What makes something feel Japanese?
A few weeks ago I spent a happy hour or so talking to Ian Wheatley, the owner of Monohon, a new ramen restaurant, about how he has created a true feeling of Japan in this small place on Old Street, London. Ian had spent years in Japan, learning Japanese, falling in love with the culture and eventually becoming obsessed with ramen. To be a chef in Japan is to relish the strictures that cuisine brings: the exact cut across the belly of a raw fish; the precise texture of an egg omelette; or the exacting quantity of vinegar in sushi rice - but ramen is different. There are thousands of ramen restaurants in Japan, mostly tiny, family run and cooking a wide variety of ramen dishes. Here creativity can run free.
When you enter off the busy London street you feel like you are entering one of those family run ramen places in Tokyo. The space is simple, with a clean, modern counter down one side, and Japanese ceramics and bottles lining the shelves behind. A few basic tables are arranged opposite and in the back room. Nowhere will you find the obvious clichés of Japan - the red lantern, the geisha pictures - instead you'll find a sign in Japanese announcing ramen is being prepared.
In the air is the smell of dashi and the sound of urgent, but quietly spoken Japanese. When you sit down your belongings are gathered up and graciously placed in a tray to prevent them cluttering the floor, just like in Japan. Ian tells me this is not only reflective of the Japanese desire for order, but a practical way of dealing with small spaces.
When asked what are the elements that create Japanese-ness, Ian says that it is a little bit of everything. He has seen that most Japanese restaurants are either run by English creating their impression of what Japan feels like, or by Japanese who want to give the British customer what they think they want. Neither feels like Japan to him. So he built the counter himself and used found tables to give the feel of a family place. His staff are all Japanese.
Ian imports many of the ingredients from Japan and makes the ramen noodles himself downstairs below the restaurant. He tells me that he found it impossible to replicate the tastes of true ramen using British ingredients. One ingredient that was vital to the taste is the noodle flour to make the noodles and a heavily alkaline salt, called kansui that originally came from the shores of Lake Kan in Mongolia and gives ramen noodles their springy mouthfeel. His noodles are very delicious and also beautiful.
You will just find three dishes to choose from at Monohon - Ian's own soup-less ramen called abuya (my favourite), a classic tonkotsu, and a rather unlikely, but delicious, curry ramen called fat curry men. All are good, with toppings such as chashu (pork belly marinated in soy and sake) and hanjuku-tamago (soft boiled and marinated eggs). On the table next to the soy you'll find a bottle of kelp infused vinegar and a sesame grinder to add further layers of flavour to your bowl. Drink sake, a Japanese beer or Calpis, a dairy soda, alongside.
What Ian brings is his very own take on his experience of Japan. As an Englishman, he knows his version may be challenged, but what he has created a genuine and informal pop-in eating place of the sort found everywhere in Japan. Hat's off to him.
If you ever find yourself in this area of London on a weekday, for lunch or supper, make a diversion to sample one of his dishes and be sensorially whisked off to a narrow street in Tokyo.
Find the Monohon online at monohonramen.com