Berlin may pride itself on being Germany’s international metropolis, but when it comes to the culture that brought us Babymetal and Hello Kitty, humble Düsseldorf’s got it beat. Thanks to all the companies from Japan that settled there after WWII, the city on the Rhine boasts Germany’s largest Japanese community – some 7000 residents compared to Berlin’s 3300. And recently, whether directly or not, Düsseldorf’s “Japantown” has started to make culinary inroads in the land of Vietnamese sushi.
The most obvious newcomer is Takumi Nine, a branch of Düsseldorf’s most popular ramen shop. When okonomiyaki specialists Hanage quietly vacated their Raumer Straße premises last fall, Takumi just slipped into the minimal Japanese interior they’d left behind, changing nothing but a few posters on the walls. There’s frankly something insidious about watching goateed new owner Yusuke Minamiyama and team cook their noodle soup in the cute open kitchen that the Hanage crew built, some real Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type shenanigans. Who are these guys, anyway?
They’re popular, for one. The wait for a table might take half an hour, and if it’s too crowded you’ll have to stand outside, which could be a deal-breaker in February. And they’re expensive, at least for Berlin standards. Their cheapest bowl of ramen, a simple soy-sauce version with chicken, is €9.80; the “recommended” Sapporo Miso Ramen is €13.80. For those who associate ramen with 80-cent instant packets, and even for those who frequent Kreuzberg’s Cocolo and its ilk, this is pretty unconscionable.
To be fair, that Sapporo-style bowl does come loaded with goodies: teriyaki-style chicken, pickled bamboo shoots, baby corn, bok choi, sliced fish cake, some rather redundant ground meat, half a soft-boiled egg and crispy vermicelli on top for good measure. The miso-fortified broth is thick and hearty; the noodles, imported from Japan, have the right amount of spring. The sole vegetarian option, sesame chilli tantanmen with crumbled soy protein or veggie tempura, is so umami-rich you|d think it had meat, though it could be spicier (use the chilli oil provided on the table). This is probably as good as it gets in Berlin, ramen-wise. But both bowls are huge, and we wonder why they don’t offer half-portions for €7. Takumi Nine doesn’t have to worry about attracting customers at the moment, but they ought to make at least a small at-tempt at adjusting their Düsseldorf prices for Berlin wallets.
Maybe they could take a cue from Cocolo… or Gotcilla. Former start-upper Christina Müller is from Hamburg, not Düsseldorf, but she used to go there on business, and on one of those trips she encountered a restaurant that served kushiage – basically, deep-fried stuff on a stick. This was the impetus for the Godzilla-themed Imbiss she opened on Weserstraße late last year with the help of a combined Japanese and German kitchen staff.
The décor is Neukölln cool meets Asian kitsch: picnic-style tables decoupaged with retro Godzilla comics, Japanese grocery store catalogues lining the bathrooms, a lit-up picture of a flat in Beijing. As for the menu, there are a couple of grilled dishes (pork belly, pumpkin, chicken skin) but Gotcilla is very much all about the fry-o-lator. Whatever your fancy – button and oyster mushrooms, sweet potato chunks, mashed potato croquettes, chicken, fish – it gets rolled in flour, egg and panko breadcrumbs for a thick, audibly crisp and minimally greasy crust.
Müller and co. obviously aren’t purists, and all the better for it: you won’t find their zesty beetroot/cabbage/radish/orange peel salad on any menu in Japan, but it’s the best thing about the otherwise middling tonkatsu-style schnitzel (€6). They also serve French fries smothered in a Japanified take on Szechuan mapo tofu (€5); think mildly spicy tofu-studded meat chilli. It’s a genius combination, and unlike most fusion fast food we’ve had of late, it wasn’t nicked from America. (A Google search does show the dish on the menu at a single restaurant in Brooklyn, but we’ll trust Müller’s claim that Gotcilla’s version evolved independently.)
Dinner for two, beers included, ran enough under €20 that we could make the Godzilla-shaped tip jar emit a mechanised roar of approval. The idea may have come from out west, but in contrast to a certain ramen-ya in Prenzlauer Berg, this place is pure Berlin.
Takumi Nine, Raumerstr. 1, Prenzlauer Berg, U-Bhf Eberswalder Str., Tue-Fri 12-14:30, 17-23:00, Sat-Sun 12-21:00
Gotcilla, Weserstr. 31, Neukölln, U-Bhf Rathaus Neukölln, Mon-Fri 15-24:00, Sat-Sun 13-24:00