Disclaimer: my husband lived in Japan for several years, and so knows a good tonkotsu ramen when he sees it. That said, he will be comparing to the world-class, best examples of this dish that you get in Japan. For the average UK diner who doesn't have experience of the genuine article, the experience might be very different.
The review: Tonkotsu literally translates as "pork bone" - it refers in this case to a richly flavoured stock made from boiling pork limbs that include the meat and the bone. It is the most common broth you will find ramen made from in Japan, as I understand it, and as such, it's a shame that it is basically impossible to find this stock in the UK. Thus, my husband was excited to find that a ramen shop had opened in Birmingham that was named after this wonderful, rare stock! Surely that meant he could get the taste of Japan he had longed for for so many years?
We arrived at the food hall (not the most charming place, but conveniently located in Birmingham city centre and with a good selection of chains to choose from) on a Monday night and easily got a seat. All of the seating is "at the bar" and thus somewhat uncharming by it's nature, but let's face it - you don't come to the food hall for charm. The service we received was fine - quick and friendly. My husband ordered kimchee and the tonkotsu ramen. I ordered the vegetarian gyoza and the vegetarian ramen. We also ordered some beers. The beers came first, so we can start with them.
In Japan, beer is served ice cold, often in frozen glasses. Their flavoursome, fizzy lager makes sense served like this - it's very clean and refreshing. Sadly, my husband's beer was cool but mine felt like it had barely ever seen a fridge. Not a good start.
My husband's kimchee came first, and then the rest of the food arrived all at once. The kimchee itself was definitely not the fermented wonder-food that makes my nose wrinkle and my stomach churn - it was fresh vegetables with a bit of vinegar and not a lot of spice, according to my husband. My gyoza were decent. My ramen, however, was fairly flavourless and bland. I didn't eat the half egg in it because according to my husband, the yolk on his tasted strange and sweet - not like anything he'd had in Japan and it didn't sound or look appetising. I was yearning for a bit of tofu - the obvious choice for a vegetarian ramen. Overall, I'd say that I've made better Japanese soups and stocks myself at home than what was on offer at Tonkotsu. It wasn't terrible, but really nothing special.
Now, on to the tonkotsu. When my husband saw it, he was immediately concerned. The stock itself was somewhat thick and milky-looking. Despite the menu stating that it is made in the traditional way, my husband felt that it was a mixture of pork and chicken stocks. It was greasy and heavy, not deeply flavoured and clear-yet-cloudy (like a good miso) as he would expect. He powered through it but looked supremely disappointed. He suggested that it was a Chinese take on tonkotsu, which is marginally better than the British take on sushi that you get at other "Japanese" chains in the UK but was a far cry from the genuine article.
We paid the bill (even the 10% service charge they automatically included - I never think this is a good sign in a restaurant. If I want to tip, I'll tip!) and headed out, resting safe in the knowledge that 1) we won't be returning and 2) the hunt for delicious, authentic Japanese ramen in the UK will continue for my husband.
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