7 years to bring yuzu ramen to Singapore

Afuri founder Hiroto Nakamura (left) with Afuri CEO Taichi Ishizuki at Funan mall.
Afuri founder Hiroto Nakamura (left) with Afuri CEO Taichi Ishizuki at Funan mall.ST PHOTOS: SHINTARO TAY
The bowls of ramen must be angled towards diners, with the Mount Afuri image facing them. Each piece of seaweed must be perfectly balanced across the soup.
The bowls of ramen must be angled towards diners, with the Mount Afuri image facing them. Each piece of seaweed must be perfectly balanced across the soup.ST PHOTOS: SHINTARO TAY

Japan's Afuri chain initially had no plans to go overseas, but when it expanded to Oregon in 2016, talks intensified to get the brand to open here too

It took seven years to get famous ramen chain Afuri - known for its yuzu-scented ramen topped with charcoal-grilled pork - to open its first store in Singapore. Afuri has launched a 70-seat outlet at the redeveloped Funan mall, which opened last Friday.

Mr Takahashi Kenichi, 63, chief executive officer and executive chairman of Japan Foods Holding, tells The Straits Times he has been a fan of the ramen chain since 2010. Japan Foods Holding is best known for its Ajisen Ramen chain, along with other ramen brands such as Menya Musashi and the recently launched Karamen, which also has an outlet at Funan mall.

He says: "When I go to Japan, Afuri is the first thing I eat. I feel that this brand would be different from others and can create an impact when it opens here."

In 2012, he made a cold call to Afuri to get in touch with its founder Hiroto Nakamura, 44.

However, there were no plans for Afuri - named after the mountain in Kanagawa prefecture, south of Tokyo - to venture out of Japan.

Mr Kenichi waited patiently and would occasionally text Mr Nakamura to remind him of his interest.

The Afuri brand - which first opened in Ebisu, Tokyo, in 2003 - expanded into Portland, Oregon, in 2016. It was then that both of them got into discussions about the brand's debut in Singapore.

The forward-thinking Mr Kenichi had signed for a space at Funan mall two years ago, prior to inking the deal with Mr Nakamura.

Besides two outlets in Portland, Afuri also has branches in Lisbon, Portugal, and new openings this year include Vancouver in Canada.

The signature yuzu ramen with thin wholegrain noodles - shio, shoyu or ratan (a spicy version) - is priced at $15.90 each. The chicken-based broth includes pork, kombu, dried bonito and vegetables. Tsukemen ($15.90) comes with either a yuzu or spicy dipping broth and slightly thicker noodles.

Unlike in Japan, the charcoal-grilled pork is grilled over lava stones here.

As Singapore's outlet is Afuri ramen + dumpling, like one of its stores in Portland, it will have an expanded menu which includes kakuni chashu don (from $6.80), gyoza ($6.90 for six pieces) and fried chicken ($6.90 for four pieces).

Mr Nakamura, along with his teams from Japan and Portland who are here for the launch, are all ramen perfectionists.

Bowls must be angled towards diners, such that the Mount Afuri image on the bowl faces them. Each piece of seaweed must be perfectly balanced across the soup - from one edge of the bowl to the ajitsuke tamago.

Every time a piece of seaweed "sagged" due to the heat from the soup during the photo shoot, it would be swiftly replaced.

Yet Mr Nakamura, a law graduate, did not start out as a savvy restaurateur dedicated to perfection. He was not keen on being a lawyer and dabbled in various jobs such as working at a ski resort and at a television company.

On the other hand, his younger brother Shigetoshi Nakamura, is already regarded as a "ramen god" who specialises in torigara shoyu ramen. His ramen outlets include Nakamura in Japan, as well as Niche in New York, which sells mazemen.

Zund-bar in Kanagawa prefecture is the younger Nakamura's second restaurant, which Mr Hiro-to Nakamura helped manage before developing the Afuri chain.

The use of yuzu in the ramen was an idea from his mother, a good cook herself.

On starting his own business, Mr Hiroto Nakamura says in a mix of Japanese and English: "It was really difficult. The Japanese media called my brother a young genius. But I had to do it and I didn't want to lose since I'm the older brother. It was hard but those were good days."

• Afuri ramen + dumpling at B1-29 Funan, 107 North Bridge Road, opens from 11.30am to 3pm, 5 to 9pm daily till Sunday. Normal opening hours from July 8 are 11.30am to 9.45pm daily. For more information, go to facebook.com/afurisg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2019, with the headline '7 years to bring yuzu ramen to Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe