I haven't been a real ramenaholic before. I had ramen in Japan only once an got pretty lucky without any research. I was incredibly impressed with a restaurant we stumbled into. This simple unassuming restaurant served this amazing bowl of ramen. It actually felt fabulous, and I was sold on the whole notion that there is a sense of love and attentiveness that makes something as unadorned as a bowl of noodle soup into an exhalted and delightful experience.
Fast forward to Ippudo where I went today. When I walked in, we were seated within a few minutes for a late lunch. The restaurant was packed and noisy. It was well decorated with bowls in the entrance from dozens of ramen restaurants in Japan. People were extremely well trained, and yelled a welcome whenever new people came in. There was incredibly good traffic control by the staff, and it had a very Japanese fast food feel to the entire experience. At the same time, I noticed that the "welcome" in Japanese seemed a little bit hollow.
We had three types of ramen; first there was their "modern" which is a tonkatsu, or pork bone based soup. It was a sweet broth, a bit underflavored by the bones, though supplemented by a sesame garlic oil that was not too overpowering, and added a subtle complexity to the soup. I didn't love it, but it wasn't bad either. The noodles didn't have much flavor of firmness which tends to be my preference and so was a bit less than enjoyable for me. There were only two pieces of char shu, though they were tasty. THat's their best seller, according to one of the staff.
We had a special, which was a sechuan style broth that they called ton ton or something like that. Ton-ton was so-so. The "Sichuanese" aspect of it was that it was a little spicy and oily, but it didn't ahve the traditional "mala" flavors that are characteristic of Sichuanese food. Mala refers to the combination of a numbing pepper and a very spicy pepper that is both hot and tingly at the same time. This soup bore no resemblance to the amazing soups of Sichuan.
The kids had the soyu ramen which is normally served with wasabi, but we didn't have the wasabi because the kids wouldn't be able to deal with the spiciness. It was okay, but not great. A bit light, but it might have been very good with the wasabi.
We had the raw baby octopus with wasabi and shiso. It was tough, but fresh and clean tasting, and the wasabi dressing was great. I always love shiso so that was a delightful addition with that lightness and freshness. This was an excellent dish, but I wonder if there's a way to soften the texture a bit.
We also had the chicken wings-very forgettable. Mediocre sauce and a bit overcooked to lose the juiciness.
The pork buns were fabulous. AN amazingly well balanced sauce and a very tender pork belly in a steamed bun. I would put theirs ahead of Momofuku's version of it. In DC's buns, the sauce, which is served on the side is hoisin sauce and some green onions-the condiments for beijing duck. Both were great, but Ippudo's was amazing.
The fried chicken on rice was fabulous as a side dish for $3. There was a pickling type of dressing as well as a sweet Japanese style mayo. IT was far better than the fried chicken wings.
At the end of the meal, I asked my Asian wife what she thought. "Not much heart". I agreed with her. It should have been apparent as we walked in and were greated by very loud, yet empty hearted greetings. The crowd was mostly young and professional looking. The service was great, the food mixed, and the experience loud and not to my taste. But given the rave reviews, I suspect I am in the minority about this restaurant. The variety is wonderful, and this Japanese run company has made a tremendous transition to an American audience while keeping Japanese flavors and sensibilities. Morimoto put it as number two in the East Village area putting David's Chang's Momofuku as number 1. But number 2 ain't at all bad. I will have to try many more ramen joints before I can really give a comparitive opinion.