Why the fuss? In December, Tsuta became the only noodle restaurant in the world to be awarded a Michelin star. Although it seems to be just like the other 5,000 ramen shops in the Japanese capital, it serves arguably the best bowls of noodles in the world. The owner, Yuki Onishi, makes the noodles himself, from four kinds of stone-ground wheat, and uses high-quality chickens and seafood to prepare the broth. Each bowl comes with delicious soft-boiled eggs and toppings such as char siu and bamboo shoots. What makes the restaurant stand out, however, are the generous portions and the juiciness of the perfectly cooked meat. A final touch of black truffle oil adds a distinctive taste. “I feel like the ramen has been recognised by the world with the Michelin star in this year’s guidebook, but it wasn’t my goal to get one,” Onishi says.
Is it easy to get a seat? Tsuta has only nine seats and doesn’t accept reservations, so it has put in place an unusual system that requires customers to pick up a ticket from the shop itself. As they go quickly, this means getting to the sleepy northern neighbourhood of Sugamo before 9am to pay a deposit of 1,000 yen (HK$75) for a plastic ticket. Its colour determines the time customers can show up for lunch, in hourly slots from 11am to 4pm. There’s no choice; it’s simply first come, first served. At the designated time, tickets holders still have to queue for up to an hour.
How expensive is it? Tsuta is one of the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. A bowl of noodles here costs about the same as a Burger King set menu anywhere in Japan. Options start at 850 yen, for the simplest soba noodles with soy sauce soup, and rise to 1,300 yen, for dipping noodles loaded with condiments. A few extras are available for a couple of hundred yen, and water is free of charge.
Does it follow Japan’s dining traditions? Tsuta is Japanese to the core. Like other traditional ramen shops in Tokyo, customers order their food at a machine beside the door and make a payment (cash only) in exchange for a small paper ticket, which the lone waiter hands to one of the two chefs. Diners sit in silence facing the tiny kitchen where the noodles are boiled, shaken dry and carefully placed in the soup before the other ingredients are added. The whole process is overly serious, but Tsuta is no ordinary ramen shop: it’s a temple to noodles.
Is there anything to do nearby? Unfortunately, Sugamo is a rather dull residential area with a few small shrines and parks, but not enough to fill the three or four hours between picking up a ticket and taking a seat.
How do you get there? The fastest, cheapest way is to take the Metro’s JR Line to Sugamo station. Tsuta is a few hundred metres from the north exit at 1-14-1 Sugamo, Toshima-ku, tel: 81 3 3943 1007. Onishi also has a blog, in Japanese: ameblo.jp/yuki-onishi.