Can Ramen PLAY ever hope to redeem itself in the public eye as a respectable player in the ramen scene?
A collaboration between Singapore’s BreadTalk Group and Japan’s Sanpou Ramen, Ramen PLAY is an oddity. Curiously, in what is probably the most spectacular mistake in recent local food market history, it eschewed an established name and created a brand new name, thereby alienating its fan base completely. Fast forward to today, and Ramen PLAY isn’t remotely in the same calibre as its more delicious counterparts such as Keisuke, Nantsuttei, Marutama, Miharu and the like, but I suspect the chain’s given up on the chase to be the best. Instead, it wants to inject a bit of “fun” into a quintessentially every day, simple dish – playing with it if you will – to reinvent the dish, and push the boundaries of where people will accept. It really is coming full circle, with its moniker. We’re now midway through summer, but Ramen PLAY is only now launching a “Summer Promotion” which features seasonally new dishes which will be available through the beginning of fall. Taking advantage of the lull in activity at the office, I accepted an invitation to sample those dishes.
Leading the familiar is one of my favorite starters, Bamboo Chicken. Finely minced and cooked in a bamboo shoot, and served with a healthy dip of all-essential raw egg yolk. When the fullness and richness of the yolk collides with the simple-spiced minced chicken, it’s a collision of heartiness and comfort. If raw egg yolk’s a little too out of your comfort zone, I’d suggest you skip this entirely because the flavor really depends on the meeting of those two components.
Next up is something the BreadTalk Group has been trying to push, and personally, I do think it’s starting to get a tad annoying. While Din Tai Fung has its stuffed ladies’ finger, Ramen PLAY has the Okura Mentai, essentially another stuffed ladies’ finger, but instead of meat, it’s cheese and mentai this time. The glutinous nature of the ladies’ finger complements the cheese and mentai better, but otherwise, there’s nothing else to it.
“Hotstone”, or ishinabe forms a central theme in the mains. It’s perhaps easy to mistake hotstone as being quintessentially Korean, but that’d be over-exaggerating that culture’s influence. In reality, hotstone pots are rampant throughout Northeast Asia, so that’s a bit of a tidbit for you. Served with either crispy flash-fried ramen or rice, and doused with a gelatinous broth, the Umani Crispy Ramen Ishinabe and the Umani Rice Ishinabe may, on first impression, look like a certain Korean signature, but in taste, is actually closer to the local tze-char (it tastes like the local “crispy noodles” [sheng mian] and “wei fan”). While I do not begrudge the familiar tasting flavors, I’d certainly not come all this way to a “Japanese” ramen diner just to have “local food”…
…which is why in my opinion, the star attraction of the menu is the Herbal Infused Tonkotsu Ramen. This is probably the first bowl of ramen that could perhaps be promoted as a Ramen PLAY signature – their regular tonkotsu ramen’s generic, and generally leaves no impression on the diner. The bowl of noodles itself, in its components, isn’t anything unique. The herbs itself feature regularly in Chinese double boil soups, and the noodles are “oh-kay”, but I’ve never had a combination of the two before, and the result’s probably better than I thought it’d be. The soup’s layering becomes gradually more sophisticated from the moment you start. On the first taste, it’s a subversion, a surprise of sorts, and you can really discern the herbs and the tonkotsu. However, as the flavors settle, the infusion becomes a lot more complimentary, and it gets better and better. It could be Singapore’s best ramen of 2012, but it’ll stop short of that title mostly because I feel, and you’ll personally feel when you order, that while the Herbal Infused Tonkotsu Ramen does have all the ingredients of greatness and trust me when I say that you will feel that the ramen boasts some potential to be one of the best, it doesn’t cross that much coveted finishing line, not because they can’t, but because they won’t. I am told that the maximum time Ramen PLAY will allow their soups to boil, is for a measly twelve hours – a small number compared to the time the bigger names invest in.
Finally, desert. It’s a single scoop ice cream of Niigata Brown Rice Ice Cream and the Niigata Original Rice Ice Cream. If you love Japanese ice creams, particularly those Hokkaido ones, like I do – milky, creamy and rich – then this will be an absolute delight.