For 20 years, celebrated ramen chef Shigetoshi Nakamura has focused on traditional ramen, like the bowls that could be found in a Tokyo subway station. At his new Lower East Side restaurant Niche, he’s doing just the opposite.
Nakamura says that ramen culture is alive and well in NYC, but he wanted to switch things up by pairing more local ingredients such as vegetables from a fresh market or New York’s beloved smoked salmon with traditional Japanese cooking. He soon realized that things like broccoli and smoked fish didn’t translate well into the soupy noodle dishes he makes at his eponymous restaurant next door; ramen chefs classically devote their attention to broth and noodles, versus the ingredients that come with it.
So the chef turned to mazemen, a style of ramen that comes with little to no broth — which he says allowed him to play with ingredients beyond what traditional ramen culture calls for.
At Niche, the ramen master pairs traditional Japanese cooking with inspiration from New York food culture, such as the legacy of Jewish-American food on the LES, where his restaurants Nakamura and Niche sit side-by-side.
Niche opened in January with five options of mazemen on the menu — including steak, smoked salmon, and a vegetable one. But the chef aims to use the restaurant as an experimental platform and wants to come up with as many as 100 combinations in the future.
“It’s a good time to move forward to what is ramen 2.0, or mazemen 2.0,” he says.
Take a look at how he’s making some of his first experiments, which are now available on the Lower East Side.
The Steak Mazemen
The steak mazemen ($18) is an ode to NYC’s steakhouses and America’s love for barbecue.
Nakamura hand-massages the noodles to obtain a wavy texture, and as they boil, Nakamura uses a fire torch to char cubes of meat over a tiny lava stone grill. He opts for the torch because the electric grill isn’t powerful enough, he says — plus, the fire-grilled steak gives off a “barbecue summertime smell,” another culinary element that Nakamura wanted to bring into to the noodles.
Although mazemen is generally brothless, the noodles here aren’t served completely dry. They come paired with a saucy combination of boiled pork paste, garlic, soy sauce, and kombu broth, a Japanese vegetarian stock. The steak itself is topped with a separate seasoning, a French-onion-inspired sauce that the chef makes himself.
The dish’s garnishing bends toward traditional, with a clump of spinach and menma, or seasoned bamboo shoots, placed over the noodles.
The Russ & Roe Mazemen
This Russ & Roe mazemen ($20) pays homage to the famous Russ & Daughters smoked fish store a few blocks away. Nakamura says he’s a big fan of the appetizing shop’s smoked salmon — “I respect them” — so much so that he wanted to bring an element of their legacy into his own cooking.
Nakamura smokes the salmon in-house and lets it cool for a full day. The noodle dish comes topped with a generous amount of the cool salmon, sliced thin like sashimi. The noodles sit in a sauce made with kombu broth and olive oil, plus cod roe. Tiny, diced cucumbers are then sprinkled on top.
The finished product is not only an ode to Russ & Daughters, but also a way for Nakamura to envelope his love for salmon sashimi into his noodle dishes.
The Mushroom, Chile, Tomato Mazemen
In a separate dish, the ramen chef leans toward New York’s Italian red-sauce joints.
Nakamura has always wanted to make a tomato ramen, he says, with sauce that emulates the “the kind used for pizza” and other American-Italian dishes. The tomato base here is made with both Italian ingredients like olive oil, as well as Asian ones like roasted chile oil and kombu broth.
He pairs the noodles and sauce with sautéed vegetables like mushrooms, cauliflower, and broccoli. It’s $16 and the only vegan mazemen dish on the menu.