First Look: Sapporo Style Ramen at Daikaya, Washington DC
After four years of planning, a three-week pilgrimage to Sapporo in Japan to train under a ramen master, and a solid year of rabid anticipation by Washingtonians, Daikaya finally opened behind the Verizon Center in February. While the second floor izakaya is still forthcoming in late March, owner Daisuke Utagawa (who also owns Sushiko) and chef Katsuya Fukushima (formerly of Minibar) have opened the street level ramen shop early in order to focus on perfecting their ramen.
Daikaya, which, fittingly, translates to "house of large cooking pot," serves Sapporo style ramen from the northern Hokkaido region of Japan in four traditional choices: shio (salt), shoyu (soy), miso, and a vegetable shio. Among the growing number of ramen shops in the area, the closest comparison would be Ren's Ramen in Wheaton, Maryland. Not only do they both serve Sapporo style ramen but they also import their noodles directly from Nishiyama Noodles in Sapporo. An aged, thick and curly noodle with a satisfying springiness shipped straight from the source.
In fact, the noodles are one of the high points here, which Utagawa attributes to their glossy, elastic quality. Sapporo ramen uses a clear "chintan" stock made with chicken, pork bone, seaweed, dried fish, and other ingredients. Compare this with the Hakata style tonkotsu ramen at places like Toki Underground, which employs a thicker, milkier "paitan" stock made by emulsifying pork bones and fat over a longer boiling period. Tonkotsu ramen is also commonly accompanied by straight, non-aged noodles in order to provide a lighter balance to the heavier broth. (Read more of Utagawa's own thoughts on ramen at his blog here)
The other thing that differentiates Sapporo ramen is the extra step of stir-frying the head of bean sprouts, ground pork, nori, and scallions that top every bowl in a wok before applying. Peer into Daikaya's open, stainless steel kitchen and you'll likely find chef Fukushima manning the wok to deliver that final touch while others boil noodles and prepare the tare (the flavoring agent) and broth. It's a meticulously methodical ramen-making machine, every step of which is vital to achieving the all important balance, which Utagawa refers to as a "harmonious contradiction."
There is a push and pull of "freshness versus age" within every bowl. While the noodles are aged, the broth is made to order and optimal at its peak temperature. What's more, Utagawa offers the conundrum: "If you have the perfect noodle, why ruin it by putting it in a hot soup?" The answer to which is that it creates a sense of urgency and necessitates eating the noodles first before allowing them to get soggy. "There's a fleeting moment of about three minutes where the ramen is at its best," says Utagawa. "It's habit forming and becomes something you chase."
Bowls of ramen range from $11.50 to $12.75 (extra for add-ons) and are served within minutes. You should also be slurping your noodles as soon as the bowl hits the table to capitalize on that three-minute window of ramen perfection.
One mistake that Utagawa laments about non-ramen-veterans' ramen eating habits is the tendency to try to talk over a meal. He describes it as "watching a play and having someone interrupt with conversation." The person pictured above-left is an example of what not to do. Don't let your noodles get soggy or your broth cloudy. Finish your noodles and then talk. Despite this, don't mistake ramen for fast food. Ramen, as Utagawa puts it, is "not fast food that is close to artisan food, but artisan food served as fast as possible." So, take this to heart, learn to slurp your noodles, and visit Daikaya for an authentic taste of Sapporo, Japan.