Ramen in the Dragon's Shadow
In the middle of May 2015, Elbert Cuenca and his cohorts organized a dinner in Mendokoro Ramenba, their new ramen shop in Makati. The occasion was a one-off dinner cooked by Chef Hideaki Aoyama, the surprisingly affable president whose name graces the Menya Aoyama ramen store group that traces its lineage through Chef Koji Tashiro of the Menya Koji group, directly to the beloved Kazuo Yamagishi (the inventor of tsukemen or dipping ramen, sometimes referred to as the “god of ramen”) who passed away in April 2015.
While the dinner was delicious and incredibly varied, I have to admit I was a little confused at first. Cuenca and his crew were very clear that Mendokoro is an attempt at a more purist approach to ramen-making. Japanese food culture encourages specialization. It’s quite common to find shops with menus that list less than 10 items. In Japan, this starkness is considered a feature, not a fault. It’s a choice that conveys confidence and focus: it means the chef and his staff have dedicated themselves to making a small number of dishes really, really well. It’s an approach that Filipinos associate more perhaps with sports and concert pianists than with food and cooking, but which the Japanese (who consider fanaticism as an acceptable and even admirable approach to any field of endeavor) take in stride.
So it’s in the spirit of this very Japanese idea that Mendokoro is boasts a menu of seven noodle items: four kinds of hot ramen, one cold ramen, two tsukemen, or dipping ramen, all made on top of a base of rich tonkotsu—pork-bone—broth. It is a rigorous, minimalist menu with a single focus. In Japan, ramen may not be haute cuisine, but when it is eaten, it is treated as the main attraction. Traditionally, ramen is accompanied by nothing else except beer and possibly gyoza.
In contrast, the dinner menu boasted no less than 13 different dishes, beginning with an assortment of single-mouthful starters, a Wagyu course, three mini-ramen courses featuring both two different broths, a sorbet, and dessert, paired with French wines; one red and one white.
According to Cuenca, the dinner was essentially meant to give Aoyama-sensei an opportunity to flex his creative muscles in an occasion and setting that would be economically unfeasible in Japan. It was a highly unconventional dinner (to say the least) that mingled ingredients like coconut cream, Thai basil, kiwi fruit, camembert, orange peel and foie gras with traditional Japanese ingredients like ayu, karasumi, miso, bonito, tofu, wasabi, and mentaiko to make a psychedelic, globe-spanning series of dishes meant to celebrate the onset of summer. Among the highlights was a chawanmushi or egg-custard flavored with foie gras and orange peel, an impeccably fried katsu that revealed the interior to be Wagyu sirloin, and the tonkotsu ramen topped with foie gras. I very clearly remember the cold, curry-flavored ramen served in a bowl made of coconut ice, but I must say that this course in particular was not my cup of coconut milk, particularly as the noodles tended to stick to the ice.
Just the fact that they brewed two kinds of broth (pork-based tonkotsu and paitan, the chicken equivalent) for this dinner is a kind of show of power. As even one kind of broth requires 12 to 14 hours of stewing, making two for a one-off dinner where ramen is not the sole focus is a hugely extravagant gesture, which I suppose I find worth stewing about, even a little. Cuenca said the dinner was meant to display Aoyama-sensei’s capability at complicated cuisine, which was meant to reflect how excellent he must be at something simple. That this does not actually follow is actually the lesson of Japanese culture, which understands how difficult it is to be simple, or to be good at simple things. In a sparsely furnished room, there is nowhere to hide. Every detail must be perfect.
Cuenca and his friends had of course toured Aoyama-sensei around Manila’s Japanese restaurants, including Mecha Uma, whose inventive courses have apparently added a completely new yardstick by which to evaluate Manila’s Japanese cuisine. Previously, the sole yardstick by which a Japanese restaurant’s excellence used to be authenticity. Mecha Uma’s Bruce Ricketts seems to have added new yardsticks—range and originality—which the big boys now feel the need to address, something Cuenca essentially acknowledged when he said Aoyama-sensei was inspired by the tour.
Of course, Manila is a different landscape from Japan, so perhaps one might say that it’s only natural that different measuring sticks might apply. Still, it’s worth observing that while there is no shortage of original cuisine in Japan, the ramen architects there do not feel they have to address the issue. They do not, as it were, feel the shadow of Nobu looming over them. Ramen is their arena, and that is enough for them. Sore wa sore, kore wa kore, they might say. That is that. This is this.
Mendokoro Ramenba is at G/F V Corporate Center, Soliman Street, Salcedo Village, Makati City; tel. no. (02) 215-1751, (02) 478-9625.
This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.