Japanese ramen sure has come a long way from the back alleys of postwar Showa Era street carts to a "ramen noodle brassiere" in the East Village. I'm not sure I'm prepared to recognize this as progress.
After I left my name on a list at the little hostess desk with a flat screen monitor and printed leather-bound menus, I sidled up to the bar for a drink. I was told the wait was two hours. I ordered a $9 glass of shochu, tipped the remaining buck, sat and sipped. I had already paid the cost of what I spent on my last bowl of ramen in Tokyo. One $6 beer and a not so bad 30 minutes later, I was seated at a counter in Ippudo's "dining room". It's nice in there. It's a ramen noodle brassiere.
Ippudo serves Hakata style ramen- tonkotsu broth (made from simmered pork bones) and hosomen (thin, angel hair-like egg noodles). Tonkotsu broths come in many degrees of "porkiness" usually determined by the amount of what other ingredients are blended with it. Generally, chicken, fish, and vegetable broths are used to give soups both a softer and deeper character. Ippudo is a very famous and well regarded chain in Japan. They have enjoyed high profile media exposure as well- i.e. winning television contests, being invited to take part in a ramen museum in Yokohama, and a few other things. Tonkotsu (more of a Kyushu thing) has managed to become really popular in Tokyo these days and I don't know if that's because of shops like Ippudo or if they are simply enjoying the shift in public tastes. Ippudo is also well known for providing patrons with fresh garlic cloves and hand presses to turn your soup up a notch or two. They also provide little handcrank sesame grinders, pickled ginger (gari), spicy bean sprouts, and a pickled green vegetable (takana) for further customizing. It's been a few years since I ate in a branch of Ippudo, but I remember it being tasty- though not at the stratospheric level that some ramen shops can reach.
Disappointingly, I didn't see any of the accoutrements at the NYC shop. I did read a blog posting of a request for the garlic being fulfilled though. I ordered the "akamaru new taste ramen", which I would characterize as nicely balanced, soft, and mild tonkotsu soup. I suppose some are going to find this rich and thick. It's finished with a "special sauce" which tastes pretty much like shoyu and sesame oil. In the middle of the bowl was a red dollop of mild miso or some kind of little chutney (it wasn't spicy). Neither this nor the special sauce seem to have any particular influence on the soup. From my ramen experience, I found this broth to be really just about balance of umami, saltiness, porkiness, etc. This was crafted to appeal to the fat part of the bell curve.
The noodles were very thin, even by Hakata standards, and bunched up nicely to hold the broth in. Two tiny slices of charshu, some julienned cabbage, and slices of Japanese long onion were the toppings. The pork was excellent. Marinated in shoyu, fatty, and a finished smokiness. My problem with the toppings wasn't the quality but the measly quantity. The cabbage too, which is a vegetable frequently served with greasy foods in Japan, was seemingly only there for color. Which brings me to my main thesis that at $13 a bowl, with what I would call very modest portions and a menu full of funky fusion items offered on those long white serving dishes, is this "progress" for ramen as a "cuisine"? And is it what we really need in NYC?
I usually find the best ramen shops illustrate some of the great qualities of Japanese culture- single-minded diligence at craft, the stubborn pursuit of perfection, competitive creativity, and modest presentation that allows the work stand on its' own merits- not to mention offering this all at a fair value to the customer. The ramen at Ippudo is good. Best in Manhattan. But is it worth it? Was the hype worth it? I can't help but feel that that such an ostentatious setting and premium pricing reveal an uncomfortable sense of self-importance. In Japan they call this "ramen dining". But one could equally call it "ramen hubris".