Mu Ramen famously began as a tiny pop-up in a bagel shop, then moved on to a six-seat table in the apartment of proprietors Joshua and Heidy Smookler. After being overwhelmed by the public response, they decided to find a permanent location, and settled on a small storefront on Jackson Avenue, Long Island City's busiest and most accessible thoroughfare. The place had been open only a few days when a friend and I sought out the fledgling noodle shop to see what all the fuss was about, arriving at 5:45 p.m. in a heavy drizzle as gusts of wind overturned umbrellas and sent pedestrians scurrying. Headlights of cars zooming off the Pulaski Bridge from Greenpoint glanced off the puddles on the street as we took our place in a line that ran down the block despite the inclement weather.
Informed there was already a two-hour wait, we left a name and number and repaired to a nearby Peruvian bar to drink Pisco sours and nibble on ceviche in the interim. After two hours and no phone call we returned to the restaurant and waited another 30 minutes along the benches that line the front of the attractive room, which boasts a small stand of birch trees in a niche. The room seats around 25 at a four-top, a communal table with a miniature rock garden in the center, and a short bar that looks directly into the shallow open kitchen, where a pair of humongous stock pots burble on the stove and four cooks — including Joshua Smookler and his sous chef — assemble bowls of noodles and the handful of apps that round out the brief menu.
We were finally seated at the bar around 8:15 p.m. for a meal that would take approximately 45 minutes. As yet there are no alcoholic beverages or desserts, which might tempt you to linger. The service, superintended by Heidy Smookler, was efficient and pleasant. We ordered the two most conspicuous apps, to be found among more prosaic starters such as charred shishito peppers and edamame. The tersely and punningly named U & I ($15) is a bowl of rice ramified with shredded nori and topped with bright orange salmon roe and duller orange sea urchin. It was good, and big enough to share. Next we had a remarkable pair of chicken wings ("tebasaki gyoza,"$14), piping hot, that had been stuffed with cubes of foie gras. The lightly breaded skin remained crisp and intact, and a sweet red dipping sauce made the app seem almost Korean.
Utilizing luxury ingredients, these starters telegraph that Mu Ramen is positioning itself at the upper fringe of the ramen market, dollar-wise. Of three offered, flagship bowl is the self-titled Mu ramen, at $18. Quirkily, the broth is based on beef instead of the usual pork or chicken; indeed, the website brags that it incorporates oxtail and bone marrow in a fierce, 20-hour boil. The beige-tinted broth is rich and salty and not really all that beefy, though the brisket that is cubed and added helps to increase the beefiness. Other inclusions: cabbage, fermented bamboo shoots, and half-sour pickle shreds. Deli ramen! There's a list of $2 to $4 add-ins, of which you undoubtedly will want the sous vide egg. But, whatever you add, the silky and small-bore noodles remain the star of the show. You've never had more delicate ramen.
The excitement level of the Mu ramen was not to be borne out in our second bowl of noodles ($15) — presented in a blue-striped receptacle that contrasts nicely with the pinkish bowl that held the Mu ramen. This second bowl deployed a classic tonkotsu (pork bone) broth that, while properly made, was not salty enough to satisfy. The noodles were the same as in the Mu ramen — though we noticed that the third bowl of ramen, spicy miso, which we didn't try, incorporated a thicker, curlier noodle. The meat added to the tonsoku broth was hog jowl, which was a welcome innovation over the usual pork belly — skinnier strips but just as fatty.
If nothing else, Mu Ramen has rekindled excitement in the city as far as ramen is concerned. As opposed to some hipster ramen shops where the innovations can seem both wild and wildly out of place (I'm thinking of things like matzo balls here), Mu Ramen takes a measured approach and turns out a product only slightly novel in its outlook — but still reverent toward the tradition. Now, if only it was easier to get a seat at Mu Ramen. 1209 Jackson Avenue, Queens, 917-868-8903.