Picture the noodle aisle of an Asian grocery: that rainbow patchwork of cello-wrapped bricks and bowls, and acres of instant meals. Udon, soba, ramen noodles—all just waiting for a hungry college student or cash-strapped snacker to add hot water and call it a meal.
Now forget that image completely.
For decades, the popular picture of Japanese noodle culture has been dominated by flash-fried wavy bricks and their sodium-bomb seasonings—the very opposite of the hearty, warming, complex flavors of which they are a pale facsimile. At last, that image is changing: a new crop of Japanophile restaurateurs are bringing the authentic soup out of cramped ramen noodle bars and into airy dining rooms where their clientele can’t seem to get enough.
“We probably have a couple hundred people come in for ramen a night,” says Boston-based, Chef-owner Ken Oringer, who offers a late evening, ramen-only menu three times a week at his 50-seat restaurant, Uni.
Ramen has been a long-time dream for the chef, whose fine dining destinations never felt quite right for the soup’s laid-back vibe. But when he renovated Uni last spring to a slightly funkier aesthetic, he saw an opportunity.
From 11:30 p.m. until 2 a.m., Oringer cranks the music and watches the dining room and bar fill with slurpers. “It’s a lot of industry people getting off work at midnight,” he admits, but the spot also attracts plenty of young people and has a foodie following.
And the crowd keeps coming back for more. While plenty of his late-night customers are first-time visitors lured by $10 ramen bowls of savory broth, many return during Uni’s non-ramen hours for its refined, market-driven take on sashimi.
A pop-up ramen noodle restaurant-within-a-restaurant like Oringer’s is a white-hot concept, one that doesn’t require a sushi spot to start. Lunetta, a swanky Italian bistro in Brooklyn, N.Y., turns into a ramen shop on the evening of every full moon, swapping tagliatelle and orecchiete for wavy noodles in broth served to a packed house.
In Oakland, Calif., Chef Kyle Itani slaps a new name onto Hopscotch, his American bistro, once a week. On Fridays from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., Yonsei Ramen comes alive. “There are lots of Japanese restaurants in the Bay Area, and a lot of them have ramen on the menu,” Itani says. “But ramen is one of those things that requires a lot of dedication. In Japan, a shop will serve ramen and nothing else. It’s the only thing you’re focused on in that one restaurant—or in my case, in that one service time.”
Itani picked up a love for ramen growing up in California. But his obsession took hold when he moved to the northern Japanese city of Sendai for a few months in late 2010. “Ramen is one of those foods that kitchen guys love—it’s a real industry food,” he says. “So being a kitchen guy in Japan, I found other kitchen guys and we hung out at ramen shops. When I came back to open Hopscotch, I wanted to bring that back with me.”
Ramen may be rooted in tradition, but a bowl of broth and noodles has become a known quantity for both chefs and diners, offering an established template ripe for riffing.
At Bones in Denver, Frank Bonanno serves a trés Francophile lobster ramen made with shallots and heavy cream. Jewish-inspired “deli ramen” pops up at Dassara in Brooklyn, N.Y., made with matzo balls, Montreal-style smoked meat and celery during dinner, and a bagel-inspired version of mazeman(brothless ramen) made with hot kippered salmon, fried balls of scallion cream cheese and briny ikura(salmon roe) at brunch.
"People go crazy about the broth. They’re saying, ‘It tastes like breakfast.’ And I’m like, well, that’s the point!"
—Chef Dale Talde on his morning ramen dish of peppered bacon, egg and noodles in a buttered-toast broth
Ramen noodles can also be found on the morning menu at Talde, one of Top Chef winner Dale Talde’s three Brooklyn, N.Y., restaurants. He offers “breakfast ramen” with peppered bacon and an egg atop a pile of noodles soaking in a buttered-toast broth. To make the broth, he steeps pieces of buttered toast in the same tonkotsu (pork bones) stock he uses for the dinner menu’s slightly more conventional version. Most of the steeped toast is removed, but a few slices are blended in to thicken the broth, which is then strained to maintain consistency.
“People go crazy about the broth,” Talde says. “They’re saying, ‘It tastes like breakfast.’ And I’m like, well, that’s the point!”
ALL IN THE DETAILS
Chefs learn that exploring the craft of ramen is not as simple as it looks.
“You can call it noodles in broth, but there’s so much more to it,” says Matthew Lightner, chef at New York’s two-Michelin-starred Atera. “The broth has been cooked for such a long time, the noodles aren’t starchy (and) there’s incredibly fresh ingredients garnishing the bowl.”
A great ramen bowl lives or dies in its à la minute prep. Noodles are cooked separately, and once drained, are placed into wide, deep bowls, with broth ladled on top. An elegant arrangement of toppings—from sheets of toasted nori (seaweed) and poached eggs to delicate threads of julienned scallion—are artfully laid on top before it leaves the line.
“The dish may not cost a lot per serving, but it’s labor intense,” Talde says. “And if you don’t do it right, people will know.”
Attention to detail pays off with extraordinary complexity. According to Itani, a good bowl of ramen should involve elements of the sea, the mountains and the earth. This could include any combination of fish or nori; Japanese mountain vegetables (plant shoots and leaves) and greens; and pork, chicken, beef or mushrooms from the land.
The bowl continues to evolve even after it hits the table, the first bite bearing only a passing resemblance to the last. “I love the act of eating a bowl of ramen all the way through,” Lightner says. “You start with these fresh-fresh ingredients, but as you eat it the greens wilt, the broth infuses, the noodles soften. You get to a point where you need to keep eating it, because it’s just getting better and better.”
Helen Rosner is the senior web editor for Saveur magazine. She lives in New York City.
The styrofoam-like bricks of instant ramen aren’t entirely absent from this noodle craze. At Uni, Chef Ken Oringer serves crushed chunks of store-bought ramen dusted with their accompanying seasoning powder as a bar snack.
Ramen reigns, but soba and udon aren’t exactly slouches. Talde in New York serves chilled vegetarian buckwheat soba piled high with texturally contrasting seasonal vegetables, which sells just as well as Chef Dale Talde's ramen. For winter, he features pickled greens, mushrooms, roasted squash and crispy potato chips.
The most popular ramen tends to be the slightly wavy yellow noodles. Their canary hue doesn’t come from egg yolk but from kansui, an alkaline water.
Because it’s labor intensive, most chefs buy fresh ramen for about $1 per package.
Ramen Ps and Qs
A simple fish or chicken broth works, but a connoisseur’s ramen involves layers of flavor. Start with a dashi (stock) base with bonito flakes for depth.
Miso ramen incorporates soybean paste, shoyu ramen has a hit of soy sauce and shio ramen features a broth made with shirojoyu (white soy sauce). Tonkotsu(pork bones) ramen, perhaps the king of noodle broths, goes a step further. To achieve the iconic cloudy liquid, the broth cooks for hours at a ripping boil to emulsify the bones’ marrow fats—no nice, slow simmered consommés here.