American psychologist G. Stanley Hall once remarked that men are simply creatures of habit, where many of our daily activities are simply automatic reflexes to stimulations from his environment. This is a phrase particularly true with regards to food – whenever I step into Kau Kee, I instinctively order a bowl of their rich, spicy curried beef brisket noodles. The same with Yuan is Here, where I order their sticky, sweet lu rou fan without even a second thought every single time. By no means is this a problem – after all, I am ordering the things I like most on the menu – but it does rob one the opportunity and pleasure to try something new, to be more adventurous. With Shugetsu Ramen, the restaurant in this review, this is particularly the case.
You know something is damn good when you are frightened of ordering something new, frightened that whatever you order would not be as good as your regular order. This is the case with Shugetsu. While every item on the short ramen menu looks appealing – oh how I would like to try Shugetsu ramen with a rich shoyu (soy sauce) broth, or the shio ramen flavoured with Himalayan rock salt – I order the tsukumen (HK$89) out of habit and more importantly, out of security. I worry that I simply would not gain the same amount of satisfaction if I attempted to deviate from my habit. Tsukumen is a style of ramen where thick noodles are dipped into a condensed, ultra rich stock before being consumed. In Shugetsu, you have the option of either hot or cold noodles, as well as the richness of your broth and the amount of noodles you wish to consume; but you and I will never be friends if you shy away from a rich broth and order anything but the largest portion of noodles.
After your first bite, you will realise that this plonking bowl of tsukumen is miles above anything that can be dubbed as ramen in this city. Everything is made in house, from the rich oily dipping broth to the thick ribbony noodles to the toppings atop each bowl of ramen. The handmade noodles are perfectly cooked until al dente, and its distinctive thickness allows it to lap up more of that lovely dipping broth. Personally, I find that the cold noodles compliment the dipping components of the dish better, as it has a firmer texture than its hot counterpart which yields to more bite. The soy marinated egg is a display of everything a boiled egg should be, molten, oozing and luscious. Pieces of grilled kurobuta pork belly and pickled bamboo shoots float in the bowl of dipping soup, with the sourness of the bamboo cutting the richness of the broth and the pork. And oh the broth, tasting of salt, fat and all things nice, is made from barrel-aged soy sauce along with other umami boosting ingredients like dried kombu and powdered mackerel. It is intense, powerful and, dare I say it, feisty. Traditional ramen broth is subdued, sleek and sophisticated; this wears a leather jacket and carries a barb-wired baseball bat called Lucille. After you finish your noodles, the staff will pour piping hot chicken stock into the dipping broth, and you have a hearty bowl of chicken soup to conclude your meal, completing everything perfectly.
Snacks are also pitch perfect. The deep fried chicken soft chicken bone (HK$45) (commonly regarded as cartilage) is a salty, thirst-inducing, beer complimenting delight; while the Crispy Fried Chicken (HK$45 for 3 pieces) comes with a blanket of pickled ginger and sits atop an addictive sweet and sour vinegar based sauce.
Perhaps we humans act out of habit simply because we are afraid of risks and unknown matters. We stick to things that we know are safe and work well. I order the tsukumen in Shugetsu every time without fail because I know I will be getting what might very well be the best bowl of ramen in the city. However, one time, just once, I betrayed my habit and ordered something different: the Abura Ramen. Perhaps it was the fact that the man sitting next to me looked like he really enjoyed it, or perhaps I simply wanted to try something new? The dish read very well on the menu. Who says no to intense scallop oil, smokey pork belly and raw egg? However, I was left disappointed. While the bowl of noodles certainly did not taste bad – hell, it was rather good – it lacked the spark and intense flavours that came with the tsukumen. The scallop oil was mild and did not taste of the sea at all. Moreover, it was easily overwhelmed by the other strong flavours in the bowl. Everything jarred with one another, and it all tasted rather one-dimensional.
So after eating in Shugetsu for nearly half a dozen times over this past month, this is what I learnt – Whenever possible, always remain in your comfort zone. While it doesn’t hurt to be adventurous sometimes, at the end of the day, we all want something that we know and love dearly. And for me and Shugetsu, that will always be the tsukumen.
Shugetsu Ramen, 5 Gough Street, Sheung Wan