The first time I walked past Kanada-Ya was a grizzly grey evening in late October. Covent Garden pedestrians were angling hoods and brollies into the drizzle and jostling one another on the footpaths.
Every footpath, that is, except the one outside Kanada-Ya Ramen Bar, where an idle line waited patiently in the rain as condensation trickled down the insides of the warmly lit windows.
Add a few weeks, subtract the rain and some degrees Celsius, and there I was in that line, waiting to try the latest in the greatest craze to sweep culinary London this year. Ramen restaurants are popping up all over the place – in St Giles High Street no less than anywhere, with the opening of not one but two in the space of a month. Situated directly across the road from the altogether more imposing black-and-red two-storey restaurant Ippudo, Kanada-Ya looks like a chic, minimal rebuff to the other’s swanky swagger: tiny and whitewashed, with the kitchen occupying the back quarter of the space, it looks like somewhere you might stumble across down a Tokyo backstreet and never want to leave. It’s certainly cosy – don’t expect to get your own table here unless you bring friends. Once we’re allowed in we’re seated on a central sharing table, next to a couple and across from two, with a forlorn view of the queue still waiting outside.
The menu is brief and to the point. Unlike Ippudo across the road, Kanada-Ya is a one-trick pony: it does tonkotsu ramen and tonkotsu ramen only. That is to say, all three menu options are based around an 18-hour pork bone broth. I’ve made the grave mistake of not checking the menu online before inviting a vegetarian to dine with me. I’m feeling horribly sheepish until I discover that the couple opposite have made exactly the same mistake. I listen to them cobbling together a meal from the sides with sinking heart.
On our visit there is a selection of teas and no alcohol, but I’m told they now have a license and are offering beer while they work on a fuller drinks menu. That said, this might not be a place you want to linger. Service is brisk with a side of frantic, and the closeness of the tables may call for certain adjustments to your ideals of personal dining space. Dishes arrive haphazardly – but on the up side, you know that whatever you order, you won’t have to wait for long. We start with Ramune (Japanese lemonade), which arrives near-instantaneously and “tastes of blue,” according to my companion. It’s a soapy-sweet concoction reminiscent of a muted Red Bull. Soon afterwards we’re dissembling some truly excellent Onigiri: the just-sticky-enough rice is perfectly done and the Ume (pickled plum) filling deliciously sour.
When we’re halfway through, my Moyashi ramen (£11) arrive. Featuring charsiu pork belly, wood ear fungus, spring onion and a crisp square of nori, these are identical to the Original ramen (£10) except for the addition of beansprouts. Considering you can buy a whole bagful of beansprouts for 50p at just about any supermarket, this strikes me as a particularly expensive handful – perhaps half a hanjuku egg (which comes standard with all ramen at Shoryu) would have been a more appropriate add-on? But I’m unable to dwell on it long because I’ve just had my first mouthful of tonkotsu broth. This broth is glorious. Truly. Rich and silken, meaty without being overtly heavy, it made every other tonkotsu I’ve tried seem weak and watery. The black garlic sauce I’ve ordered (which, at £1 a pop, also strikes me as a tad pricey) gradually diffuses a mellow sweetness throughout my soup. The pork is lovely, the fat molten and the flesh folding and crumbling into every mouthful. The spring onions are perhaps a touch too vibrant – they’re shouting down the woody subtlety of the fungus – but I’d rather too many then too few. You can choose the hardness of your ramen, which is a welcome touch – as are the bowls of pickles and sesame grinders provided on each table.
My companion, on the other hand, is struggling through a whole bowlful of Sad. It goes without saying that, no matter how much pickled ginger, sesame, soy and hanjuku egg you throw at them, ramen noodles just don’t work without broth. I take full responsibility for his disappointment and promise to treat him a second dinner by way of atonement. We’re torn over whether restaurants have a ‘duty’ to provide vegetarian options on the menu. I argue that we’re at a speciality restaurant, and there’s no reason they should cater outside their specialty. He points out that even Meat Liquor do halloumi and mushroom burgers. Meanwhile, the couple opposite have given up all hope of one of their dishes arriving and are fetching their coats.
You’ll have to be made of tougher stuff than I am to really enjoy a visit amidst the combined pressures of haphazard service, crowded tables and cold-looking faces waiting outside the window – but if you are, Kanada-Ya is well worth your time. It’s undoubtedly one of the best ramen bars in London. Just don’t bring any vegetarians.
words Marion Rankine