Miraculously, Daisuke Utagawa and Katsuya Fukushima aren't sick of ramen yet.
The partners behind D.C.'s ramen shop and izakaya, Daikaya, just made a return trip to Japan about a month ago. Their mission: to do research for the new ramen shop they are opening in Shaw this fall.
That meant a visit to the Sapporo region, the style of ramen highlighted at both Daikaya and the upcoming restaurant. Along the way, the partners were joined by friends, ramen master Sakae Ishida and eventually their architect Brian Miller. Their typical daily itinerary: six ramen shops. Six to eight bowls of ramen per shop. Some sides, like gyoza and shumai for further investigation. And then, another full meal for dinner. The trip was a caloric one, to say the least.
The team made a special trip to Hakodate, which is famous for its seafood, particularly uni and squid. The local ramen has more of a seafood base there, a clear seafood stock in the style of shio ramen, with thin noodles. While trying the ramen in that region proved to be an inspiration for the new shop, other experiences were more disappointing, Utagawa said. Many ramen bowls were being made sweeter than traditional in order to appeal to different palates, sometimes at the sacrifice of quality, he explained.
Once they finished their ramen research, the time came to make a visit to the ramen factory that produces Daikaya's noodles, Nishiyama Seimen Company. The factory produced more than 20 different types for the restaurant owners to try out during their visit. The new shop will rely on the same dough as the noodles used at Daikaya (a mix of Japanese and imported flour that is pre-aged), but the thickness and style of the noodle itself will be slightly different. They also may develop another noodle variety for cold ramen specials there, Utagawa said.
The noodles are just one element that goes into developing each unique variety of Sapporo-style ramen, including the the stock, the noodles, the tare (or base) and the flavored oil (the toppings aren't even considered a major component). "People forget that different broths need different noodles to complement them," Utagawa said. Utagawa would like to see his customers both at Daikaya and the new noodle shop (no name yet) gain an appreciation for the nuances of Sapporo-style ramen. So he's going to host ramen classes on May 16 and 23 to teach customers more about its history and components. Reservations are required for the 10-person classes and tickets are $35 (including a soft drink and a ramen).
Meanwhile, Fukushima says he's getting close to figuring out the recipes for the ramen that will be served at the new shop. The vegan and spicy ramen from Daikaya will remain at the new location. He's going to change the shoyu, miso and shio varieties, though. Expect a more seafood-heavy version of the shio ramen, courtesy of their trip to Hakodate, and a more delicate shoyu ramen. The miso ramen will be closer to a traditional variety known as shiro miso (also known as "sweet" or "mellow" miso). The restaurant will serve a wider variety of about 10-12 side dishes as well. Utagawa says customers will be more likely to linger at this ramen shop than at the quick-service Daikaya (Fukushima will have a bigger kitchen to work with, too).
The trip allowed for other adventures along the way. Utagawa was entranced by Lucky Pierrot, a local fast-food restaurant with extremely kitchy decor and fast-food takes on dishes like curry, hamburger and yakisoba (it's beloved among certain Japanese pop-stars). Despite its fast-food setting, customers wait in line to order, and then another hour or so to receive the food. The team visited some unique cocktail bars, such as the Yamazaki and Proof bars in Japan, where they saw both experimental and classic drinks being made. They also brought back about 12 bottles of hard-to-find Japanese whiskey, which has been experiencing a shortage since demand has increased over the past year or two.
Fukushima found himself spending way too much money (one day, $77) in the Japanese versions of 7-Eleven, which sell everything from octopus salad to alcohol to soup dumplings. "If I could invest in 7-Eleven, or open one [like that] here, I would," he said. He also visited a specialty fast food shop, Bikkuri Donkey, dealing in his favorite comfort food dish, Omurice, a Japanese omelet topped with ketchup and filled with rice.
"To me, the trip really helped emphasize what is really Japanese, and what's a twist on Japanese dishes," said Fukushima. "It was good for me to immerse myself in the Japanese, classic ramen. Sometimes you forget that in the states. There is so much manipulation of [ramen], and sometimes it goes too far...is it really still ramen?"