The finer points of ramen
A few months ago I noticed a ramen shop on the 2nd floor of the Whole Foods on Houston Street: Yuji Ramen. Though the menu intrigued me, I didn’t try it; until one day I noticed a sign posted that mentioned an omakase meal in the evening.
Ramen is everywhere. Since arriving in New York almost two years ago, ramen has seemed to be on the small list of topics talked about in heated debate. Conversation whirled around who had the best broth, weirdest additions, and which location was tops. There’s Totto Ramen, Ivan Ramen (to open soon on Clinton Street), Ippudo, Momofuko, and at least ten more places dotted throughout the city, and these are just the ones people talk about. (Note: I’ve only been to three of this list.)
I walked over to Whole Foods in my heels, feeling a little fancy for the location but not the hour: 8pm. We sat at the high counter in wide bar seats, and looked over the five-word menu: salmon, squid, monkfish, oysters, mussels. In the small kitchen were three workers, including Yuji––a quickly endearing Asian man with a winning smile. A small girl in round black specs set a bamboo dish full of pickled daikon in front of our place settings, which I promptly dug into with my chopsticks.
The first dish arrived in a thick ceramic bowl. It held mazemen (brothless) noodles, which were flat like linguine, yellow like a fine eggy pasta, and chewy in al dente perfection. Atop the noodles sat house-cured salmon strips, slivers of nori, shards of salmon skin, and a curl of chive cream cheese. The texture of the noodles bounced like the spring in a trampoline and held on to the intense fish oils, crunch of skin bits and rich cream.
After such a strong start I was excited for what would appear next. As the bowls were placed, the chef announced what they held: squid ink ramen buried in a tomato and squid ragout, topped with toasted nori breadcrumbs. I looked down at my dish, wondering how the inch-long mushroom shaped things could have been squid. Yuji smiled, and, in a professorial tone, compared it to making gnocchi. The squid ramen was wonderfully dense and oozed with flavor. The tomato ragout, with hidden squid and crunchy bits of nori was as good as you might see at Babbo on actual pasta.
A surprise addition not on the menu, our third dish was a light clear pea broth, a few strands of ramen, fresh-shelled peas, and a pea flower. It came in a delicate glass dish that looked like it once held dessert. The display reminded me of kaiseki meals I had eaten, and when I told Yuji this he smiled, nodded and bowed. I asked Yuji about his dishware. He told me he likes to mix traditional Japanese pottery along with vintage pieces. Then he pointed at the dish I was eating from and said, “I bought that on the street yesterday.”
The fourth course placed in front of us was what Yuji called “candy.” The "candy" was ramen agnoletti with a monkfish liver filling, topped with a nasturtium flower on one and a shiso leaf and jalapeno on the other. The ramen pasta was earthy brown and the filling, of similar color was like eating sea butter, if such a thing existed, or maybe an exceptionally creamy chopped liver. It was sweet, along with a pungent peppery bite from the floral toppings.
Next came a course with two bowls: one held hot ramen noodles and a second held smoked oysters, a cucumber gelée, a sack of ponzu sauce and two or three other tidbits. Yuji announced that we were to pour the gelée mixture onto the hot noodles and mix it all up, the resulting bowl would be a chilled ramen soup. It was glorious with different tastes in every bite: tangy vinegar, oil, and cool vegetables.
By this time we had learned that Yuji once cooked at Roberta’s in Brooklyn (he made pasta) and that he had taught himself how to make ramen. “By watching YouTube videos?” I asked. He smiled and shook his head but he didn’t answer me. It was the only time of the night he was not forthcoming.
Then Yuji lighted up a small butane torch and pointed it at a metal chafing dish of mussel shells. The diners, six of us in total, looked on with interest. Yuji glanced up and recounted that he figured there was a better way to use the mussel shells rather than just throw them away. After imparting a smoky tinge to them with his torch he handed out six single serving French presses which were filled with water and a mix of shells and other ramen friendly items. A few minutes later we were instructed to press down on the oceany swirl. I could hear the mussel shell crunch in its destruction. I poured the resulting broth on the bowl of ramen, enjoying the feeling that I had just brought a science experiment to life. The essence of smoke and mussel, distilled into the water was like sipping a fine whiskey and sensing the barrel it was aged in. The broth was so good I didn’t touch the noodles. “You know what would be great in this soup,” I said to Yuji. “A matzoh ball!” He smiled.
The omakase dinners are sold out through June but they told me that more dinners will go on sale for the month of July. Or, you can just drop in and have lunch anytime you like.