Taipei residents have been extremely lucky over the last couple of years, as a number of outstanding Japanese ramen restaurants have opened shop here. The wide range of ramen preparations is becoming evident, and it is no longer a case of just going to a place for a bowl of Japanese noodles, but about choosing between excellent versions from Hokkaido to Kyushu. A notable entry into the increasingly crowded market segment that opened early this year is Enishi, which hails from Kyoto, and is distinct both in the flavor of its food and the style of presentation.
Enishi is all about cool, sophisticated minimalism. It is hidden away on a back street, and its frontage is so low key that it is easy to miss. There is just a wooden door in a concrete wall and a small round window placed just a little too high to see inside. There is a tiny menu placed on a metal music stand outside, which lists the two main items offered, and a couple of side dishes. Basically, all that you discover is that Enishi offers dipping noodles (沾麵) and soup noodles (湯麵), the prices NT$250 and NT$280 respectively, putting it at a relatively high price point for something so seemingly simple.
And the food is simple, so simple that you cannot escape the self-assurance verging on arrogance that it expresses. The bowl of dipping noodles comes with a small wad of alfalfa sprouts, half a boiled egg and a slice of roast pork. The dipping sauce in a separate bowl is a pale brown and unadorned. Absolutely no culinary bling, no added extras.
The attitude extends to its pricing. Both dipping noodles and soup noodles come in three sizes, with noodle portions from 140g, 210g and 280g, all priced the same. No small price hikes for the extra noodles. More or less is about what you need for a satisfying meal, not a question of price.
And then there is the open kitchen and the quiet black-clad chefs manning their stations. The restaurant itself is simply a long bar where customers sit looking directly onto the ruggedly industrial kitchen equipment with its huge soup pots, its boilers, and its commercial refrigeration units, all cold steel and hard edges. For all that, the surfaces are kept spotless and the kitchen is clearly an organized and highly professional workspace.
The noodles at Enishi are made of whole wheat, and it should be noted that Enishi emphasizes that this is ground from the whole grain, thereby preserving all the nutrition of the germ that is lost with the use of commercially produced wheat flours, even whole wheat (the presence of the germ greatly reduces shelf life of the flour). The noodle has an intense flavor with echoes of Japanese buckwheat soba noodles, but has the firmness of wheat. You watch as the noodles are cooked, immersed in boiling water, then washed in ice water before being dried with a vigorously swing of the basket holding the noodles, before being place in the bowl.
The dipping sauce is notable for combining pork stock and stock made from dried fish. It is a heady mixture of strong flavors, and the noodles only need to be dipped in briefly before being sucked down. The texture of the noodles against the strong flavors of the sauce are a great gastronomic sensation, and for those who take their noodles seriously, it is the kind of experience that immediately has you planning your next visit. The dipping sauce can be topped up with clear stock to make a strongly flavored soup with which to complete the meal.
While the noodle dish provides only one (though quite generous) slice of roast pork, additional meat can be obtained as a side dish (NT$50), which is warmed using a blowtorch flame directly applied to the meat. For those looking for a more hearty meal, a bowl of mixed grain rice is available for NT$30, which can be eaten on its own or mixed with the sauce and eaten as a porridge (recommended).
There is a small selection of desserts. The homemade yogurt (特製和風優格, NT$50) is an excellent choice. The yogurt itself is tangy and slightly sour, and is topped with a syrup made of black sugar that adds a hint of sweetness, but more importantly, it adds a complex flavor of unprocessed sugar. Tea is provided free with meals, and Enishi also serves bottled Kirin beer (NT$70) imported from Japan, a very different beast from the tinned variety generally available here.
Service is efficient, but plating lacked just a little in its precision. The simplicity of the food focused attention on the smallest details, and even small smears of sauce up the side of the bowl that would be ignored at most noodle restaurants, appeared at Enishi to be sloppy. The absence of tables makes Enishi unsuitable for big parties, but ideal for the lone diner or groups of two or three, who can sit at the counter and enjoy the interesting mixture of pared down simplicity and culinary theater.