Ramen Setagaya has got it all- young scowling, diligent chef, tested taste success in the home market, and a unique recipe. Chef Tsukasa Maejima’s home shop is in the posh Setagaya Ward of Tokyo, where he has set up a mini chain and gained nation-wide notoriety for his televised cooking battles on the acclaimed (by me at least) Japanese television show “Dotchi no Ryouri”. “Dotchi” pits two items and thus two chefs, against one another in a contest that meticulously follows the origin of nearly every ingredient and every technique. You can in fact follow Maejima’s exploits on the flat screen tv in the shop, which loops his appearance on a program where he took on a rival shop. Setagaya’s specialty is shio-ramen, which means “salt” broth- i.e. using actual salt instead of shoyu to season. You can read about all the ingredients in the broth on the back of the menu, but in a nutshell it’s a typical mix of pork, chicken, and dried seafood, besides some different seaweeds. Of particular interest to me was the dried scallop, which is not so common in ramen broths.(The dish is also “finished” with a powered medley of dried scallop, fried onion, and grapeseed oil, which mostly affects the aroma more than the actual taste.). According to the video, Mongolian rock salt was used for the actual “shio” on his television appearance, but I’m not sure if that’s the case with this particular shop’s technique. Nevertheless, as it’s a key ingredient in the soup, I’m sure whatever salt they used is of some particular interesting background.
Setagaya’s broth is classified as “assari-kei” which means it tastes lighter in oil content (generally the case with shio-ramen). It certainly has a light consistency and a reasonably complex taste, with the scallop and other sea elements playing stronger than the meat elements. There’s a fairly delicate flavor there and a nice balance without being too salty. You’re not going to be blown away by anything bold, rich, or too savory with this ramen. But it’s a pretty impressive ramen and um, complex in it’s simplicity. Actually, shio-ramen, which is a rather newer invention in the history of ramen, has been enjoying a sort of boom in Japan. There are three broad reasons that I can surmise: first, the perceived health benefits of less oil, less rich, soup is appealing for those watching their weight. This dovetails into the second reason- rising popularity among women in Japan. There’s just an obvious economic upside to making shio-ramen for the hordes…no that’s not nice…flocks(?) of office women in Japan. The third reason, and I’ll stop babbling after this, is that the “complex simplicity” of shio-ramen is a call to arms of sort to the macho-virtuoso world of ramen chefs in Japan. If you can catch the video playing in the shop when you’re there, you’ll see what I mean.
The chashu (pork) was thickly cut, only lightly marinated, and deliciously fatty. It was homemade, cared for, and tasted every bit so. This wasn’t a roll of pork dumped in a vat of soy sauce overnight. I’ll take one slice of this guy’s chashu over three slices of Momofuku’s any day. Other toppings include bamboo “shootings” (their word, not mine) otherwise known as “menma”. The menu explanation points out that their menma has been marinated in broth overnight so as to better harmonize with the ramen. Whatever. But if anything, it shows they aren’t simply serving canned bamboo “shootings”, something many ramen shops can’t say. You’ll also find some shaved Japanese long onion (naga-negi), which I could have used more of, and some seaweed (not my forte vocabulary-wise), and a nice glassy egg. Ah yes, the noodles. They’re rather thin- somewhere between the angel hair-like Hakata noodles, and spaghetti. There’s something on the menu about how the noodles are served with three different gauges of thickness, by I couldn’t tell. Anyhow, thin noodles are the way to go with shio-ramen, so these were fine.
The menu is simple. Shio-ramen straight or dipping style, with extra chashu or extra noodles or extra both as options. There’s also a few tempting rice side dishes including a min-chicken teriyaki-don (pretty rare since teriyaki chicken isn’t big in Japan) and a mini “oyako-don”, which is chicken and onion topped with an “organic” egg. These mini-don were both $3. The base ramen was about $9 and with extra chashu, a few dollars more.
With Ramen Setagaya, we’ve broken some interesting ground. It’s the first time, other than a few select occasions, that I know of at least, when a solid and respectable ramen chef has set up shop, literally, here in NYC. I’m sure Maejima-san won’t actually be manning the wok and ladle here in the States. But this foray I hope, will be a gauntlet being thrown down to the ramen chefs of Japan, ideally the starting of a furious battle of global ramen one-upsmanship as other chefs join in to capture our steamy, pathetic ramen loving, red, white, and blue hearts. The importing of Japanese chain shops or ramen stars is really our best hope of surviving the next century and saving the world from the effects of global warning, rising gas prices, and virus infected killer zombies that run fast.
....Oh, forgot to mention. I met the master himself, Maejima-san, and received a free Ramen Setagaya t-shirt. Hurry while supplies last!