Ramen with a Contemporary Twist
Tochi revamps the old Anaba with creative Asian fusion
The entry is the same. Walk in through the doors of the Garden Room, an upscale gardener’s shop, and head down a flight of stairs. Despite a display case filled with a collection of Godzilla figurines, there is nothing cartoonish about the new interior. There are simple, beautiful wooden tables, most small and one or two communal. In the center of the dining area is a skylight that makes the place a pleasure to visit in the daytime. No wonder the place is now busy for lunch. The bar remains much the same with its small selections of beer, wine, sake and a broader spectrum of teas. Things are very good.
The menu revolves around ramen. In places with large Japanese populations like New York and Los Angeles there are restaurants devoted to ramen, but in the strictest Japanese sense. Here, there is a different approach where the creativity that made the Tea Room such a pleasure still reigns. The few starter courses are simple but on the mark. The cucumber dish ($3.95) includes a long row of slices of tender-skinned Japanese cucumbers with seasoned ginger, salt and pepper, and a sauce with an aggressive note of mustard. It’s a refreshing starter. Many customers head straight for the pork steamed buns ($5.95). At dim sum places the meat is a filling in the doughy buns. Here, the buns are shaped a bit like a taco shell, each with a slice of fatty pork toped with a curry cabbage slaw with a dash of sweet hoisin sauce. Yum! But the highlight is shishito peppers ($5.95). These Japanese chilies are about the size of slimmed-down jalapeños and are definitely milder but still have a flavor that reminds you that they are, indeed, chili peppers. In Los Angeles they often appear on Japanese and contemporary menus—the trend du jour. This is the first place I have found them locally and they are perfectly prepared—lightly grilled and seasoned with a bit of fish sauce, pork fat and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. The serving is generous. Share it.
The ramen is served in a style meant for a photograph with each ingredient having its own space. The signature Tochi ramen ($11.95) puts Singapore-style noodles in a pork-based broth. There are chopped Welsh onions, sweeter than scallions and a presence in all of the ramens sampled. Also, there is pork belly prepared two ways, one in crispy chunks and the other in slices with the lean alternated with fat. Add sassy spicy miso deviled egg and then pick and choose with the chopsticks and porcelain soupspoon.
Thai ramen ($9.95) is entirely different, except for the noodles. The spicy broth is the type for tom yum soup with some carrot, chopped cabbage and more Welsh onions. There is plenty of shelled shrimp, almost more shrimp in volume than noodles. Flavors are bold, unlike the subtlety of the Tochi ramen. The thought of a Wisconsin ramen ($8.95) seems doomed to failure. How do you incorporate bratwurst, onions, mustard, pickle relish and sauerkraut into something resembling Japanese food? The answer is with a bit of creativity and subtlety. The onions are mild and caramelized with beer; the relish is not tart and vinegary; the mustard is used sparingly; and the small dash of sauerkraut is dehydrated, adding a delicate flavor. It all works in its own way. Vegetarians will adore the mushroom and smoked tofu ramen ($8.95). The tofu is on skewers and has grill marks. It is more flavorful than seems possible for tofu. The broth uses soy sauce fermented in bourbon barrels. Add Welsh onions plus a few kernels of freeze-dried corn for a dash of Midwest irreverence. The sliced mushrooms are perfectly at home in this setting. This is probably the best of the ramens here, amidst some tough competition.
Purists will be able to find fault but this is ramen with a contemporary twist providing impressive results. Tochi is not your ordinary corner Japanese noodle shop. The setting is serene, the service professional and tea menu not to be ignored. As for the former Anaba Tea Room’s rooftop garden seating? We will find out when the weather warms up. It would be a great spot for a Japanese beer and a bowl of shishito peppers.
Tochi (at Garden Room)
2107 E. Capitol Drive, Shorewood
Handicapped access: Yes