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Discovering a "great dish" - some food that is noteworthy and standout - is something that most people in the culinary world hope to achieve. From the food-loving customer, hoping that each meal is better than the last, to the chef in the kitchen, striving to make the next great dish, it's an exciting and continuous quest to find excellence.
What makes a "great dish," however, is something harder to define. Is it the absolute excellence in execution of classic recipes, e.g., the Ultimate Fried Chicken, a classic cooked to absolute perfection? Or is it about innovation and pushing a cuisine forward to new areas not previously reached, such as the molecular gastronomy movement? Or is it somewhere in-between, with small twists on the classic recipe? While the answer is ultimately up to each individual, perhaps the most difficult and most exciting prospects are the dishes that focus heavily on innovation.
Innovation can bring about a whole range of emotions from disturbed (that the food you were expecting has now become something wildly different) to joyous (that your favorite dish is now completely new and transformed and still tasty). And in the world of Ramen, in Southern California (instead of Japan), we're witnessing what might be the birth of a whole new style of slurping Ramen Soup Noodles at the newly opened Ramen California.
I first heard about Ramen California thanks to the Guru of Ramen Slurping's amazing review. After reading Rameniac's thoughts, I could feel the excitement building and quickly called up some Ramen Hounds to pay this place a visit. :)
One of the most exciting facets about this new restaurant is that it's opened by Chef Shigetoshi "Sean" Nakamura (中村 栄利) of Nakamura-ya and Sanshirou fame in Japan (wildly popular Ramen eateries famous for Nakamura-san's own take on the classics)! Thanks to Rameniac and my 'dachi Keizo, I found out that he's considered to be one of the "Four Devas" in the Ramen world, truly the best-of-the-best in Japan.
Ramen California seems to be the culmination of all the years of culinary experience that Nakamura-san has accumulated. Chef Ferran Adria (of El Bulli fame) traveled to Japan and dined at Nakamura-san's restaurant; they came to be good friends, with Nakamura-san visiting Chef Adria in Spain, and becoming even more inspired. In his teenage years, Nakamura-san lived in Mira Costa, California for 4 years and fell in love with Southern California during that time. He vowed to earn enough money to come back and open a restaurant, and Ramen California is the culmination of 10 years of effort and a realization of a dream for this star of the Japanese Ramen world.
The style of Ramen California is apparent from the moment you lay eyes on the sign: A minimalist sign with simple black-and-white lettering. They took over the old Chabuya Torrance space, and have kept the walls and decor blank, with straightforward wooden tables and electronica playing softly in the background. The restaurant's philosophy is printed simply but proudly on each menu, stating that they source their Produce from the local Torrance Farmer's Market twice a week, and use Natural and Organic ingredients (including Organic Ramen Noodles!), with No MSG.
In another unusual sighting for a Ramen restaurant, bottles of Wine and 8 different types of Bottled Water are prominently displayed, along with a board listing the daily specials.
After looking over the menu, it's easy to be confused and even shocked at what looks to be a selection of European-style Small Plates and some very "fusion"-sounding types of Ramen. But, encouraged by Rameniac's review, we quickly placed our order, and after 3 visits, this new style of Ramen has ignited a fire of adoration within me. :)
We began with their Original Rosemary Kasha Bread, which is Chef Nakamura's merging of a classic Chinese-style Bao (Steamed Bun) with a touch of Western sensibilities with some Rosemary, Chilean Olive Oil and English Sea Salt. The result is stunning: The hypnotic fragrance from fresh-baked bread, combined with the foresty, spring-like wonder that a touch of fresh Rosemary can only bring makes this an addictive, excellent way to start a meal. :)
The first Small Plate course to arrive is their Lobster Ravioli in Mushroom Sauce, and I'm curious to see what Nakamura-san's interpretation of Italian Pasta will be like.
The Ravioli is cooked a touch past al dente (which is fine by me), but still retains a good firmness. The Lobster filling itself, however is disappointing: You can taste the flavor of Lobster, but the Lobster meat seems to have been pureed with cheese to form a very creamy, uniform filling that doesn't satisfy. The Crimini Mushrooms are the star of the dish and helps to save it ultimately, adding a good aromatic quality.
One noteworthy facet of the menu is the ability to order any of their Ramen Noodles in a Small size (15 oz), as well as the Regular size (20 oz) and Double size (40 oz) versions. According to our waitress, the Small Size is by far the most popular, which may be a good sign about the philosophy Nakamura-san is pushing for. The Small Size is small enough to essentially allow each customer to create their own "Tasting Menu" for Ramen, trying out different flavors of Ramen, as well as some of the Small Plates, without filling up too much.
Our first Ramen arrives soon after: The signature Californian Ramen features over 30(!) different types of Garden Fresh Vegetables in Natural Chicken Broth with Organic Ramen Noodles.
Visually, it's shocking and stunning: It looks absolutely gorgeous with the colors of the Farmer's Market fresh Vegetables, and at the same time, I'm wondering, "Is this really Ramen?!" A sip of the broth reveals an extremely light, but *pure* Chicken Broth. Chef Nakamura uses freshly dispatched Chickens in this new style of Ramen Soup he's making to match his "California-style Ramen." The Soup is mainly Torigara (Chicken Bones) focusing on the backbone and chicken feet, with 5% of the Broth being Pork, with a light touch of Konbu (Kelp).
With such a light Soup, it really provides a stage to show off the main ingredient: The 30+ Market Fresh Vegetables, featuring ingredients unheard of in Ramen, such as Broccoli, Italian Squash, Radish, Sugarsnap Peas, Beets, various Lettuces, Frisee and more. Honestly, the first bite was a bit off-putting: I'm so used to "Ramen" = "hearty, very savory Pork, Chicken and/or Fish-based Broths with Chashu Pork Slices and Egg, etc." that tasting extremely *fresh*, vibrant Vegetables was something I wasn't initially prepared for.
But after a few bites, my perceptions change: This is truly a celebration of the local Farmer's Market Vegetables, with a bowl that really highlights the pure, fresh earthiness of the Beets, the genuine vibrancy of fresh Broccoli and Cauliflower, and much more. In this day-and-age of a fast food nation, and with so many restaurants giving Vegetables second-class status (or drowning them in sauces and burying them behind other things), Nakamura-san's choice here is a bold one. You can *taste* the idiosyncrasies of each Vegetable, truly, and the flavors are wonderful.
The Heirloom Tomato Ramen is another wild-sounding flavor, but the combination is brilliant: Imagine the best Heirloom Tomatoes you've had - the utter *sweetness* and *loveliness* that only local Farmer's Market Heirloom Tomatoes can yield (not to be confused with most Tart / Sour / Unripened / Mainstream Tomatoes) - add in some fresh Basil and excellent Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and combine with the freshly-made Torigara Chicken Broth, and that's the Heirloom Tomato Ramen.
Taking a bite of the Organic Ramen Noodles, a bit of the Chicken Soup and the Heirloom Tomatoes in each bite creates an amazing vortex of happiness: The Spring and Summer, a bit of Sweet and Savory and the play of the tiny Heirloom Tomatoes exploding in your mouth with juiciness while mixing with the Noodles. Excellent! :)
A word should be said about the Organic Ramen Noodles: Chef Nakamura created a special recipe for the Noodles using Durum Wheat Semolina instead of the traditional Kansui (an alkaline solution) to give his Ramen Noodles the right level of "chew" / elasticity that he was hoping for. It's currently made exclusively for his restaurant via Sun Noodle. And after trying out these Organic Ramen Noodles in all of his Ramen, the result is simply amazing in the fact that it has the chewiness and nice texture of traditional Ramen, but made in a completely original method that's different than normal.
The Essence Ramen is their simplest flavor, but in some ways I find it just as satisfying: Essentially the original Chicken Broth mixed with select Seasonal Micro Vegetables, it really brings out the flavor of the Broth and Noodles. Unlike the Californian, the Essence is about the utter simplicity and goodness and purity of the Noodle and Broth.
The Grilled Chicken Ramen on the other hand, is the only Ramen on their menu that comes with some type of meat (but note that you can add Grilled Chicken to any of the Ramen offerings as a topping). It features their signature Grilled Chicken on top of their Micro Garden Vegetables and Chicken Broth Noodle Soup.
It sounds completely boring, :) but with each successive Ramen dish we try, the more Nakamura-san's brilliance comes shining through. With such a light, pure Chicken Broth base, in this case, the Grilled Chicken's smokiness and peppery qualities add yet another fascinating dimension to the soup. When tried back-to-back, you can really start seeing how each flavor offered stands out in its own way. The Grilled Chicken itself is dark meat Chicken, tasting extremely *fresh* (cooked the same day) and tender, instead of the 1-3+ day old Chashu meat served at too many Ramen shops around town.
The Marsala Ramen is a homemade English-style Curry featuring 32 different spices mixed into the original Chicken Broth Noodle Soup.
It's essentially their Californian (or most of the Californian's 30+ Farmer's Market Vegetables) in an amazingly balanced, nuanced Curry Chicken Soup. What's brilliant about this one is that the Curry doesn't overpower everything. Nakamura-san uses just the right amount of Curry, without turning this dish into a thick, gloopy mess, which is what one might think Curry + Ramen might be like. You still get the light Chicken Broth and the vibrant Green of the Farmer's Market Vegetables, just touched by a spicy, extremely aromatic Curry flavor.
Back on their Small Plates side of the menu, the Fresh Mozzarella with Five Salts is arguably one of the best dishes at Ramen California, depending on the type of cheese that's fresh that day.
Along with the Ramen, this reflects Nakamura-san's sensibilities as a chef: Simple, pure flavors that really celebrate the essence of what that particular dish is about, rather than drowning them or altering them too much with pre-made Sauces (which is why Nakamura-san doesn't feature a Shoyu Ramen here).
Here, it's a celebration of Fresh Burrata Cheese (when available) set against 1 changing condition: The type of Salt used. The first bite we try features English Flake Salt, which is surprisingly not very salty at all. The creaminess of the Burrata combined with the English Flake Salt is just outstanding. :) The next bite features a Hawaiian Mineral Salt, which is just a bit more helpful in drawing out a savory quality to the Burrata; it's more pungent than the English salt, but still wonderful.
The Hawaiian Charcoal Salt has just a touch of smokiness, but again, not very salty. The Australian River Salt is my favorite of the group, and finally the Guerande Sea Salt from France rounds out the tasting, and is the saltiest (but still very light) of the group. On another visit, they use a Fresh Mozzarella instead of the Burrata, which is still tasty, but not as creamy of course.
Their Mushroom Zegovia Style is named after Segovia, Spain, where Nakamura-san first tried a mushroom dish that inspired him to create this recipe. This turned out to be a simple dish of Crimini Mushrooms sauteed with fresh Basil, Extra Virgin Olive Oil and English Flake Salt. I love Mushrooms, but overall this was a rather straightforward offering.
The next dish is one of the daily specials, Steam Grilled Yellow Eye Rockfish. Probably closest to Kasago, Chef Nakamura first steams the Yellow Eye Rockfish and then finishes it off on the grill, served atop the delicious Tsongas Tomatoes, Crimini Mushrooms and Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
The Yellow Eye Rockfish is a leaner, tougher fish, but it stands up to the other ingredients nicely, and again goes back to the "simple, clean flavor" culinary point-of-view of Ramen California.
One of the highlights of my multiple visits was being able to meet up with Rameniac and my 'dachi Keizo of Go Ramen!, two of the Kings of Ramen Slurping, and being able to enjoy and learn more about Ramen Noodle goodness from them. (^_^) The third King, Edjusted of The Ramen Blog was unfortunately not able to make it out, but we pushed on. :)
Besides the Ramen, we decide to try their Alpine Sausages and Gnocchi in Tomato Sauce.
The Alpine Sausage turns out to be a decent, but overly salty piece of meat, but with a good fragrance. The Gnocchi tastes fresh and tender, but it's nothing standout. A decent dish if you're in the mood for a Small Plates Pasta to share while waiting for the Ramen.
The Fresh Mozzarella with Tsongas Tomatoes uses the same Fresh Mozzarella from the 5 Salt dish, but served with some spectacular Heirloom Tomatoes (the same ones in the Heirloom Tomato Ramen). Sweet, fragrant, and truly a perfect pairing. :)
They were sold out again of the Reggiano Cheese Tofu Ramen, but on my 3rd visit, I was able to finally try this popular dish: Nakamura-san uses many of the fresh Vegetables from the Californian Ramen, and serves it with a ladle full of a housemade Reggiano Cheese Tofu(!).
My initial reaction is one of uncertainty, but once you mix the ladle full of the Reggiano Cheese Tofu into the light, pure Torigara Chicken Soup, the result is truly wondrous! A beautiful, silky, creamy, buttery quality spreads across the entire bowl of Ramen! It elevates this dish to something I've never sampled before, with a good translucent lusciousness that still allows you to enjoy the Farmer's Market Vegetables in their fresh glory and the Ramen Noodles as well. Outstanding! :)
Service is decent at this up-and-coming Ramen restaurant, and par for the course: Simply flag down a waitress for your needs as they pass by. The Small Plates and Ramen prices range from $3.25 - $13.20 (for the gigantic 40 oz serving), with Organic Noodle refills (Kaedama) and an extra Topping of Grilled Chicken for $1.50 each.
On all 3 of our visits, Nakamura-san is a ball of dynamic energy, teaching his assistant, Chef Masahito "Mark" Nizobe, as well as cooking furiously, and he even made time to come out front and greet each table of customers and ask them how the food was. What's impressive is just how dedicated he is to the craft of Ramen-making and cooking in general. He has instruments to accurately measure the exact Temperature of the Ramen Soup, and also tracks the Magnesium Content, pH Balance, and Conductivity in the Ramen before serving it(!).
Ultimately, Ramen California represents the potential for something very exciting in the world of Ramen, providing innovative, radical changes to the concept of "Ramen," using local Farmer's Market-fresh Vegetables, Organic Noodles inspired by Italian Pasta-making processes, resulting in a lighter, healthier, fresher interpretation of Ramen Noodle Soup.
It's Ramen unfettered by classic conventions, driven by a quest to make a new style of Ramen for California. You know it's serious when even Chef Shigemi Kawahara of the legendary Ippudo (another of the Four Devas of Ramen) is cheering on Chef Nakamura to create a new style of Ramen for the future. This is definitely something I never thought I'd see in a Ramen restaurant in So Cal, but at the same time, it makes a lot of sense. It's celebrating one of the greatest strengths of California, the wonderfully fresh and bountiful Produce, and the idea of healthy and tasty cuisine focused in a bowl of Ramen.
One warning though: Salt Fiends, MSG Fiends and Heavy Sauce Fiends need not apply. In many ways Ramen California is the antithesis of local favorites Santouka and Daikokuya: Instead of a super-hearty, fatty and savory bowl of Noodles, Ramen California's version is airy, light and delicious in its own way.
The question now is do we really want this radically different style of Ramen? It still feels very "young" in its flavors - not quite at the pinnacle - yet with Nakamura-san constantly developing the Broth, it's a strong step toward a new style of Ramen that may one day spread across the world. While I still crave the traditional wondrous Ramen in Japan, I'm glad that we're lucky enough to have the option for a lighter, purer, new California-style of Ramen. And with a Ramen Master like Nakamura-san behind the helm, I'm looking forward to even more innovative, unique styles of Ramen to come.
*** Rating: 8.2 (out of 10.0) ***
24231 Crenshaw Blvd., Unit C
Torrance, CA 90505
Tel: (310) 530-2749
Hours: [Lunch] Tues - Sun, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
[Dinner] Tues - Sun, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
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