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Vegetarians, Rejoice! Ippudo Aces New Meatless Sesame Ramen

Eater's senior critic visits the East Village's perpetually popular ramen parlor to try its newest creation

Bowls of ramen offered as a sop to vegetarian customers are not all that uncommon in the city’s ramen-ya. But almost invariably, they’re disappointing. They try to make up for a pallid broth by offering an expanded roster of vegetables, and in the typical rainbow-hued assortment you can often discern cabbage, orange squash, peas, carrots, corn, and even okra, creating culinary confusion. Well, Ippudo has managed to solve the problem with a powerful broth based on sesame seeds.

No, it doesn’t taste like tahini. In fact, the flavor prototype seems to be the company’s vaunted tonkotsu broth. The sesame equivalent — created by ramen master Fumihiro Kanegae — is virtually the same color and density, and the feeling on the tongue is nearly identical, and not at all inferior. The sesame broth is available in three bowls said to be vegetarian on the menu (though two contain dashi stock), of which I tried the karaka spicy New York ($16), the only one lacking dashi.

"The entire effect is stunning, and the bowl delivers 100 percent of the pleasure one normally gets from tonkotsu ramen."

In addition to its savory broth, the bowl contains the usual firm slender noodles, mushrooms, scallions, sliced tofu standing in for pork belly, and black garlic oil, which spreads across the top of the bowl like an oil slick from a ruptured tanker. A wad of red miso paste also sits on top, to be mixed in or nibbled at your discretion. The entire effect is stunning, and the bowl delivers 100 percent of the pleasure one normally gets from tonkotsu ramen. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to appreciate it.

There are a few other modest additions to the already expansive (and expensive!) menu that I decided to try. Before our eyes Ippudo seems to be morphing into a full-menu Japanese restaurant, using ramen as its centerpiece. A separate section of Ippudo’s bill of fare now features washugyu beef, which represents the unholy mating of wagyu and black angus varieties. This beef is really nothing special, except that it tastes very beefy.

[Top: sesame broth ramen. Bottom: charcoal chicken and okonomiyaki.]

Ippudo is now offering the pancake called okonomiyaki topped with washugyu. It’s delicious, with ramen noodles on the bottom that crisp up in the cast-iron skillet, and the usual slurry of mayo, bonito flakes, and a Worcestershire-y sauce over all. The accompanying twin spatulas help subdivide the gooey mess. Really, this okonomiyaki ($14) would make a fine meal in itself, and it takes its place as one of the best in town.

Another newcomer to the menu is much stranger. Said to come from Japan’s southernmost major island of Kyushu, sumiyaki charcoal chicken ($12) arrives on its sizzling platter dyed black from bamboo charcoal, small skinless nuggets resting on a mattress of steamed bean sprouts. Ponzu sauce squirted on top partly washes off the black tint.


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