Friday, December 13, 2013

Nantsuttei - Ramen's Black Gold

By Mark

Nantsuttei is a highly popular standalone Ramen shop that's worth a visit (or several). While its uses the ever-popular tonkotsu broth, it differentiates itself from the rest with its potent addition of mayu (fried garlic oil), making it an extremely memorable bowl of ramen.

While I'm not as idealistic to believe that the repeated exclamations of Japanese welcome's and thank you's in Ramen shops are out of spontaneity, Nantsuttei's staff appear to adhere to a rather rigid regime of phrase-chanting (ie one waitress would shout a phrase out and the kitchen staff would complete it for her simaultaneously). Yes, it is supposed to add to the authenticity of the eatery, and I'm certainly not ignorantly complaining about the noise it creates, but my issue is with the management-dictated feel of it, instead of it being something more spontaneous. Apart from the above-mentioned point, I suppose it could be put down to the staff's lack of enthusiasm as well. It's not like they don't put in effort -they do, and in fact, shout the phrases at the top of their voices, and there's absolutely no faulting them there. I just get the feeling that like mindless soldiers, the staff are merely implementing orders to the best of their ability, instead of doing this because they enjoy being here. Smiles betray sincerity, and I didn't spot a single one on the staff's face. Take a look at Starbucks -while I'm critical of its prostituting cafes, the staff there have been sufficiently inculcated into its culture to genuinely feel a sense of belonging, however misplaced that may be. That sense of family, I believe, is what's sorely missing here.

The store's entrance, where you'd usually see hordes of people queuing
With its Japanese-inspired décor on its interior and exterior, and its rather limited seating capacity, Nantsuttei's the kind of shop that I wouldn't be surprised to see occupying a corner space by the roadside, meaning by extension that it looks slightly out of place in the modern, glitzy Millenia Walk. Like a corner shop though, it enjoys long, snaking queues, especially on weekends, outdoing its neighbouring rival, Keisuke Tokyo.

Its interior décor features a lot of Japanese calligraphy and a couple of articles about its founder. It felt to me like the calligraphy was posted there just to occupy wall space and prevent the place from looking too dull, but then again, I know next to nothing about the language and architecture, so I'm not in much of a position to comment, except from a hungry customer's viewpoint.

At this juncture, I should add that my S.O. and I were once kept waiting for 30 minutes while a large segment of the restaurant was unoccupied, save for a few typically anti-social diners wasting time away on their handphones while waiting for the rest of their dinner group to arrive. That's a truly horrible feeling to have, and I'd place the blame entirely on the shop's management. It's just plain inefficient to seat people without having the entire group present, especially in a shop of this size, and is something that wouldn't be seen happening in any of Keisuke's outlets (they have an all-diners-present policy implemented specifically to prevent such idiocy). I'd have left, if not for my love of the amazing ramen here, which brings me nicely to the food itself.

Bar seating, giving you a nice view of the preparation of your ramen
Gyoza ($6.00)
Departing from my standard practice of reviewing an eatery's ramen only, we had gyoza as well this time round. At first sight, the gyoza's burnt areas led me to suspect that it was either frozen  instead of being made fresh, or the work of a gorilla left unsupervised in the kitchen. The former suspicions were unsurprisingly confirmed after taking a bite of it. While juicy, the gyoza was clearly underdone and didn't contain much in the way of fillings, which in itself was unremarkable. The individual pieces of gyoza were also stuck together, thereby eliminating the gorilla chef theory and making me undeniably certain that it was far from fresh.

Look at the burnt bits and the stuck-togetherness. Not very appetising
Ramen with Ajitsuke Tamago ($13.00)
Fortunately, Nantsuttei's ramen is not as bad as its gyoza and its service, which are in dire need of serious improvement. Its broth, which is its most noticeable feature with its oil-like colour and texture, is one of the best I've had the privilege of trying in Singapore. The way it strikes an almost perfect balance between the pork undertones and the mayu signifies tremendous amounts of effort poured into creating the perfect broth. On one memorable occasion, a reverent hush descended on my group the moment we took a sip of the broth, and continued for a good 5 minutes or so, well into our eating time. Eating a dish becomes a shared religious experience when a group of 6 otherwise-noisy hot-blooded males are so moved by it that they fall silent. Nantsuttei's broth is simply incredible, and there's really no other way to describe it.

Fortunately, this saves the day
The noodles are similarly well done, in the Hakata style that we're so accustomed to seeing accompany tonkotsu broths. They have a very satisfying bite to them, and despite the heaviness of the broth, retain their individual taste, indicating that they weren't over or under-cooked and are adequately fresh. They're mixed with juicy, succulent bean sprouts, which provide a pleasantly refreshing sensation against the broth's heaviness.

On sight, the cut of chashu used here is also exceptional, with just the right amount of fat and leaner parts. This indeed proved to be the case, and along with its tender texture, allowed me to enjoy one of the better chashus I've had for quite some time. Unfortunately though, it got a bit drowned out by the broth's heavy taste, and perhaps should have been better marinated.

That layer of oil... Oh boy this is gonna be good
The egg was quite a letdown though. On all the instances I've eaten here, the egg has always been nearly hard-boiled, and the amount of seasoning is virtually non-existent. This time, I guess they decided to change things up a bit by making it so that the yolk was more or less identical to that of a soft-boiled eggs. Of course, it goes without mention that it remained unseasoned.

As a whole, Nantsuttei's ramen is quite spectacular, and not just its broth, but the entire package (sans the egg) is just so harmoniously balanced and complementary, which is a hallmark of great ramen. Pity about the egg though, and the gyoza's simply not worth wasting money on.

It's waiting for you!
As for the ramen itself, $12.00 for the basic ramen is quite a reasonable price for such quality ramen, although it doesn't include the prevailing GST and service charge. It also doesn't account for the sub-standard customer service, which defeats the purpose of having a service charge to begin with. The gyoza on the other hand, I felt, could have been better prepared. As it stands now, it seems like just a convenient way for the uninitiated to signal that they've money to spare, and thereafter, relieve themselves of it.

Here come two bombs: firstly, the mayu used is poured out from plastic packaging, and isn't fried in the eatery itself. Who knows how old it is. And secondly, Nantsuttei isn't a standalone shop, but is instead a chain of shops (albeit a small chain), having a number of outlets in Japan, which comes as a surprise to me as I'd thought all along that it was a standalone store, although that doesn't take anything away from its spectacular ramen. As far as I know, Singapore's the only foreign country they've set up shop in. So much for romantic standalone authenticity.

While the service is rather mediocre and the gyoza wasn't done very well, they shouldn't deviate your attention from the incredible ramen served by Nantsuttei. Despite all of its failings, I can't deny that Nantsuttei serves one of the best Ramen in Singapore, and is certainly one of a kind. For everyone who hasn't tried it before, and for everyone who has, go down to Millenia Walk and give it a try -it's worth your time!

Have you had anything from here before? What was your experience like? We're interested -do share with us in the comments below!

Quality & Taste(75%)
A sure 8.2 or higher if not for the disappointing egg, gyoza and instant ingredients
Value (15%)
Pretty average as far as prices go, until you take customer service into account
Ambience & others (10%)
Contrived at best
Great ramen, but the eatery is lacking in other aspects

#P3-06, Millenia Walk, 9 Raffles Boulevard

Operating hours:
11am to 9:30pm daily

A completely unabashed endorsement for a company that's going through undeserved struggling and is being treated as a punching bag for the media:
I typed out this entire post on my Blackberry Q10, which is hands-down one of the most productive and efficient phones on the market. Some of its more outstanding productivity-driven features include of course, its signature keyboard and its Remember note-taking application, for instance. Remember is particularly outstanding in how it allows me to add photos into the note itself, enabling me to quickly upload my photos onto the blog, as well as refer to them easily as and when I need to. Currently, Remember is the only mobile note-taking app that supports Rich Text, meaning that if I copy a chunk of text, the font and colour are retained, instead of being changed to the phone's native font. Also, tables can be copied, like the weightage table above. TABLES CAN BE COPIED ONTO A MOBILE NOTE-TAKING APP, THAT'S REVOLUTIONARY! The photos were also taken using my Q10's much-improved camera, which while not matching a DSLR in sheer image quality, is still pretty impressive for a mobile phone's. Also, the native editing function allows me to touch up the photos on the go. All in all, an amazing phone for people who value getting work done instead of playing trivial apps (which by the way, are not lacking because Blackberry 10 can sideload nearly all Android apps), and that will hopefully see a few more sales as a result of this post :)

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