Now, two years later, the Big Apple is well into the throes of a ramen revolution and helping to lead the charge is Orkin himself, with a sit-down restaurant on the Lower East Side and a leaner pay-before-you-eat outpost on the Far West Side. And amid our glut of good gluten, you can pretty much walk into either without a wait, though we'll revisit that statement come December.
This is all good news because the full-service Ivan Ramen on Clinton Street, at just six weeks old, is already slinging out some of New York's most enjoyable noodles as well as a slew of righteous small plates. Case in point: Orkin lets diners wrap sheets of nori around morsels of slow cooked pork, roasted tomato, and sushi rice. Believe me when I say that if the $450 per person Masa ever wanted to drum up more business it could do so by putting these umami grenades on the menu. They cost $6 for two.
But before we get too involved with all this deliciousness, it's worth dwelling on the awesomely short queue a bit longer because really, waiting two hours for ramen makes about as much sense as booking a spot at your local slice joint a month out. Ramen, however underpriced it might be — a $15 entree whose complex components require a heck of a lot more effort to make than a $59 steak — is still spur-of-the-moment "I'm hungry" food. And given the vast quantities of salt and fat you're ingesting, sometimes a three-hour tasting menu's worth of calories in a single bowl, perhaps it's best not to think too much about it at all.
Though it can be hard not to. Take Orkin's outstanding spicy ramen, a mix of dashi, chiles, and chicken broth, all studded with bits of pork and toothsome rye noodles. It sounds simple and the texture is rustic but it has the depth of flavor you'd expect from a fancy French sauce that some guy spent half his life learning to make. And then there's the heat, which lights your GI tract ablaze like a Roman candle going off in both directions. I dare you to eat it on a first date.
Or consider the triple-garlic mazemen, a style of whole wheat ramen where the ratio of broth-to-noodle is closer to Italian pasta than a can of Campbell's. Orkin roasts and distills his garlic to such a level of sweetness that Mark Ladner could sell this perfectly al dente dish at Del Posto for twice as much and no one would blink an eye. But since the world deems this delicious product to be cheap, Orkin charges just $15.
No, none of this is terribly revolutionary, not here at least. While Orkin rose to fame in Tokyo by breaking the rules, he's now competing in a city that excels in just that, where great traditional noodles co-exist with very good Americanized ramen. There's Dassara in Brooklyn, which spins a gnarly "deli ramen" out of what's essentially matzoh ball soup. There's Ippudo in the East Village, which produces a tonkotsu so milky I'm certain each bowl results from putting an entire wild boar's worth of fat through a commercial juice press. There's Benkei on Delancey, where the chef won't let you order his fine seafood ramen (or anything else) until well after midnight. And of course there's Momofuku Noodle Bar, where David Chang sells a vegetarian chickpea creation that might just be the single most revolutionary ramen dish in New York right now.
So what makes Ivan Ramen vital in this competitive environment for starch and soup? Its ability to bridge the gap between the new and the old and deliver on both sides of that coin with solid service. Orkin can slay you with his shio (salt) or shoyu (soy sauce) ramen just as much as he can with that garlic mazemen, a flavor so distinctive it should be eligible for the same trademark protection as a Cronut.
The best seats are at the counter, where you'll see the cooks working away. Look above them for a backlit comic strip, with a woman, a cowboy, and a happy monster all slurping up noodles. There's also an outdoor garden and it can fill up quickly — New Yorkers won't be denied their al fresco eats even if it means sweating into their soup.
The ramen takes time to come out (as it should) so start with something cold and sour. Chinese broccoli with sweet soy pickled garlic will get the job done just fine, as will XO pickled daikon, with spaghetti-like strands of the radish coated in scallop chile oil and bits of dried shrimp. The flavor profile is fresh but it should also be salty and funky, which it is not, and that brings us to one of the quirks of Ivan Ramen: Orkin has an occasional tendency to dial down strong flavors.
Thousand-year-old eggs, a Chinese dish where eggs are preserved in ash and lime for months, are traditionally valued for their pungent, sulphuric aromas. Here at Ivan, the delicacies are deviled and taste as neutral as that suburban American staple. Fried chicken livers and hearts are a fine study in crispy, snappy textures, but the meat is bland; there's no irony punch here. The milder approach works better for scrapple, a Pennsylvania Dutch breakfast meatloaf known for its restrained organ-meat overtones. Orkin nails that flavor profile dead-on, pressing pork shoulder, chicken liver, and buckwheat into a savory, offaly waffle, with bits of apple and maple mayo keep the richness in check.
Things get more turbo-charged with the ox tongue, whose assertive, rated-R beefiness needs the accompanying hot mustard and soft broth to keep things PG-13. Fried shrimp, often an ode in taste and texture to Amazon.com's packing materials, is 100 percent maritime bliss at Ivan Ramen, with the squirty heads still attached for sucking, and shrimp powder added on for oompf. And kudos to Orkin for amping up the oceanic aromas to 11 with his ankimo dirty rice, a gorgeous platform for the gentle sting of scallion and the high-tide tang of warm monkfish liver. It's a brilliant study in surf and earth.
Now it's time for the noodles. One of my well-fed dining companions, a musician who refers to himself as a "ramen whore" perhaps said it best: "The shio and shoyu are classic and can be taken down in a heartbeat." I pass along that comment because you might see certain ramen experts with no concern for their blood pressure slurping down two bowls at once in 10 minutes flat (to enjoy the broth at its hottest and to avoid overcooking the noodles) — I'm more of a half-a-bowl in 20 minutes type of guy. If anything, I'll argue the shio tastes better when cooler, as it allows the bonito it's made with to shine through more clearly.
Shoyu, in the earlier days, had the color of molasses and all the daydream-inducing complexity of the soy sauce it was made with. But Orkin now uses a lighter product with a shallower flavor. It's not bad, just not as good. Triple garlic, shio, and spicy chile ramen are the smartest moves here, while the four cheese mazemen is a fine Japanese carbonara of sorts, with nutty asiago and rich pork.
Orkin tells me lunch will debut in July and that he eventually has plans to roll out some of the more expanded selections of noodles he offers in Tokyo — like a variety of tsukumen dipping ramen. There's no dessert here — Orkin says he's still "tossing around" that idea — and the lack of sweets of course helps him turn over tables more quickly. In the meantime, a friendly waiter recommends you saunter over to il Laboratorio del Gelato, where the wait, incidentally, might be longer than at Ivan Ramen; I suppose that makes a certain amount of sense in June to normal people, if not to food people.
Photography: Nick Solares