Laurent Fintoni indulges his inner Otaku with a visit to Berlin’s premier Ramen house…
If there’s one thing the Japanese do well, it’s taking things seriously. Whether it’s the patient art of bonsai keeping or the hand/eye co-ordination required to master video games, Japanese society offers a world of possibilities to anyone willing to channel their inner obsessive.
This cultural perfectionism is captured in the Japanese term Otaku, which broadly equates to “nerd” but – much like its Western equivalent – can be used more broadly to denote a serious dedication towards something.
That something can include noodle soup, or Ramen, the Chinese noodle soup dish brought to Japan and that has since become a national dish and source of great culinary pride.
The Ramen Otaku undertakes, for example, lengthy trips to unorthodox noodle shacks in suburban or countryside areas, detailed picture taking, annotations of broth flavour, noodle consistency, meat style and shop layout. (If you think I’m making any of this up, just Google search in Japanese to find a mind-boggling array of culinary obsession that’s as fascinating as it is scary).
Being a Ramen Otaku is, however, no longer the preserve of the Japanese. Thanks in no small part to the internet and free translation software, there is now a small army of Western Ramen Otaku making the move to Japan to become one with the noodle. And, well, I consider myself one of those even though I left the country a few years back.
Severing myself from Japan wasn’t easy and the hardest thing about it may well have been the lack of decent Ramen in Europe – especially in London where I relocated shortly after leaving Tokyo. After many disappointed hunts that turned up tepid, cheap versions of Ramen Houses in London and elsewhere in Europe, I was more or less forced to learn to make my own.
I’d all but given up hope when I came to Berlin and found Cocolo – the kanji for which can be read as heart, though it’s phonetically translated using the more ironic lo sound instead of ro – a tiny Ramen restaurant next door to hip sushi spot Kuchi. Cocolo was set up by Oliver Prestel, who visited Japan as a student in the late 90s.
“I was really impressed by my trip but brought nothing back with me, just pictures,” he says over email. “So I thought I should go back and bring something to Berlin. When I returned there I felt that the idea of mobile soup kitchens was something worth bringing back with me because it was so great.
“Also I have a background in industrial design so I think I was also attracted to Ramen’s industrial aspect – the production of food in a manner that’s quite industrial in a sense. It’s also a great value for money type food, especially when you’re a student. It has everything, fills you up and it’s cheap. I started with mobile kitchens in Berlin back when the now popular areas of Berlin were still empty. We would serve on Fridays and Saturdays. It became popular so I felt that it was more intelligent and logical to open up a proper restaurant.”
The layout of Cocolo indicates a deep knowledge and appreciation for Japan’s Ramen houses, while the sweet smells and sounds were exactly the ones I’d craved for since leaving Japan. The kitchen is open, as it should be, allowing the smell to pervade every corner of the space and the Otaku to peer into the kitchen and see the ingredients and preparation, as well as take plenty of pictures.
Like most good restaurants, a top notch Ramen place should have a constant queue, especially at peak times, and should sit no more than 10 to 20 people. Cocolo fairs well on both counts: the wait was just long enough to tantalise and the space could probably fit about 30 at a squeeze, including the seating space at the counter around the open side of the kitchen.
When the menu was handed to us, I was delighted to see a major emphasis on the beloved noodles as well as some selected side dishes such as the traditional Gyoza fried dumplings you often find as an accompaniment in Japan. In fact, attention to detail pervades Cocolo, from handmade, individually designed ceramic bowls to the chopsticks, bottles of spicy pepper and even sesame grinders.
While Ramen appears to be a simple dish of noodles in broth with thin slices of meat and garnish to the untrained eye, the Japanese have elevated it to a culinary art over the last century with regional variations, sub-variations and more recently international and gourmet variations (green curry Ramen being a firm favourite of mine) that make it an endless playground for food aficionados.
Where Cocolo excels is in its approach to presenting this world of variations in a broad yet refined manner to the uninitiated Western palate. On offer are the four most basic broth variations you’re likely to find in Japan: shio (salt broth), shoyu (soya sauce broth), tonkotsu (pork bones broth) and miso (soya paste broth) alongside Tantanmen, a Japanese take on a Sichuan spicy noodle dish.
Watching the chefs prepare our bowls was like being taken back to some of my favourite haunts in Ogikubo, one of Tokyo’s most famous Ramen districts. Moving effortlessly in the small kitchen space, the duo work in perfect harmony to prepare each bowl in a way that is as important to the final taste as it is pleasing to the eye. The mixing of the broth and base and placing of the noodles and toppings is just as important in ramen as the attention to detail in bonsai trimming.
Our bowls of Tonkotsu landed in front of us and I had to pause for a moment to appreciate the joy of seeing such an appetizing dish served up in true style. The broth was a perfect example of what makes Tonkotsu an acquired yet exquisite taste, a creamy white broth spotted with dots of shoyu that tastes like someone put all the best bits of a pig together and cooked them until it was ready – which they probably did.
The innate blandness of pork bones cooked for days, months and sometimes years on end is perfectly balanced by the base that infuses it with flavour, and in the case of Cocolo the base seemed to be shoyu, giving the broth that delicate but particularly rewarding balance of fatty and salty.
The toppings were excellent too. The chashu – or sliced pork – was not only thick (a sign of a chef who takes his craft seriously) but perfectly cooked, just slightly charred to give added flavour – while the traditional egg was perfect, the yoke just runny enough to hold in the soup and melt in your mouth.
The noodles had a wonderful crinkle to them and were obviously hand-made – and what’s more, you can order an additional tangle of noodles to help finish the bowl, as well as request your noodles to be katame (al dente). (When asked what was the hardest part of setting up Cocolo, Oliver replies: “finding the right flour for the noodles. That took us about six, seven months”).
It’s testament to Prestel’s dedication and love of Ramen that his restaurant does one thing well instead of opting for the try-everything and see-what-sticks approach that so many Asian restaurants today go for.
If you’re a Ramen Otaku in Europe, a trip to Cocolo in Berlin is a must. If you’re not, go anyway – you won’t be disappointed by the blend of fine and hearty offerings. Just don’t forget that slurping loudly is an approved way to enjoy your Ramen and that an unfinished bowl is one of the biggest insults you can land on the chef.
Oh, and don’t forget to look out too for Prestel’s new project, run along the lines of a traditional Japanese izakaya. “It’s a space in Wedding where we have some of those mobile kitchens I first used for Cocolo,” he says. “We do monthly events at the moments, called Niko. We’re still experimenting, trying to find out what works with the menu. It’s focused on small dishes, which is the izakaya style, and based on many of my favourite Japanese foods. It’s very traditional in a sense but we make all kinds of things like grilled, fried, raw and marinated dishes. It’s really a space to experiment for now…“
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