It seems an improbable first location for a fastidious-minded Japanese restaurant chain: an industrial corner of Bushwick among fusty warehouses topped with razor wire, past which Boar’s Head trucks loaded with luncheon meats rush, kicking up clouds of gray dust from a nearby cement factory. Yesterday morning at 10:15 a.m. a line of 200 foodies formed along Johnson Avenue near the Morgan stop on the L train willing to wait nearly two hours to get into Ichiran, a ramen chain boasting 60 locations in Japan and Hong Kong.
Bushwick is Ichiran’s first successful entrance into the United States, but it isn’t as if they haven’t tried before. Seven years ago, the chain labored unsuccessfully to open a branch in Greenpoint on Manhattan Avenue. The narrow green storefront failed to debut, despite high expectations in a ramen market far less crowded than today. Ichiran distinguishes itself among other ramen-ya by offering only a single tonkotsu broth made from long-boiled pig bones, a little smoother, lighter, and less gooey than most. This broth can be customized to three strengths and five richnesses; the latter simply involves dumping varying quantities of liquid fat on top.
The noodles, too, are simple: thin and straight, good honest noodles made on the premises, but somewhat lacking in vitality and character. They, too, can be customized by boiling to reach five levels of softness, of which the firmest, as I soon found out, is achieved by hardly boiling them at all. Apart from the broth and the noodles, the bowls themselves are rudimentary, with a couple of painfully thin slices of pork chashu, a handful of scallions described as "local," a squirt of hot sauce, and little else. What we have here is a very plain bowl of noodles.
But the real distinction of Ichiran lies in the build-out of the premises, involving some rather odd notions that the chain is willing to carry to the extreme. There are two contrasting dining rooms, for example. Seating 40, one looks like a paneled basement rec room hung with red lanterns, perhaps to kindle nostalgia for the days when ramen was considered at least partly Chinese. The other is a pair of parallel hallways, each seating 15 at narrow solitary carrels, as in a research library, with side panels that scrupulously screen you from looking into the adjacent seats, so that your individual privacy is assured.
In front of you, a little bamboo curtain is raised and lowered as the components of your meal arrive and are whisked away. Supposedly, this process involves no contact or even sighting of an entire server. They are viewed at crotch level, with an occasional trembling hand thrust into your field of vision. A service hallway runs between these two private-seating areas, and if you pull the curtain aside you can get a view of the workings of what is called at Disneyland, the "Underpark," where servers and supervisors are working in red or black uniforms, sometimes with bandanas wrapped around their heads.
The ostensible reason for this isolation is so you can devote your entire attention to the noodles without apparent distraction (though all the little alarms and beeps that summon servers to your private booth and the whispered conversations of employees form a formidable distraction in themselves). Says one of the helpful little instructional texts that surround you as you sit down in your tiny ramen prison, "Flavor Concentration in progress, please silence your phones."
Common to the United States and Japan is a feeling among solitary diners that they're committing some sort of social faux pas, that eating alone might be a failure to have friends rather than some social necessity based on expediency or location. Americans usually remedy this problem by sitting at the bar, or reading a book while eating, but Ichiran uses a strategy Byzantine in its complexity. While pretending to be concentrating on the flavor of noodles and broth as if it were a divine act, you're really eating a bowl of noodles in a way so that no one can watch you.
And an expensive proposition it is. At $18.90 plus tax, you’re spending a Jackson for your soup, and that is without some of the menu extras. There are multiple add-ins that may be purchased for the bowl, including mushrooms, extra slices of pork, a further fistful of scallions, or extra noodles to put in the broth after the first onslaught is finished. These are all ordered by placing a little tray or menu printed on a chopstick sleeve over an electric eye in the surface of the table. Eating in a private space at Ichiran is also like being a spy, and I can guarantee you’ll be tempted to look over the side of the booth to see if your solitary-dining companions are as happy as you are.
There’s also a matcha flan, matcha tea, beer and other beverages, and a plate of boiled pork belly topped with shredded nori. It was the best thing I ate at Ichiran that day, utterly delicious. When my bill came, the all-in price of a full meal turned out to be $50.63. Luckily, that includes tip.