There are days when this job takes me to the oddest places. Follow me, then, as I wander through Soho, duck into an alleyway on the edge of Mayfair, am led down a flight of stairs and seated in a rickety booth.
This is not what you are thinking. I am lurking down here and paying for a private performance from, well, a bowl of noodles. This is London’s first shuchu or “focus” booth, designed for the solitary contemplation of ramen, part of the heavily themed Heddon Yokochō.
In 1976, Tak Tokumine opened the Japan Centre nearby, serving London’s expat Japanese community with packaged goods, utensils and magazines. Later incarnations also had food counters, bringing some of the earliest affordable Japanese food to London. I remember being introduced to my first gyoza, pork katsu curry and green tea in the basement off Piccadilly Circus, years ahead of the easy thrills of Yo! Sushi or Wagamama. Tokumine has kept the business thriving through several changes of premises and, more recently, opening the upmarket Shoryu, which has attracted the attention of Michelin. Heddon Yokochō is his mid-range offering. While the private booths may be a clever response to pandemic restrictions, they also afford the noodle lover an intriguing opportunity.
In Japanese cities ramen consumption is an obsession, almost to the point of being a cult. Fanciers travel from shop to shop, seeking the bounciest noodles, the purest broths, the deepest tare and the most outré toppings. Yet perhaps the greatest noodle temples of all are those where the diner can sit in seclusion, cut off from sensory distraction and able to apply total attention to their meal.
I took my place at Heddon Yokochō facing a red curtain and, after a few calming sips of sparkling water, watched as a bowl was slipped under it like a sacrament. It was the simplest “Tokyo-style” ramen in which shoyu or soy sauce is the predominant seasoning in the clear chicken and pork broth. This is usually added by dressing the bottom of the bowl with a measured scoop of tare, the seasoned and concentrated sauce unique to every decent noodle counter. The medium thickness noodles, the menu informs me, are “Chijire wave”. Emboldened by my solitude, I wave back.
I should probably apologise for the sneaking reference to X-rated booths in the first paragraph, but there is an unmistakable resonance with the solitary pursuit of the noodle. The plywood enclosure, after an initial overwhelming feeling of absurdity, really does liberate you to behave in new ways. I was able, for example, to stick my face down over the bowl and inhale deeply of its steamy vapours, something I would never contemplate doing in public for fear of being revealed as a colossal prat.
It worked though. I was able to focus undistracted on the faint maritime whiff of kombu and katsuobushi beneath the deeper waves of pork. I was able to turn my full attention to the absolute orange of the yolk of the nitamago egg as it gently wept over a near Fibonacci spiral of BBQ pork belly. I had both the liberty and inclination, dear reader, to watch nori wilt.
Stick a man in a wooden box, and it won’t be long before he waxes philosophical. I began to dwell on the duality of existence, the yin and the yang, how on the one hand the broth was profound in its complex, ageless and mysterious flavours and yet still, somehow, a bit too salty.
I left that booth a changed man. It had been great, safe fun. It had been a great bowl of noodles, but there was something else. It is really lovely to step aside from the bubbling noise and confusion of social dining and concentrate on something. At times our job is one of managing overstimulation, so the focus booth was weirdly thrilling.
This time it was ramen, but I wouldn’t mind renting the booth again, be it for bouillabaisse or a bacon bap. It should be mandatory for critics, once a month, like some weary old cop sent to spend time on the range. It felt like being reset.
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