Monday 24 September 2012

The Battle of Tonkotsu: Cocoro v Tonkotsu Bar and Ramen

There are many places that serve ramen in London, but very few serve tonkotsu ramen (豚骨ラーメン). So in this post I'm going to check out this most iconic of Japanese soup noodle dishes in a slightly nerdy head-to-head comparison between rival restaurants, Cocoro and Tonkotsu Bar & Ramen.

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
That's not to say Tonkotsu's effort was bad. After all, it was cloudy and a bit fatty, but it just wasn't as good as Cocoro's effort. Nevertheless, I do applaud the addition of Japanese black sesame oil (mayu マー油) to the broth.

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
Round 3: The Toppings
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.

The Verdict
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.

Are There Any Other Contenders?
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 on Urbanspoon

Cocoro, 31 Marylebone Lane, London W1U 2NH (Tel: 020-7935-2931)
Nearest Tube: Bond St

Tonkotsu on Urbanspoon

Tonkotsu Bar and Ramen, 63 Dean Street, London W1D 4QG (Tel: 020-7437-0071)
Nearest Tube: Leicester Square, Tottenham Court Road


  1. Adored your EPL analogy:) Haven't been to Cocoro but thought the same of Tonkatsu. There's definitely room for more contenders who can up the stakes! HF

  2. I enjoyed tonkotsu's tonkotsu very much. My only complaint is when I had it once it was almost too rich and fatty compared to when I ate there before when it was perfect (in my uneducated, inexperienced opinion)

    Great to see you flirting with London restaurants again Mr. N - top notch noodle article!

  3. The toppings for both look frankly pathetic. Stingy and miserly bits of meat, and in cocoros case overcooked egg.

    In fact the portions for both (as for Nagomi as well) look decidedly small.

    Can you at least order extra noodles, decide the firmness of the noodle and the richness of the broth?

    What we need is a good chain, like Ippudo (branches in NYC, HK, S'pore) to come to London and show these folks how it's done. Until then I'll stick to the siu kow noodles in Chinatown.

  4. Agree with Justin, we really do need a good, reliable chain that serve authentic proper 'DIRTY' Tonkotsu that doesn't break the bank.

    I am looking forward to the opening of bone daddies, but I do hope it's not another overhyped, over priced and meagre attempt of Tonkotsu though. We have enough of those, I just want all the right element to make a perfect bowl of Tonkotsu in one that too much to ask? Hell, I'm willing to overlook the overpriced bit if this is achieved. Fingers crossed!

  5. Toku is indeed deeply mediocre and I did blog about it. Ittenbari and Taro are similarly meh, while I greatly enjoyed Tonkotsu. Might have to try Cocoro and definitely looking forward to Bone Daddy's.

  6. HF - we definitely need more Champions League, less Europa League category noodles.

    Frank - and therein lies the problem. I'm not saying it's wrong to like a lighter broth (the full-on tonkotsu is not everyone's bowl of noodles) but there is a danger that the broth can tend to be a bit lightweight in an attempt to be all things to all people.

    Justin - you can order extra noodles at Cocoro and Tonkotsu, but I find that's another piss-take as the cost up rachets up some more for not a lot of extra noodles. Otherwise, I'm not sure about other specifications. Perssonally I like to see what the 'default settings' are at ramen joints. Ippudo would be good, but I'm surprised no one has got it right just yet.

    J - agreed. If either of the bowls I tested was the full package, I could overlook the price tag. But they're not.

    PickyGlutton - thanks for your thoughts.

  7. I wouldn't even bother comparing ramen bars.. I would just love them all :) You got me droooling!

  8. I thought Tonkotsu had the slight edge on Cocoro, in terms of broth, noodles, toppings and value. The football analogy is right, I just thought it was a case of Spurs (tonkotsu) vs Newcastle (cocoro).

  9. I agree with the whole egg thing, the slightly runny boiled egg is always good and the hard boiled one is totally unappetising in comparison! I rarely opt to eat Ramen when I go out - just because it's hard to find a good place and not think, I could have done better at home! Though I do admit, it's definitely the broth which is hard to recreate at home...

  10. Why is it that London can't do great Japanese food (with one or two notable exceptions, mostly around sushi)? Particularly the the lower-end less fine-dining down-and-dirty-but-still-delicious stuff. Maybe it's just a lot harder than it looks. Still, average ramen is better than no ramen. Isn't it?

  11. catty - but I reckon the ramen bars in Sydney would be better...

    Anon - really? To be honest, in common with games involving the likes of Spurs, Everton and Newcastle, there's not much in it and the result can vary!

    Winnie - I love ramen, but you're right about finding a decent place to eat it. The cost and relative quality make it a poor noodle option when compared to Chinese and Vietnamese alternatives.

    Gworm - ramen (and 'budget' Japanese grub) isn't easy to master. That said, there are many cities around the world (outside Japan) that have proper ramen. Which begs the question why not London? Mind you, am I being ultra-critical? The likes of Tonkotsu and Cocoro are a step-up from the dreaded Wagamama.

  12. The last time I was in Tonkotsu the broth was actually tasted of chicken stock, maybe they ran out and thought noone would notice. Prob they were tight.

    But as Ramen bars go, Tonkotsu is prob the best around, but somehow i prefer Ittenbari but mainly for the ambience, but Koya has my vote on general noodle bars, i wish they would open a ramen shop then the bar would be put higher for everyone else to follow.

    1. Mzungu - tonkotsu is meant to be a blend of pork and chicken stock, but obviously the latter is not meant to predominate. A shame.

      I've yet to try Ittenbari, as I prefer tonkotsu to shio/shoyu/generic ramen.

  13. hee da bao tonkotsu's toppings to bring to cocoro.

    1. Shu Han - Plan B would be to put Cocoro's broth in a thermos flask to take to Tonkotsu...