Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ippudo: Where Ramen Reigns Supreme


This review originally appeared on The Gotham Palate.

College students, take note: Ippudo is not your MSG-laden instant ramen packet. In fact, it's a far cry from the run-of-the-mill supermarket variety, taking ramen to another level.

My friend and I were in the area for a Susie Suh / Big Phony show later that night at Joe's Pub. It was a teaser of a fall to come: Brisk, chilly and decidedly ramen-worthy weather. What better way to warm up than with ramen?

Ippudo is considered high-end ramen. In Japan, it is among the most famous ramen chains selling Hakata-style tonkatsu ramen from the southern island of Kyushu. There are 34 branches throughout the country, with this one being its first international branch. The restaurant's founder, Shigemi Kawahara, is hailed in Japan as "The Ramen King." And with good reason: Ippudo puts the 'soul' in Japanese soul food.

Witness how palatial it is. Dark chocolate walls are covered by a collection of Japanese scrolls, indecipherable to the non-Japanese reading population. Save for flickering tea candles here and there, the restaurant is so dimly lit that I almost had to squint to see in front of me. A giant rectangle mirror at our communal table allowed me to feast my eyes on the sumptuous ramen before me (or inconspicuously check my hair...). I kept sliding out of the cream chairs, which were alternately missing a left or a right arm. Then I noticed that the seats convert into loveseat mode. Genius! Perfect for a date: Slurping ramen noodles side by side. The romantic candle inset added an earthy, let's-roast-marshmallows-by-the-fireside touch.

A bar in the front entrance resembles the laid-back, non-fussy izakayas in downtown Tokyo. Three hostesses took over the foyer, one of whom led us through a set of Japanese curtains to the main dining area. Ippudo doesn't take reservations, so we arrived just before 6 p.m. and were seated promptly.

As if on cue, a chorus of loud voices exclaimed together: "Irasshaimase!!" ('Welcome,' in Japanese), along with a long string of greetings in Japanese. It was the staff, and they sure have a knack for putting you at ease. If I hadn't known better, I would've thought it was a happy birthday song. My meager comprehension of Japanese couldn't pick up the words quickly enough. On the right-hand side, Japanese chefs tossed and turned their pork, stirring thick broths and chopping up mushrooms and other vegetables to go in the ramen. You could watch them in action, done up in hakatas (traditional Japanese kimonos), their hair rakishly held back with coordinating bandanas.

Akamaru Modern Ramen.

I already knew what I wanted: the Akamaru Modern ($13). After reading countless reviews about how amazing this dish is, I thought it would be foolish to pass it up. The Akamaru Modern, dubbed 'the original tonkatsu' (pork cutlet), contains soup noodles with Ippudo's special sauce, spicy miso paste, fragrant garlic oil, slabs of simmered Berkshire pork, onions, scallions, cabbage and kikurage. The milky, light brown broth had a distinct pork flavor containing nutty, roasted notes, and the fatty pork slices were the epitome of melt-in-your-mouth, effortless eating. Not too greasy, though definitely on the salty side (but what's ramen without salt?). The noodles were cooked firm and al dente - perfection. Ask for extra crushed ninniku (garlic) to mix in with your ramen.

Musashi Ramen.

My friend had the Musashi Ramen ($14) with pork. His was good, but I still liked mine better.

Hirata Buns.

For appetizer, we ordered the Hirata steamed pork buns, filled with Ippudo's original spicy buns sauce and garnished with scallion. The pork was oh-so-tender and marinated seamlessly to the right texture, as if the pork and Japanese mayo sauce were truly one. At $4 a bite, these are some upscale buns - but definitely worth the price tag. The presenation reminded me of the Chinese Peking duck-in-a-bun that is served at Cantonese banquets (and is also available at the local Chinese meat market).

Next time I'll be sure to grind some toasted sesame seeds on top of my ramen to enhance the nutty taste. Even though we bypassed dinner rush hour, I would be down with waiting upwards of an hour for another bowl. The ramen's just that good. Craving sated.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed this dining experience so much that it's hard to be nit-picky. Maybe the saltiness of the broth, but sodium didn't kill the ramen for me. However, the dim lighting could work against less-romantic pairings, making it awkward for first dates. Check out more menu options here.

65 4th Ave
New York, NY 10003

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