So vegans have almond milk. Omnivores have cow’s milk. And carnivores have tonkotsu. Meat eaters, as usual, have it best. Think of it as a crack New England chowder where the chef replaces clams with pork belly and half-and-half with pork fat. The concoction is as pale as your dad's cream-colored khakis. New Yorkers love the soup so much they’ll queue up for 90 minutes just to enjoy a single bowl at Ippudo, where the staff greets patrons by shouting at them in Japanese. So consider it a relief that the Big Apple now has Mu Ramen, a three month-old Long Island City venue that already ranks among the city’s finest places to enjoy tonkotsu. It’s better than Ippudo. And the staff doesn’t shout.
No need to hail an Uber or a taxi if you’re coming in from Midtown; Mu's just a short stroll from the first 7 train stop outside of Manhattan. So walk on over, wait a half hour to be seated, and order the fried chicken wings filled with brioche and foie gras. Take a bite and watch the luxurious stuffing fall out onto your plate, the haute analog to mustard and onions dribbling off a ballpark frank. Minutes later comes the spicy miso ramen. Why's it so rich? The base of the soup is that tonkotsu, and it tastes like what would happen if olive oil were forged from chile-rubbed pork; the product is slick, luscious, yet light.
How things have changed for Heidy and Joshua Smookler, the formerly "penniless" couple (with no formal noodle training) that used to operate a pop-up out of Bricktown Bagels. Following widespread critical acclaim, they transformed Mu Ramen into a sleek brick-and-mortar institution, with tall walnut stools (about $1,400 apiece), Classé amps (even pricier), a communal table with a miniature garden in the middle, and a serious gastronomic library. What other ramen shop displays shelves of cookbooks by Quique Dacosta, Anne-Sophie Pic, Mugaritz, and Thomas Keller? Smookler, a Per Se vet, wants diners to know they’re in an ambitious restaurant, a point he also achieves with the cost of dinner: a proper meal for two, with tax and tip, can easily run $135 or more.
That guests are willing to pay shows how ramen in New York has come a ways since 2004, when David Chang’s bare bones Momofuku Noodle Bar opened in the East Village. Though perhaps things haven’t come far enough. To make a healthy profit margin on a bowl of ramen, Chang once told me that he’d have to charge around $21. "But I can’t do that, because people would freak the fuck out," he said. And to this day, his noodles top out $16. The spendiest ramen at Mu, by contrast, is the $18 oxtail and bone marrow extravaganza. The correct price for that dish, per Smookler, should be $26. "I wish everyone would understand what it takes to make soup," the chef says. "People think it's cheap, but it's really not."
It’s that mouthfeel, a strong presence in all four of Smookler’s ramens, that helps Mu stand out among the city's current crop of nascent noodle joints.
And perhaps it says something about our collective perceptions on what's luxurious (and what's not) if we complain about spending $60 on an entire ramen meal, while giving a free pass to a steamed lobster costing as much. Indeed, tonkotsu is among the most labor-intensive broths to make, as it involves bringing the bones to a violent boil for over 20 hours, a process that causes them to disintegrate and release not just their gelatins but their minerals and proteins as well, turning the broth cloudy, and imparting a silky mouthfeel.
It’s that mouthfeel, a strong presence in all four of Smookler’s ramens, that helps Mu stand out among the city's current crop of nascent noodle joints. Of course, aficionados classify noodle soups not by texture but by style; so if (the overrated) Ramen Lab on Kenmare is about emphasizing the classic shoyu broth, and if Yuji Ramen in Brooklyn is about pushing the envelope with bacon and egg or shirako mazamens, Mu Ramen, like Ivan Ramen, plays to the center, balancing the new with the traditional.
Take Mu’s oxtail and bone marrow broth. The kitchen floats hunks of corned beef and pickles alongside hefty, toothsome noodles. In lesser hands, such a creation could devolve into a failed culinary school deconstruction; but here, Smookler gives us a take on a Katz’s deli classic that’s as studied as any of the avant-garde corned beef riffs to have come out of the late WD~50. The preparation is an essay in contrasts — the predominant aroma is the verdant, almost tannic sting of vinegared cucumbers, while the broth packs the same intoxicating richness as tonkotsu.
In lesser hands, such a creation could devolve into a failed culinary school deconstruction.
If that dish isn’t worth $18 then I don’t know what is. Then again, the larger issue here isn't price; it's payment. Mu Ramen is cash-only. That's an agreeable enough policy for an empanada, less so when you hit up the bank for $120 (not counting ATM fees), then realize, when the bill comes, that you’re still $25 short for dinner with your editor. Smookler, to be fair, says the policy helps his young business make ends meet, and that he hopes to take plastic when he opens his Manhattan location sometime later this year or early in 2016.
In the meantime, bring a wad of bills for the $24 U&I starter, a killer parfait of rice, spicy tuna, salmon roe, and Santa Barbara uni. Even better are the steamed clams, drizzled with saffron aioli; pick up the mollusks and dredge them in a Thai-chile dipping sauce for a salty, spicy, briny punch that primes your palate for the impending carb fest.
Smookler's chicken ramen is good, but it doesn't smack of the same poultry funk as Totto’s stellar version, possibly the city's best. He’ll get there, just like he did with his classic tonkotsu. The trick is that he skims off as much of the pork fat as possible, and doesn’t emulsify any of it back in at the end, resulting in a body that's cleaner than elsewhere, even though it's still creamy and opaque. The noodles, of course, are thin, almost angel hair-like, to absorb all the succulent juices. And while the Ippudo version sometimes leaves a whisper of sediment on the palate, I didn’t experience any of that at Mu. The finish was soft, vaguely sweet, and lingering. Don’t expect the musk of swine, but rather the earthiness of mushrooms and the gentle grill tang of jowl meat.
The chef tells me he’s working on a shoyu ramen himself, which is traditionally a light mix of soy sauce and chicken broth. How will Mu’s differ from others? It will have more body, the chef says. It’s all about mouthfeel at Mu.
Cost: All ramens at $15 except the oxtail, which is $18. Starters at $24 or under.
Sample dishes: Uni with spicy tuna and trout roe, foie gras-stuffed chicken wings, tonkotsu ramen, spicy miso ramen. No dessert is served.
Bonus tip: Same-day reservations accepted via phone.