Monday, 6 October 2014
Kanada-Ya, Covent Garden
"I don't care how warm it is outside," said my friend as the mercury topped 20 degrees Celsius at the start of October, and the sun cracked the pavements on the streets of Battersea, "I'm wearing my winter coat. I've waited long enough."
I know how she feels, although not about clothes, which as anyone who's ever met me will not be surprised ranks just between reality TV and cross-country skiing on my list of interests. My problem with the Indian summer is that I have been waiting far too long to snuggle up to a bowl of ramen or a portion of spicy tom yam soup and it's got to the stage when I'm prepared to sit sweating in wildly unsuitable conditions to do so. So as my friend headed off for the Central Line in four layers and fake fur, I headed to Kanada-ya, ramen specialists from Yukuhashi (Japan), Hong Kong, and now St Giles.
As fate would have it, by the time I arrived at this busy spot on the corner of New Compton St, the weather was trying its best to be autumnal. Though not particularly cold, it was thrashing down, and those taking shelter inside were softened by a fug of steam from wet umbrellas, wet clothes and hot ramen. Seating arrangements are, to put it politely, convivial - I was placed somewhat awkwardly on a tiny table in the corner close enough to knock elbows on more than one occasion with a young couple next to me, but this is I'm sure all part of the experience - in the nicest possible way you aren't encouraged to linger with your laptop at Kanada-Ya; you enter ("irasshaimase!"), you order, you eat and you leave.
You can't really linger over the menu, anyway, as it's so tiny. Just three different styles of ramen, a few optional toppings and a small selection of onigiri which I saw precisely nobody eating. You order by putting the number of each item you need in the box next to it on the menu. At least I think this is the idea; it's what I did and it worked. From that point on if you need anything else you just ask a waitress (in a room the size of a telephone kiosk they're never far way) which does rather beg the question why you need the ordering card in the first place. I sometimes get the impression that more often than not the odd tweak or two to the original concept as a nod to local tastes, and without "selling out", would make things run a bit smoother. But I'm sure I'm not the expert.
The good news and for most people all that really matters, was that the ramen was excellent. Unfortunately I'm not entirely sure which one I had. I definitely put a little '1' next to the box for Chashu Men (£12.50), which has an upgraded "deluxe" pork instead of the usual pork belly, and the £1.80 option of Hanjuku egg. But my bill at the end said Chashu Regular with Hanjuku Egg, for a combined total of £10, so who knows what I actually ate. Even the Japanese lemonade in a weird old fashioned bottle with a glass ball rattling around inside it came in at half price. Maybe the prices depend on how guilty they feel about where they've asked you to sit.
But thanks to a thick, creamy broth, a massively generous helping of tender pork fanned out around the edges of the bowl, and hugely complimentary mounds of wood ear mushrooms and spring onions, all problems were soon forgotten. This was impressive stuff, clean, crisp flavours that are better described as familiar and comforting than anything so insulting as "straightforward". Another complication during the ordering was being asked how I liked my noodles, and being blindsided somewhat with this question (it's a first for me in a ramen joint) just stammered "er, normal?" and hoped that would suffice - fortunately she seemed happy enough with that. They were lovely things, firm and springy and with a savoury, earthy taste of their own. And you'll be able to tell from the photo how good the cured egg was, salty and silky with a perfect runny yolk.
It probably isn't helpful to pitch the ramen joints in London against each other like it's some kind of knockout competition, so I won't. The fact is, each of the premier league contenders (Tonkotsu, Bone Daddies, Sasuke, Shoryu) have something to recommend them, and you can't really go far wrong. All that you need to remember is that Kanada-Ya deserve a place amongst the top flight, and very much deserve your custom thanks to serving excellent pork broth ramen at a very reasonable price indeed. Enjoy - no matter what the weather's doing.