A rotund, affable man is dramatically straining noodles at the stove with a showy, swooping flourish. “Oosh!” he yells enthusiastically. Tokyo-born chef Yoshihiko Watanabe, 35, the head chef of Teppei’s Yamashita’s soon-to-be-opened ramen shop Men-Men Tei, has appeared on a variety show in Japan showing off his flashy ramen cooking skills (in which he flings the noodles like a swashbuckler. Okay, it’s not quite like the chaps at hotpot restaurant Hai Di Lao twirling their handmade noodles flirtatiously, but we appreciate Watanabe’s earnest efforts). “It’s to show my love for cooking ramen,” he explains in fluent English of his slick moves.
He has been in Singapore the past three years, working at the Teppei Daidokoro chain of yakitori shops. Before that, the Tokyo native was based in his home city cooking at ramen joint Menya Musashi for three years.
Speaking of chef Teppei Yamashita, the boyish 37-year-old is also present today at what’s currently his 16th eatery in Singapore. It’s his first ramen restaurant, following his wildly popular affordable eponymous omakase eatery, bara chirashi chain and Michelin Bib Gourmand-approved live eel chain Man Man Unagi. Men-Men Tei (the name simply means ‘noodle stall’ in Japanese) is located in new CBD mall called Marina One, The Heart. The F&B towkay’s mobile phone buzzes endlessly — the man can barely sit down for a minute before he has to leap up to take another call from a supplier. But he’s still in a great mood, ribbing chef Watanabe about his waistline. It’s clear that the two men share a strong bromance. Teppei-san, who’s focusing more on business ops these days, defers our questions about the food to Watanabe. The shop’s opening has been delayed till after Chinese New Year, as the space is still pending fire safety approval.
“It’s a headache,” Teppei-san shares. Meanwhile, he tells us he will also be setting up a “halal udon shop” called Fumen at Hong Leong Building in the coming months. Teppei-san, who says he’s self-funding his restaurant expansions, is unfazed by the rapid spread of his F&B empire. “I want to make my customers happy, so if they are happy, I am happy,” he says simply.
THE LOOK: The 15-seater is a no-frills, full-service joint. Don’t expect Insta-worthy surrounds in this hole-in-the-wall with basic furniture and a view of the chef slaving in the open kitchen. The menu has 13 types of ramen divided into three categories: Regular with a slice of char shu, Char Tama with three slices of cha shu and a ramen egg, and the Special (five slices of cha shu and an egg).
Special Ebi Shoyu Ramen, $15 (8 DAYS PICK!)
There are three types of soup for the ramen here: Tonkotsu, Ebi Shoyu and Spicy Miso. This ebi shoyu broth is especially slurp-worthy: prawn heads are fried in lard, before the fragrant oil is added to a chicken bone and shoyu stock spiked Tokyo-style with bonito powder, and boiled for eight hours. It’s elegantly light, yet brims with enough umami prawn flavour. The thin, slightly curly ramen (made in Singapore by the same Japanese factory that supplies the Menya Musashi chain) is nicely al dente. The five pieces of tasty cha shu here are lean though not dry — they’re cut from pork shoulder instead of the fattier pork belly. “Gotta be healthier,” says Watanabe sagely. “You see my size?”
Lobster Tonkotsu Ramen, $29.80
The priciest dish on the menu (the cheapest pick starts at $8.80). A whole 317g Boston lobster goes into our bowl heaving with springy ramen, bamboo shoots, and Tokyo-style tonkotsu broth made by adding bonito powder and liberal dashes of shoyu to the soup. The tonkotsu broth is not the richest we’ve had, but still somewhat decadent and moreish. Sadly, the pan-fried lobster is tough and rubbery. Pre-opening jitters, we hope.
Prefer dry ramen? Go for this affordable soupless option tossed with fatty minced pork, shoyu, bonito powder and garlic paste. It’s satisfyingly flavourful and lardy, like Japanese mee pok. Blend the accompanying soft-boiled onsen egg into the noodles and slurp up the yolk-coated strands for maximum yumminess.
Spicy Miso Ramen, $8.80 (add $2 for corn topping)
The pork bone broth loaded with spicy miso paste is thicker and yummier than the plain tonkotsu version, and has just enough kick to perk up our senses. There’s only one slice of lean cha shu here, though. Get an extra topping of sweet corn kernels for extra crunch and to soak up the soup. Also good: the savoury, gooey-yolked firm ramen egg.
Japanese Red Snapper Ramen, price to be confirmed (8 DAYS PICK!)
This is only available as a seasonal item “sometime in March”, and boy is it good. Chef Watanabe painstakingly boils small batches of Japanese red snapper bones in salted water to make a concentrate (“It’s not flavourful enough if I make it in bulk,” he explains). More water is then added to make the soup. The result? A soul-lifting, delicate brew that we could happily drink on its own. It does not come with any fish meat (just cha shu and an egg), but you’re given a bowl of rice to make zosui (Japanese-style rice soup) with the leftover precious broth. This is one exquisite fish 'porridge'.
BOTTOM LINE: In line with Teppei’s modus operandi — offering authentic, affordable Japanese nosh for the masses — Men-Men Tei serves mostly delish noodles that are kind to the wallet (just skip the blah lobster ramen for now). While the decor here is bare-bones, the food is prepared with plenty of heart. It’s almost like dining in a homely ramen-ya in suburban Japan. $
Men-Men Tei will open later this month at #B2-28 Marina One, The Heart, 5 Straits View, S018935. Tel: 6282-7280. Check www.facebook.com/teppeigroup for updates.
PHOTOS: EALBERT HO