Round 1: The Broth
The most important aspect of tonkotsu ramen (and indeed any soup noodle dish) is the broth. Tonkotsu means 'pork bones' in Japanese, and it is these that give the broth a rich, meaty flavour and a thick, cloudy quality. And in that respect the broth at Cocoro is a clear winner with a good salty and porky balance. It also looked the part, with a layer of fat and a cloudy appearance from the broken-down collagen.
|Cocoro's tonkotsu ramen - 1st impressions
|Tonkotsu's effort - 1st impressions
Round 2: The Noodles
Honours are even in this round. Both places used good quality thin ramen noodles (tonkotsu should be served with thin noodles) that were cooked to springy perfection. However, I was a bit miffed at how small the helping of noodles was at Cocoro.
|Cocoro - the noodle shot
|Tonkotsu - the noodle shot
The toppings at both restaurants could have been better, and in Cocoro's case, they could have been a lot better. For starters, I'm not sure why the toppings were presented on a separate plate (this is more common when serving Vietnamese pho, not Japanese ramen) but it only served to highlight the measly helping of belly pork and the rather tired-looking boiled egg.
Even if Cocoro had set the bar higher, Tonkotsu would have still won this round easily. Why? The soy-marinated egg with its gooey yolk was bloody amazing, and the single best thing about this bowl of noodles. The slices of rolled pork belly were also of a better quality then Cocoro's. However, I wasn't a fan of the beansprouts, and I wish there was more menma (bamboo shoots) instead. And finally, both bowls of noodles lacked dried nori seaweed. That really pissed me off.
Round 4: Value For Money
Given the portion size at Cocoro, the £13 price tag (per the main dinner menu) takes the piss. That said, they serve a tonkotsu set lunch, which with extras is also £13 - a more affordable option. And in case you're wondering, Cocoro isn't as upscale as you might expect from its la-di-da Marylebone address to justify this kind of pricing.
The £11 price tag at Tonkotsu (actually £11.50, as I ordered an extra half egg at 50p) isn't exactly cheap either. Especially, when one considers Tonkotsu is quite a casual eatery. Granted, Japanese food in London is rarely cheap (I've written a whole post on why that might be) and compared to noodles in other Asian cuisines; the prices at both places aren't exactly great value. And that's why I'm scoring this round as a draw.
Round 5: The Rest
The two eateries are quite different in that Cocoro is an all-round Japanese restaurant with a comprehensive menu encompassing sushi, sashimi, tempura and other (non-noodle) choices in addition to the noodle dishes. In contrast, Tonkotsu is a noodle bar with a very limited menu (three noodle choices, some sides and a few desserts). As such it is hard to compare the two in a meaningful way.
|Cod Katsu @ Tonkotsu
|Takoyaki @ Cocoru
In terms of the other dishes I tried, they were OK at Cocoro, but if I'm being honest I can't remember much about the takoyaki, tempura and other treats I sampled. The special of cod katsu I sampled at Tonkotsu was also OK if a little underseasoned. Looking at the service and ambience, there wasn't much in it between the two. When I think about it, I really can't split the two restaurants on non-noodle criteria.
So who is the winner of The Battle of Tonkotsu? It's a draw. Cocoro has the better broth while Tonkotsu has the better toppings, and there are no other factors that prove decisive in swinging it one way or another. In the final analysis, I'd say Tonkotsu is ideal for a quick bowl of ramen while Cocoro is better if you want to share lots of different dishes in addition to the noodles.
As you might have gathered, in my opinion, the battle between Cocoro and Tonkotsu was more Everton v Newcastle than Man United v Man City, i.e. not a bad match, but not a top-of-the-table clash. But are there any London restaurants that rustle up tonkotsu ramen of a quality comparable to that of the udon at Koya?
The short answer is not anywhere I've been to. I'd say Cocoro and Tonkotsu (along with Nagomi) are as good as it gets in the capital. The only other place I tried tonkotsu ramen in London was Toku (adjacent to the Japan Centre) but its effort was very mediocre. So much so, I couldn't be arsed to blog about it. There is one further potential contender: Soho's Bone Daddies (I'm assuming that tonkotsu ramen will be on the menu when they open later this year). Perhaps they will hit upon a winning mix of broth, noodles and toppings. And without wishing to bang on about it too much, I hope they remember to put in a sheet of nori!
Cocoro, 31 Marylebone Lane, London W1U 2NH (Tel: 020-7935-2931)
Nearest Tube: Bond St
Tonkotsu Bar and Ramen, 63 Dean Street, London W1D 4QG (Tel: 020-7437-0071)
Nearest Tube: Leicester Square, Tottenham Court Road