacity using top quality ingredients. The Shoyu Soba bowl of ramen was a winner for me, with the black truffle oil perfectly balanced with the soup. The depth of flavour was incredible and made for one of my best shoyu experiences yet.
Yuki Onishi, the man behind Tsuta's counter
Shunning a promising corporate career, Onishi-san instead returned to his Kanagawa hometown to follow in his father's footsteps and pursue his dream of opening a ramen shop. After years of training and studying the expert craft first-hand, he finally moved ahead with this own shop in 2012.Sitting down with the shop's owner-chef, Onishi-san, I wanted to know more about this success story, which has undoubtedly boosted ramen's global influence and inspired other ramen artisans in the industry.
The signs of Tsuta's potential were visible early on, but quickly surpassed expectations as queue times steadily grew throughout their inaugural year, culminating in a top ranking for new shops (2013) in the industry's annual TRY ('Tokyo Ramen of the Year') publication.
Fast-forward to the Michelin award itself, Onishi-san recalls the surreal news in great detail. If the random, late night phone call with the announcement didn't surprise him enough, the subsequent ceremony on stage—as the only ramen winner— must have helped ensure the news sank in quickly.
Onishi-san is evidently proud about his achievements but also excited by what lies ahead. With fame comes great responsibility, and they've worked hard on multiple fronts: from an improved queuing system and English support added to their ticket machine/guidance, to an imminent website launch.
Above all though, it's remarkable about how humble and grounded the real Onishi-san is. His number one goal is to just keep his customers happy, without compromise, which has been the same as day one. Improving and developing his brand starts with the ramen itself, and to this end he is always researching new flavours, sourcing new ingredients and hunting them down in person to assess first-hand. This sheer dedication clearly resonates well with his customers, not to mention the pundits. If he can maintain this level, we can expect a lot more exciting things to come (including plans for a new Singapore branch coming this summer).
How to eat at Tsuta Ramen?
Since September 2016, Tsuta operates in the evenings too which should not just give more people the chance to visit but make weekends comparatively less busy.
Tsuta is no different to a number of popular ramen shops – a ticketing system operates so be prepared. They start issuing numbered tickets (no limit per person) from 7am in the morning, or 6:30am on weekends, which require a ¥1,000 deposit each and are colour-coded to indicate what time of day to come back – an indication of when you can be expected to be quickly seated.
All the instructions are in English, with the friendly staff on hand to offer support too.
The system means less queuing overall, and whilst you can't guarantee what time people will start waiting for these tickets, it's recently been getting easier to obtain them late mornings, especially on weekdays. There's even a handy Twitter feed posting ticket updates – although in Japanese, Twitter's own inline translation tool can assist.
If you're looking for a top-class ramen experience, or just affordable Michelin-star dining, a quick trip to Sugamo to try Tsuta is well worth it.
Japanese Soba Noodles Tsuta is located a 2 minute walk south of Sugamo Station, on the circular JR Yamanote Line, just 2 stops from Ikebukuro. Besides the morning ticketing system, they otherwise open at 11am–4pm and 6pm–8pm, and closed Wednesdays.
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