The raman craze continues, and was joined in May by Japanese chain Aji no Tokaidai, which claims to serve up authentic Sapporo-style ramen, ideal for the cooling weather approaching. Over a number of visits, it was reassuring to notice a considerable number of Japanese business types frequenting the establishment, mixing it up with the usual ladies-who-shop clientele.
Japan has innumerable styles of ramen, some better known than others, but among the must-tries is ramen from the city of Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido. This is a ramen that makes extensive use of red miso, and is notable for its inclusion of corn and butter in one of its most notable variations on a theme.
I have never had a great passion for sweet corn (so popular in local baked goods), and the idea of putting a slab of butter on top of soup noodles seemed nothing short of perverse. So, of course, the first opportunity I got, I headed into the warren of Mitsukoshi Nanjing West Road Food Street to give this authentic Sapporo flavor a try.
Aji no Tokaidai has a small niche with limited seating in the basement of what is now classified as the Main building of the Nanjing West Mitsukoshi complex, but this area ensures a degree of privacy and cuts down the noise from the main dining area, a little. The seating is simple, as is the menu, while the service manages to be both friendly and efficient.
As soon as you are seated, staff bring out the menu and a glass of freezing cold water that is remarkable for its clean taste. Compared to the usual lukewarm, seemly tap water offerings that many similar establishments provide, this was a refreshing draught at the beginning of the meal. It subsequently turned out to be the ideal accompaniment to the heavily flavored miso soup, and the glass is assiduously refilled by staff.
The three basic flavors of ramen — salt, soy and miso — are all available at Aji no Tokaidai, but as Sapporo is regarded as the birthplace of miso ramen, the choice was clear. The basic miso ramen (NT$230) can be upgraded to the butter and corn ramen (NT$280), and at the top of the list is the butter and corn ramen with scallops (NT$420).
Even the basic offering is a substantial dish, in terms of flavor at least. It came with a somewhat niggardly single slice of roast pork, as well as preserved bamboo shoots and fungus, lightened with some shallots. The broth, which was a deep yellow and glistened with spots of oil, looked inviting, but the presentation was not going to blow anyone away.
The more elaborate versions were good, but especially with the butter and corn ramen with scallops, the price seemed a little steep, as the shellfish, while adding something to the flavor of the broth, were themselves a little stringy, failing to provide the wow that one would expect for the price. The corn and butter themselves were a fascinating addition to ramen, and while I expected the butter to make the soup greasy, it in fact just made it more creamy, setting up a nice contrast with the crunchy sweet corn.
If the noodles themselves are not sufficient to fill you up, a side of rice can be ordered as a set. Rice topped with chopped pork (an extra NT$60) was interesting if rather underwhelming, while the Chinese-inspired roast pork fried rice (an extra NT$80) proved a good, hearty filler for a hearty eater.
Flavors can be filled out with side dishes including the establishment’s highly regarded kimchi (NT$50), which is more sweet than spicy. With its slight acidity, it provides a nice balance for the meal. Another nice touch for those who care about such things is the availability of bottled Sapporo beer.
Aji no Tokaidai’s location in a food street is inevitably something of a mood-killer as a venue for relaxed dining, but it is a valuable addition to the range of good quality ramen now available in Taipei.