With cold weather bearing down upon us like a Shinkansen — the Japanese bullet train — it’s time to dibs your favorite seasonal noodle. Over the last few years, we’ve been bombarded with ramen in all sorts of absurdist guises to keep our attention fixated. But now we’re bored, even with, say, artisanal ramen made in Jersey and dropped with quinoa matzo balls into a broth of organic Himalayan yak. Nobody remembers now, but we went through a similar period of fetishizing soba in the 90s, worshipping that noodle in restaurants (most notably Honmura An) that were virtual religious edifices. What’s left?
Well, for years most of us have ignored udon. This puffy white noodle looks unhealthy, like a grub worm or an overweight anemic child. While Japanese folks regard ramen as a Chinese import not entirely belonging to Japan, both soba and udon are considered native to the archipelago and hence worthy of pride and respect. Soba parlors often sell udon too, though soba is clearly the dominant noodle. Made from bleached white flour, udon is the happy-go-lucky younger sibling, something you bolt for lunch with gusto but not a shred of reverence. In that regard, it’s supremely enjoyable.
Quietly and slowly a udon revolution has been occurring, centered on the East Village’s Little Tokyo. The latest evidence of this trend is Raku, a new and semi-secretive parlor devoted almost entirely to the floppy and swollen noodle. This new udon-ya is named Raku, which means "comfort" in Japanese. It’s an offshoot of the similarly enigmatic Kura Sushi, which lingers behind an anonymous door on St. Marks unknown to all but sushi aficionados. The executive chef at both places is Norihiro Ishizuka and the principal owner is Huey Cheng, who came up with the concept, as I learned in a recent email exchange.
The exterior of Raku is designed along the same lines as Kura Sushi, with a rustic wooden door fitted into a whitewashed exterior, like a country hut from a samurai movie. In front of that door, the split curtains called noren flap, as yellow gingko leaves flutter by in a stiff autumn breeze. The inside is just as enigmatic: 26 small and dark chairs stand around dark wood tables and along a counter, with almost nothing on the pale walls, and an occasional glimpse into a rear kitchen as the waiter comes out bearing bowls of steaming noodles.
These noodles are like a cross between the common udon we are familiar with and Italian linguine; they are not stark white but pale buff, and a little more al dente than most udon, which usually have a gummy quality. The place has been open a little over a week, and the menu currently features seven udon choices, all with similarly light and refreshing broths, plus the occasional special. The simplest, featuring fried bean curd or egg, will set you back only $9, with seaweed or tempura (pick vegetable or shrimp) just a couple of bucks more. These are big bowls of soup with plenty of noodles, so expect to get filled up.
One evening the special was curried chicken ($16) in the usual spicy chestnut-colored broth bobbing little gnarly nuggets, mainly of dark meat. Inevitably, there are a couple of unusual inventions at the upper end of the price range, both of which are well worth trying. My favorite was niku udon ($16), which suspends honeycomb tripe and boneless beef short ribs in the light broth, with the rib adding luxuriant fattiness, a boon in winter when you need all the lipids you can get. The other featured duck and what is known in the West as Welsh onion, and struck me as a little bland.
You can’t go wrong on the Raku menu, but you should start with one of the simpler udons on a first visit.
Raku also slings three types of over-rice donburi ($12 to $16) and a few common Japanese appetizers, all of which are above average in execution and flavor. The gyoza are pork-heavy, and come fanned out on the plate and nicely crunchy on the grilled surface; kiriboshi daikon (dried radish) is braised to brownness after being rehydrated with sake, mirin, and soy. The fried chicken is superb, tasting powerfully of its umami marinade. The hyper-smoked and thick-cut atsugiri bacon is particularly dope. Really, you can’t go wrong on the Raku menu, but you should start with one of the simpler udons on a first visit.
Yes, the name of the place is awful, but the layout of the three chambers and soft lighting are exceedingly agreeable at this Williamsburg noodlery and sushi bar that presaged the coming Age of Udon a full four years ago. Sit at the giant communal table in the front room and enjoy a mind-boggling 20 types of udon, straining in all directions to find meaning in this simple noodle, which here are every bit as gluey as you hoped for and made in-house. There are noodles for summer in a chilled broth or tossed in a salad, hot noodles in steaming soup for winter, and a warm assemblage of noodles, seasoned ground beef, arugula, and an uncooked egg – with the curious name of spicy bukkake – for the in-between seasons. Did I mention it’s delicious?
Samurai Mama is the direct descendant of Bozu just down the street, where button-shaped sushi was first developed. The sushi at Mama is good, too, but that’s not the point of the whole place. There are apps galore, including one of the city’s best fresh tofu courses – dense, refrigerated, and delivered in a square bowl with a curl of ripe avocado and a thick soy syrup. The fried chicken is nothing to sneeze at, either, but the wisest money is on the udon specials, in which could be found on a recent evening an amazing noodle soup brimming with foraged mushrooms, including scads of chanterelles and matsutakes. 205 Grand St, Brooklyn, (718) 599-6161
There are three branches of this excellent, bare-bones udon parlor, in the East Village, on Midtown’s East Side, and in Flushing, Queens. Enter the downtown branch at lunchtime and find every seat at the counter taken, many by Japanese patrons, who down their soup punctuated with loud slurping sounds. Just about every configuration is available, from the simplest bowls (udon with seaweed, tofu, or egg) to the classics (shrimp tempura, beef and burdock) to just about any fried thing you can think of. Mixing two current fads, you can have boneless fried chicken dumped in your soup, which makes a nice alterative to fried chicken sandwiches. Set meals featuring udon soup and another dish such as katsu rice curry or chicken teriyaki also available at bargain prices. Sit at the counter and you might as well be in Tokyo. 11 St Marks Pl, (212) 353-3888; 150 E 46th St, (212) 922-9677; 137-80 Northern Blvd, Queens, (718) 359-2324
If you want the absolutely cheapest ramen in town, head for this convenience store, which features a small café specializing in noodles and other bargain Japanese and Korean dishes. A refreshingly plain bowl of udon with virtually nothing in it but a bit of dried laver will set you back only $3.75, and the broth is nothing to sneeze at. The tofu udon has all sorts of other vegetables thrown in it, many of them raw. For health aficionados, there’s no cheaper lunch in the East Village. 55 3rd Ave, (212) 353-2698.