Tokio 2907 Huron Street, Unit 103 720-639-2911
With his chic, minimalist noodle bar, global restaurateur David Chang did for ramen what Julia Child did for coq au vin, putting the Japanese soup once relegated to Styrofoam cups squarely on the American culinary map. In the decade since Momofuku opened in New York, enough copycats have sprung up from coast to coast that the curly, alkaline noodles we've all slurped could reach from here to the moon.
From Denver, Miki Hashimoto watched ramen's rising star and knew that his future would be linked to it. "Sushi's not an exotic food anymore; anybody can grab it anywhere," says Hashimoto. So in 2013, when he and his partner decided to close Japon, the sushi restaurant they'd owned in Washington Park for eighteen years, he started planning a venture that would tap into the latest fascination. The result is Tokio, which opened this past summer in the apartment jungle that has sprouted in the Prospect neighborhood. See also: Behind the Scenes at Tokio
But to think of Tokio as another Chang facsimile is to do the restaurant a disservice. Tokio is not just a ramen-ya, nor is it a sliver of a sushi counter where you sit on stools and eat whatever the sushi chef hands you. Rather, it's a combination, serving noodle soups, sushi and items off the grill, operated with traditional binchotan charcoal imported from Japan. "We're trying to make it different," says Hashimoto, a Tokyo-born chef.
This is obvious from the moment you walk in. Rather than feeling cramped, as do many counter-driven noodle shops, Tokio seems expansive, with red barrel lanterns, ceilings tall enough to accommodate a loft dining space, and a live-edge community table cut from an ash tree. A diminutive Japanese maple, espaliered so that its slender branches reach out like da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, brings a dose of the gardener's serenity to the entry. The design was carried out by noted interior designer Kanji Ueki; Hashimoto's sister-in-law made the connection.
But if the design is meant to be serene, the fare -- the ramen, especially -- is anything but. These are strong, commanding flavors, with plenty of collagen and fat from the pork and chicken they're made of, plus umami from the dashi (a broth made of seaweed and fish flakes) that Americanized versions sometimes leave out. Toppings such as pickled bamboo, nori, scallions, soft-boiled eggs and fish cakes ratchet up the flavors another notch.
At Japon, Hashimoto made only one kind of ramen. Prior to opening Tokio, however, he returned to Japan, where he took ramen-making classes and worked in a kitchen alongside a friend; what he learned is on display in the menu's many varieties. Shio is the mildest form, a sea-salt variation based on chicken stock flavored with oyster sauce, sake and a bit of mirin. Shoyu is heftier, with three kinds of soy sauce and the extra richness that comes from a blend of pork and chicken stock. Don't overlook the thin, brown slices of pork as you poke your chopsticks into the splashy tangle of slightly curled noodles, which are sourced from a company in Los Angeles. Freed from its strongly flavored bowl-mates, the meat reveals a pleasant spiciness from its soy-sake-mirin marinade.
The highest-octane soup is tonkotsu, made by boiling pork bones (no heads or feet, in case you were wondering) for eight hours. The stock is done when it's cloudy and white, with flavors so condensed they could practically get up and walk across the table. (Open a takeout container that has been in the fridge overnight and you'll get a visual of what I mean, the gelatin-rich broth congealed and clinging to the noodles like Jell-O.) Don't think about the origin of that broth when you order it, though; as with steak tartare and bone marrow, the flavor of the soup is so delightful that you should just enjoy it.
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But Hashimoto also caters to vegetarians -- not the norm at traditional ramen shops -- with a recipe he created called ramen air. The name makes it sound ethereal; I was expecting a pale iteration fashioned from vegetable stock. Instead, the plant-based bowl was every bit as power-packed, with a thick orange base of puréed pumpkin and sweet potatoes blended with soy milk and miso. The unconventional ramen was very good, but given its concentrated flavors, I liked it best when we ordered family-style, so I could balance ramen air with other noodles lower in sweetness and higher in umami.
Actually, regardless of what noodle bowl was before me, I longed for half orders or even ramen flights so that I could sample without commitment. Though sharing sounds good in theory, it isn't easy, neat or convenient to split a bowl among friends. Another argument for half portions is that by the time your ramen has arrived, you'll probably have enjoyed more than a few appetizers. Our meals always started with a tableful: blistered shishitos, higher on the heat index than all the other slender green chiles I've eaten around town; pan-fried dumplings called gyoza; kara age, essentially chicken nuggets dipped in sriracha mayonnaise; and Japanese pickles singing of ginger and coiled to look like rolls. Add in some nigiri, with fish cut long and thick and draped over well-seasoned rice, and items off the grill -- especially Berkshire pork and chicken yakitori, the sugars in its tare sauce caramelized by the heat -- and you'll wish for a larger family to share all the ramen that originally caught your eye.
Not all of the dishes are successful, though. Kushi katsu, a skewered stack of panko-coated pork and onion, arrived soggy due to a heavy drizzle of brown katsu. Atsuage tofu was also soggy; the thick, pale rectangles of deep-fried, unbreaded tofu oozed liquid when we sliced them. One time, the tsukune, a meatloaf-like roll of minced chicken, tasted steamed rather than grilled, and looked it, too: lily-white, with no telltale grill marks. Hamachi nigiri arrived sloppily cut, the flesh marred by tough membranes. And two kinds of specialty rolls, the Diablo and Hip/Hop, were lovelier to behold than they were to eat. Carried to the table on a bamboo bridge, the fat, bulky rolls contained inner rings of nori that must've soaked up too much moisture from the rice. Bite after bite, the seaweed refused to yield, causing an embarrassing scene as spicy tuna, seared tuna, avocado, crab, salmon, rice and nori crumbled and fell.
Hashimoto has hired a pastry chef, but she's still finding her way, sending out meek green-tea tiramisu that needed sake, not a hint of green-tea liquor, to replicate the rum-soaked layers of the original. Mochi balls filled with mango ice cream were oddly Continental in a '50s way, finished with whipped cream from a can, a few overripe berries and a mint leaf. Also finding their way are the hostesses, who always seated us upstairs in the sake bar -- which feels like an overflow space and lacks the charming ambience of the main dining room -- even when it was empty downstairs save for a few people at the sushi counter. Servers were friendly but seemed uncomfortable answering questions about the menu.
Hashimoto admits that Tokio is evolving. He's creating a spicy ramen to accommodate customer requests, for example, and he's working on the other kinks. "Give us more time to figure it out," he asks. And given how far he's already taken Tokio, we're certainly eager to see what he can do in time.
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Select menu items at Tokio: Shishito peppers $8 Kushi katsu $8 Kara age $7 Gyoza $7 Atsuage tofu $5 Tonkotsu ramen $14 Shio ramen $14 Shoyu ramen $13 Ramen air $12 Yakitori $3.50 Hamachi nigiri $3 Diablo roll $15 Hip/Hop roll $15
Tokio is open 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday, 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Saturday, and 4-10 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at mytokio.com.