Ippudo has earned cult status as the restaurant that brought Japanese Kyushu-style ramen into the mainstream after founder Shigemi Kawahara was crowned “ramen king” following three consecutive victories in a popular Japanese TV ramen competition. From a restaurant seating just 10 in Kawahara’s native Fukuoka, Ippudo has become an international operation with outlets in New York, Hong Kong and Singapore (as well as more than 50 outlets across Japan). It opened its first Taiwan branch last week, and for those willing to endure the hour-long wait for a table (reservations are not accepted), Ippudo proved that it has once again hit the nail on the head for connoisseurs of ramen.
The interior is carefully designed to present an impression of modern style and a degree of chic, but without providing any comforts beyond what is strictly necessary. You look around, are impressed by the clean lines and bold primary colors, then you could easily forget about the space. If this is intentional, it is an impressive feat that puts the focus on the food. Like the decor, this too is deceptively simple. Apart from side dishes, there are only three options for the main course, all of them ramen, each with slightly different flavorings.
That said, these bowls of ramen are no simple proposition. Many restaurant critics here and abroad have already raved about the complexity of the broth, which uses whole pig heads, among other ingredients, simmered over many hours to achieve a luscious texture and multi-layered flavor. The effect is not easy to describe, and this reviewer found himself taking spoonful after spoonful, trying to get his brain around the outstanding qualities of broth, and its sophisticated inter-relationship with the noodles and condiments.
Address: 85, Zhongshan N Rd Sec 1, Taipei City (台北市中山北路1段85號)
Telephone: (02) 2562-9222
Open: 11:30am to midnight
Average meal: NT$400
Details: English, Japanese and Chinese photo menu, no credit cards, no reservations
The three types of ramen on offer are shiromaru classic (NT$200), akamaru modern (NT$230) and Ippudo karaka (NT$230). It is a symbol of Ippudo’s influence in the world of ramen that the designations of “shiromaru” and “akamaru” (white broth and red broth, respectively), initiated by Kawahara, have been adopted by ramen restaurants across Japan. Shiromaru is the basic pork stock, while the akamaru has been enhanced by an infusion of fragrant oil and spicy miso. Karaka, which adds a spiced meat sauce, takes the ramen to a whole new dimension. Ippudo uses ultra-thin hakata-style noodles that can be served either cooked ultra al dente, regular or soft, the last a rather inauthentic option designed to appeal to the Taiwanese preference for soft noodles. Ultra al-dente allows the noodles to give full expression to their ingredients, but like authentic risotto, can taste undercooked if you are not prepared for the firm texture.
As the hakata noodles get soft relatively easily when immersed in stock, the servings of noodles are relatively small, but the restaurant provides additional helpings free of charge for big eaters (or for those who cannot bear to waste even a drop of the delicious broth). Having tried all three styles of broth, this reviewer recommends starting with the shiromaru, as this provides an excellent base note from which to appreciate the more highly flavored varieties; shiromaru, like a fine white wine, may be less powerful than the others, but it has a degree of refinement that to some palates will make it win out against the rest.