One would be forgiven for dismissing the ribeye mazemen at Niche, a broth-lite style of ramen whose name effectively translates to “steak spaghetti.”
The presentation — yellow-tinged pasta with sauteed greens and meaty bits — has more in common with a failed Applebee’s experiment into lunch bowls than something hailing from an acclaimed noodle shop. The cut of beef is unusual too; ribeyes are valued for their heft, char, and size. They’re not typically diced or stewed into ravioli, dandan, or pappardelle.
Chef Shigetoshi Nakamura, however, is here to buck the prevailing norms. He has a way with a blowtorch, shooting the flames at a wire basket of chopped steak. And he knows a thing or two about seasoning as well, laying the alkaline noodles over a blend of pork paste, garlic, and soy. When a diner mixes it all together, a stunning bit of gastronomic alchemy is triggered. It’s as if Nakamura had emulsified the juices from a fire-roasted steak into an Escoffier-style sauce. The nuggets of beef, perfectly medium rare, yield to a gentle chew, just like the pork fat-slicked noodles.
Leave it to Nakamura, a Tokyo “ramen god” who operates a heralded soup joint next door, to conjure up a perfect ode to summertime grilling in the dead of winter.
It’s a wonder there aren’t more mazemen spots in New York. Just as a new CVS always seems to beget a Duane Reade nearby, the appearance of a regional style of ramen almost always breeds more iterations on the same form. But mazemen, whose level of broth is so modest it effectively ceases to be sippable, has never managed to pick up tonkotsu-level steam. Aside from Yuji in Williamsburg, where it’s a central offering amid a few brothy ramens, it generally appears on menus as outliers, at Ivan Orkin’s Slurp Shop and elsewhere.
Niche, by contrast, singularly focuses on this less common style, which the website refers to as “Japanese pasta.” That’s a phrase that might give pause to some. Noodles, their historical origins notwithstanding, are a global culinary phenomenon; they don’t become “European” the second they lose their broth any more than pouring brodo over tortellini turns them into ramen.
But what makes the term “pasta” an interesting one here is that Nakamura goes out of his way to channel Italian sensibilities. He tosses in bacon and eggs with his noodles in the style of carbonara, clams in the vein of linguine vongole, and tomatoes and basil (and seaweed!) in a riff on spaghetti pomodoro.
Nakamura, in short, is putting ramen in direct conversation with dishes that have long commanded higher prices in Manhattan’s dining scene. This bit of culinary threading feels particularly vital in the rich person’s paradise that is 2019 New York. As the city experiences a boomlet of expensive Italian restaurants, places meant for multi-course meals with sommeliers and credit-card cancellation fees, it’s refreshing to find something simpler, a place to drop by for a quick, ambitious, creative plate of pasta for not a ton of money. Here, none of these specialties rise above $23. One can have a two-course meal Niche — a starter, a pasta, a beer, tax, and tip — for under $50.
Warning: A solo diner can easily wait 45 to 60 minutes for a place at the communal table, which is the only seating option. And although the restaurant is walk-ins only, the act of physically walking in can be a challenge; the front door swings inward, requiring a bit of human Tetris if there are others waiting up front. “It’s not like you’re getting shafted, it’s that’s everyone is getting shafted,” a friend said of the layout.
A single waiter handles all 14 or so seats, which means getting that second drink — or the check — requires a bit of patience. Still, that’s all a fair price to pay for an $8 uni toast, the sea urchin piled higher than at venues charging $20 for the same luxury. Or consider the masterful riff on Sichuan-style mapo. Interspersed among the chilled tofu and chile crumble is a tiny brunoise of Japanese potato. Patrons don’t know whether they’re about to consume a crunchy vegetable or silken bean curd until they take a bite.
How are the non-steak pastas? Niche’s tomato mazemen could blow most red sauce dishes out of the water. The fruit, laced with kombu and chile, isn’t so much acidic or sweet as it is rusty, spicy, and complex. The brick colored liquid imparts clings to the ramen, warming the palate with a lingering, umami-packed roundness.
Twirling a fork around a few strands of vongole pasta provides no less pleasure. A shallow pool of yuzu-shellfish dashi fortifies the noodles with salt and citrus; the heat steams your face with the aroma of the fragrant fruit. Tiny clams sit here and there, adding a wallop of brine.
I slurped up the both the clam and tomato pastas in one sitting — by myself — but for most folks, a single mazemen should get the job done. That’s all the more true for the richer selections, like the skippable carbonara — laced with lukewarm mushroom cream, sulfurous egg, and insufficient bacon flavor — or the work in progress that is Russ & Roe, teeming with (bland) lox and, for an extra $7, soy-marinated ikura. The orange caviar pops with just a gentle bite, spilling its luscious interior across your tongue.
The obvious point of reference there is Russ & Daughters, the century-old Jewish appetizing shop on Lower East Side. But the deeper current running through this dish is the Japanese tradition of mixing spaghetti with fish roe, be it cream and cod roe in a classic wafu dish, or tobiko and shiso, as is the case at Basta Pasta in Chelsea. Niche’s riff provides oodles more fish oil than either of the above; the dish begs for a flute of German sparkling wine ($9) to bring all the maritime fats into balance.
And then, all of a sudden, dinner is over — no dessert is offered — and you’re fiddling with the mobile card reader for an email receipt. A bit of ice cream would be nice to soften the blow of the carbs, but for now, if the sweets-free policy means another seat opens up more quickly, so be it. With waits like these, there will be more mazemen spots to come.