Tomo No Ramen, 55 West St, Bristol BS2 0BZ
Tomo No Ramen
“You're dead to me" I said, as he walked out the door for the last time, cradling a box filled with the last of his personal effects and beaming that bashful smile. Laughing radiantly, which is just so him, he gently tells me he has to do what’s best for him and assured me that he’d be back someday. And there he went- away into the world to bless another with his brilliance. Sweet, sweet James.
It all started at the beginning of lockdown. I had the gall to signal the virtue of community spirit by offering to make noodles for people my apartment block. I completely fucked it up. I brought great shame upon myself. I’ve not looked directly at my pasta maker since. Although somehow, I did get one offer regarding Operation: Pasta Point of No Return. A trade of ramen noodles for my bullshit.
From my perspective, I was making mistakes made mostly of flour, as some sort of pithy gesture of togetherness. More nourishing than clapping out the window at 8pm but just as effective. Yet I receive a zip bag of beautifully fine, taut and lovingly made noodle nests. It came with a chicken stock so rich and fortifying, it was a wibbling slab in tupperware. And before it's forgotten- I little tublette of burnt scallion oil.
I did not deserve this.
This same man only weeks ago put out the word he was taking his craft to The West Street Kitchen. I'd like to say that the want to support my local food businesses was my sole motive but selfishly, so was the considered gamble that I would probably get to experience the most genuine version of ramen, if not in recent memory, then, ever. I can say this because almost every single iteration prior to this moment have been travesties flanked with a sad half-egg, drowned in hot, oily water.
We arrived at a sold-out pop-up. I’m too eager to get into the Ramen party. I feel the hand of the doorman on my chest, denying me entry and asking to see some credentials. But this doorman is actually a bowl of cucumber and tahini. It stops me in my tracks; all those lofty ideas of slurpy noodles are in the cloakroom. Even the way the cucumber is skinned has me thinking, what else am I so casually wrong about in this life?
Edges rounded from a mild acidity from a proprietary dressing/light pickle, the quintessential cuke crunch bears out. The tahini keeps everything in check with that wholesome tack, laced with a confident heat that has me chasing fire and ice. As if to be a quiet endorsement of sorts, Eatchu have pitched in with the gyoza option tonight; a quietly confident endorsement, perhaps.
Despite my brief stint in kitchens in my most bitter years, the art of deception was something I saw practiced a few times. Yes it's a bullshit thing to do, but what saddens me most is guessing where it must've gone so wrong for a person to resort to it. My chef at the time was seemingly only hellbent on producing the driest, most overcooked brisket possible until I saw him rolling this brined brisket in Sel Rose one morning. He just looks up at me with the biggest shit-eating grin you've ever seen mustered at 7am.
"It'll look like a smoke ring on the outside" he said with a wink- as if this was about to trojan horse the punters whilst suspending the laws of physics. But this was also the very same place where I got a head-butt for the bread rolls not being in the freezer, where we always kept them, so the common denominator was clearly me.
I am no expert, but there are some very apparent, inalienable broth truths- you cannot play fast and loose with broth and, if the aromas don't fire the first shots, the clarity will. I'm brought this fantasy-affirming free-standing bath of amber, iridescent with huddles of oil droplets. The meniscus is light and translucent, seeping into that blooming nebulous of miso, lurking beneath. But laying on top- I can't really contain myself. These glistening horseshoe-like slices of pork chashu have me forensically curious. The fat has been rendered to the hilt, giving this deeply burnished honey colour, but then cooled and roasted after the fact. The result is a tenderness from pork that you can old get from a safeguarding of its juices- those stressed fibres now broken down and absolutely rolling-over to be finished off. The fat becomes as important as the meat itself. Chopsticks make light work of the beast, with the slightest gesture.
What I thought must be a capsized egg turns out to be a whole egg glowing like a sidequest inside. It's an ajitama egg which are parboiled and marinated using bonito flakes- umami-laden as you might expect, but the inclusion of mirin hints to a sweet pickling allowing a cutting edge. But the wonderment keeps coming- a charred miso tare. Balancing the fermented funk that we all love/hate from miso, a tare adds sugar and fresh spices so the thought of the garlic, ginger, ichimi and black pepper. The thought of all these presumably bbq'd/tastefully immolated to unleash their cindered potential makes my lip do that wibble thing, like so much lovingly made chicken stock.
The recipe also calls for use of shoyu tare which subs the chilli and pepper for spring onions and black pepper but also a substantial boost in acidity. Rice wine vinegar, sake and mirin might be something I'd pair with pork in my idle mind. However, in this instance, it lifts what is an already ascending dish. A chicken thigh that's had its skin tenderly rendered and then poached in broth in such a manner that the skin comes away like fused pages of gold leaf, to reveal what peak performance looks like.
Literally Everybody: But James, surely that’s it, now?
James to Everybody: Hold my dashi.
This is James' own umami tincture which, from what I can deduce, seems to be a massive Gallagher-grade two-fingers to all my sensory recollections. My ham-fisted palate rifles through its shoeboxes of flavour receipts, sweating in an anxious flurry. A moody abyss of this elixir pocketed throughout my broth has me going all Rain Man on my ramen.
Literally Everybody: BUT JAMES? SURELY THAT'S IT NOW?
James: Continue to hold my dashi.
How about the same poached chicken thigh trope but with a little truffle shoyu tare? Truffle lard. Some cep powder even, with a flick of the wrist, it seems. The breadth of talent in this young man is humbling and makes me think that I really should’ve done something with my life by now. James is so clearly in love with his craft and respectful of its origins, that it’s almost irrelevant what food he might choose to make us. The overriding force is his commitment to the art, whatever that may be. Luckily for us, he chose to hone skills that feed. And we should feel so lucky.