Let me propose the following idea – the reason ramen has become such a foundational dish in Japanese cuisine is because it has two contradictory properties – endless flexibility, and endless reproducibility.
In the century or so since the Chinese brought their lamian to Japan, there has been a steady explosion in diversity. Do you like your ramen full of the pungent, creamy aroma of bone marrow? Done (Tonkotsu). Maybe you prefer it overloaded with fats, like strips of lard? Sure (Tsubame style). You just want a bowl of ‘normal’ ramen, but you want to play with it? Yeah, okay (Tsukemen). Or maybe you want your daily allotment of capsaicin in your usually non-spicy lunch. We could do that (Nagoya’s Taiwan ramen). Once you’ve found your niche, though, the idea is simple enough, tasty and enduring enough, that you can turn it out – or eat it – day after day for decades (or until the kidneys give out, at least).
Takeda Keisuke is no stranger to the flexibility of ramen, of course, and the empire he’s been building in Singapore embodies this understanding. I mean, take an educated guess at what Tonkotsu King offers, or what Tori (Chicken) King is all about. But my favourite, always beckoning to me every time I’m around Suntec City, is also the most generalist of his franchise, Keisuke Tokyo.
Yeah, I’m not going to be ambiguous about this one. I like Keisuke Tokyo – like the simple, spacious arrangement of tables in the restaurant, like the evenly bright lighting that gives it a cool friendliness. I like the ordering process – read the slip, tick the boxes. The ramen is modular – there are a few different settings you can tweak, as well as a list of ingredients you can add. Once again, you just have to tick the boxes. I also like that they play Casiopea as background music. Casiopea! Okay, sorry, it’s just that I grew up listening to them. But it makes it feel like the restaurant’s calling to me personally.
Spicy miso is a tricky game to play, balancing the nutty umami of miso with chilli, which can become too shrill. Keisuke avoids this in two ways – the chilli oil itself is slow-acting and warm, and melds with the miso instead of fighting it, just as it swirls and pools on the surface of the soup. More chilli oil is held in a sphere of minced meat and small dried shrimp, to be teased apart and mixed into the broth. Or not – the mince is a microcosm of the soup itself, with smooth meatiness standing in for fermented soy, so you can eat it as it is too. Take your time, the whole ensemble seems to say. We know the risks, and we’ll let you set the pace. We’ll pack the punch, but you’re the one in control.
I like that attitude, and I like even more the miso soup. Thing is, unlike other types of tare (soup base), miso is pretty straightforward – the complexity is in the paste itself and everything that fermentation has managed to tease out of it. The peanut-coloured soup is muscular but gentle, coating everything else – springy noodles, snappy bamboo shoots – with its essence.
The same straightforwardness is at work with the crab broth ramen, though with far greater results, since it’s crab after all. With its heat contained under a thin layer of oil, the soup looks a lot tamer than it is; even the colour is only slightly altered. But break through to the soup, and out of the placid surface the crab awakes – a formidable aroma that lingers in the air, in the soup, takes broad strides on the tongue.
Against this sort of flavour you’d think the other ingredients stand no chance, and yet somehow they’re there, easily discernible. Chashu, thinly sliced, taut with plenty of bite, retains its juicy porkiness. And the flavoured egg is a lot more than just flavoured; the yolk is congealed yet translucent, the colour of dark amber, only its edges having been cooked to pale yellow graininess. Maybe they’d consider that overboiled; I think the contrast is positive. Maybe I’m just entranced by the shoyu that’s infused the entire egg.
I… look, I’ll admit it, I’m struggling a little to find things to say about Keisuke Tokyo. But it’s not because it’s poor, or even because it’s meh. It’s because, between Casiopea’s cool playin’ (okay, I’ll stop now) and the well-practiced simplicity of the ramen, I’m really not paying attention to the task of reviewing. It’s only when I’m already out of the restaurant that I realise I ought to remember what each thing tastes like, what I should be saying of them; but then they all kind of meld into an umami-packed, thick-brothed pleasantness. And when you think about it, why would a ramen shop put all those ingredients together in a bowl, if not for them to meld together?
So maybe I’ll end on a story that illustrates my point a bit. Like many a ramen joint in Japan, Keisuke gladly obliges your requests for ‘kaedama’ – an extra serving of noodles to dump into the soup, either because you’re on a carb trip, or because you’d like the texture of new, unsoaked noodles. A young man sitting near me makes such an order, and he asks for the noodles ‘harigane’ – cooked for just a short while, so they’re actually still hard and a bit raw inside. Here’s a guy with preferences, I’m telling you (I actually had to look up harigane).
I think it says something about Keisuke Tokyo that it attracts people like this, who are some way into ramen fandom, even as it dazzles the average slurper like me. I’ll gladly keep slurping here, if it’s all the same to you.
Ramen Dining Keisuke Tokyo
3 Temasek Boulevard #02-391/392, Suntec City
Mon – Fri: 11.30 AM – 3 PM; 5 PM – 10 PM
Sat – Sun, PH: 11.30 AM – 10 PM