Putting Japanese noodles and tempura to the test.

Our Japanese-language reporter Ikuna Kamezawa has been travelling the world recently, and in between trying all the local cuisines, she’s been checking out Japanese restaurants abroad to see how the food compares to Japanese food back home.

Her most recent travels took her to London, where she decided to stop by a branch of Marugame Seimen, a popular udon chain from Japan that’s known as “Marugame Udon” in the U.K.

Marugame opened its first store in London in July last year, and now, just twelve months later, there are five branches in the city. As the only place in Europe where you can eat at Marugame, it’s certainly become a hit with both locals, but how would the noodles go down with Ikuna?

▼ As the name suggests, this Japanese fast food chain specialises in udon and tempura.

Ikuna visited the St Christopher’s branch, which looked like a cafe with outdoor seating. The menu in the window at the front of the store showed some dishes that were familiar to Ikuna, although she was interested to see the Bukkake Udon was simply listed as “BK”.

▼ The BK cost 4.45 pounds (US$5.19), while the Kake Udon cost 4.75 pounds.

Stepping inside, Masami was pleased to see the interior was sleek and stylish.

The main counter looked just like the ones in Japan, and it used the same system. Diners grab a tray and order their noodles before moving past a selection of tempura and rice balls, which they can add to their meal before paying at the register.

▼ There’s a wide selection of toppings and sauces that diners can add to their meals as well.

The London branches have a special London-only “Two Pork Tonkotsu” on the menu for 8.95 pounds, so that’s what Ikuna ordered.

The broth looked just like tonkotsu, but…tonkotsu is a pork bone broth that’s usually only eaten with ramen, a much thinner noodle to udon. Tonkotsu broth is super popular with foreign visitors to Japan, though, so Ikuna figured it might not matter what type of noodle it’s served with when eating abroad.

When she took a sip of the broth, though, Ikuna could hardly taste anything. It was so light it made her wonder if they really used any pork bones to make it at all –instead it was incredibly mild, almost like chicken broth, and it had a mysterious acidity to it that reminded her of hot and sour soup.

It was very different to what she’d been expecting, and when she moved on to try the char siu, she found it was huge and tough to chew. She perked up at the sight of the pork miso, though, as it was a little spicy and aded some extra flavour to the broth upon mixing it in.

Despite these setbacks, Ikuna was prepared to overlook everything as long as the noodles were good. But when she slurped them up, she found…they had no springiness to them at all! “Is this a London-style noodle?”, she asked herself, as she looked at them with a tinge of sadness in her eye.

Marugame is famous for serving “Sanuki Udon”, a type of noodle from Kagawa Prefecture that’s known for its springiness, but the noodles here in London had no bite to them — they were soft and fluffy, like the udon you’d get in a nabe hotpot that’s been simmering for a long time.

Ikuna wondered if her noodles mightve been overcooked, but when she checked online reviews for the branch from Japanese travellers, they too said the noodles were too soft. Ikuna figured people in this part of the world must prefer their noodles soft, their broth mild, and their eggs salty, if the egg she was served was anything to go by.

▼ The seasoned egg was so salty Ikuna wondered if it had been pickled in salt.

On the upside, the “Vegan Croquette” (1.65 pounds) she’d ordered was delicious, and filled with pumpkin.

As Ikuna stood up to leave after finishing her meal, she saw a long queue had begun to form at the counter.

The meal might’ve fallen a little flat on Ikuna’s palate, and the palate of other Japanese who are used to eating Marugame in Japan, but the chain certainly knows what it’s doing in London, where the locals appear to have fallen in love with it.

Masami thought she had some knowledge of British tastes, but after her meal at Marugame in London, she realises she still has a lot to learn. Still, after eating noodles here, and in ParisSpain, and Croatia, she’s really getting an education!

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