How did ramen cooks become the high priests of our culinary culture? Robert Sietsema visits the city's latest ramen hot spot.
The weather was frigid and a harsh wind from the north rattled the trash cans as a friend and I approached newly opened Ramen Lab on Kenmare Street. Steam clouded the windows, but we could still see a maximum number of figures crowded into the impossibly small space: nine sitting at a counter that ran from the door to the bathroom, three employees including two ramen cooks making do with what little space they had, and six other supplicants standing and waiting for their seats between the end of the counter and the door, making necessary an elaborate ballet as finished customers tried to pay the hostess and leave. Those seeking out the bathroom had to force their way past seated figures and hanging coats, as new customers blown in by a blast of cold air put their names on the waiting list and departed for bars unknown. This is all apparently part of the true Japanese ramen experience. "We can’t call you when your seat is ready," sadly intoned the greeter/cashier/entire-front-of-the-house as she quoted a waiting time of 45 minutes.
The two cooks wear jaunty dark fedoras as they gyrate behind the blond-wood counter. Each also wears a single black glove for no apparent reason, a la Michael Jackson. American and British rock from the 70s and 80s plays incongruously over the P.A. from unseen speakers. Chef Jack Nakamura, who stands nearest the door (a sign of superior rank in a Japanese counter establishments), is entirely in charge of the noodles, which are manufactured by Sun Noodle of New Jersey with as much gravitas as a pope blessing holy water.
He pulls wads of uncooked ramen from clear plastic bags and carefully removes one or two errant noodles before placing the heaps on a wooden counter. He puffs each wad up, then tamps them down with a push of his palm, in a priestly ritual. The crowd reverences his every move. After the noodles are briefly boiled, Nakamura pulls the handled sieve out of the water and gives it two fierce downward shakes — so fierce one fears his arm may be torn from its socket.
The only appetizer is a serving of six gyoza ($7) stuffed with pork and Napa cabbage. These are cooked on a small griddle in the currently popular lattice manner, by crowding the dumplings close together and squirting around them a fluid from a plastic bottle labeled Flour Water. You’ve never had such thin-skinned gyoza, and the dipping sauce itself is unexpectedly excellent.
Only two bowls of ramen are available per evening. Tonight, one is a soy-based broth made with chicken stock, described as "Homage to circa 1910 Tokyo Shoyu Ramen." What the menu neglects to mention is that, if you were eating ramen in Tokyo that long ago, it probably would have been in a Chinese restaurant. The other is a miso ramen based on a vegetarian broth topped with XO sauce — a hot relish invented in Hong Kong, but here attributed to Kaizen Trading, a branch of David Chang's Momofuku empire. Butter is an optional flavoring in the vegetarian noodles, and oolong tea is listed as one of the broth ingredients. "This tastes Chinese-y," my companion said, "and I think there might be some Sichuan peppercorns in there, too." Indeed, the vegetarian selection was one of the edgiest bowls of ramen I've ever tasted, but in pushing the envelope, it seemed to have lost some of its essential ramen-ness.
The shoyu ramen, on the other hand, was one of the most perfect bowls of ramen imaginable, the broth light and dancing with droplets of oil, the pork slices perfectly rendered to be soft and yielding. The fish cake was simply fish cake, but the elements came together in a way that delighted. The noodles, in particular, were perfect. In fact, they grabbed center stage. When was the last time you eagerly ate the noodles in your bowl of ramen until they were gone, ignoring the other elements? The ones in the shoyu broth were gossamer thin, while the ones in the miso were thick and slightly firmer. Really, you can’t get better noodles than these.
Besides the free pat of butter in the miso broth, a runny boiled egg ($2) is the only permitted add-in. "We put it on the side," says Nakamura, "because it affects the flavor of the broth, and we want you to taste the broth first."
Priced respectively at $13 and $14, the soups were cheap by today’s standards, more so since tax and tip are included. Which makes extracting yourself from the premises all the easier afterwards. Cash only; beer and sake available. 70 Kenmare Street, (646) 613-7522.