Monday, October 4, 2010

Ramen NYC

Ramen cauldrons at Totto Ramen

For over three years now, there has been an explosion of ramen joints in New York. Ramen - a Japanese comfort food, is a dish of noodles in a hearty broth that is traditionally served with a variety of toppings such as sliced pork belly, seaweed, sprouts, green onions and flavored with soy or miso.

Up until recently my favorite has been a ramen from Sun-Chan, a divy place on 103 St. and Broadway. Their ramen is a simple, light yet flavorful dish with a generous slice of roast pork. The only drawback is that the broth tends to be salty and pork is a bit dry. Still it is a great dish and goes well with Sun-Cha's other specialty - yakitory (skewers of bacon-wrapped quail egg is excellent). And while on the subject of Sun-Chan it's a great place to get sushi and sake as well. Everything is extremely fresh and surprisingly creative for such an under-the-radar joint. Also a nice, truly Japanese touch, is that when sake is served you get to choose your own cups from an array of mismatched options.

After Sun-Chan came Ippudo. This hipped up ramen emporium on the lower east side, which looks a bit too much like a night club, produces extremely hearty and flavorful version of ramen. But their broth, which is pork-based, is extremely heavy. It's a tasty choice, but frankly I couldn't handle a third visit. To me it's a proof that too much of a good thing is not necessarily good. But that could be just my liver talking.

So that brings us to Totto Ramen, on W 52nd. Here you find a perfect balance between all flavors and ingredients. The broth at Totto is chicken-based which lends a certain lightness to the flavor. The noodles are expertly cooked al dente, and the slices of pork belly with stripes of translucent velvety fat melt in your mouth and are crisped by a torch before landing in your bowl. Additional toppings include soy marinated hard boiled egg, sprouts and green onions.

The menu is pretty bare bone and features only a handful of choices - you could get a plain ramen, a spicy ramen (that's regular ramen + a spoonful of chilly oil) or miso ramen. If you order one dish and one dish only - order the miso ramen. The bowl of creamy broth comes with a fragrant scoop of ground pork and fermented miso paste. The broth is so fantastic is almost addictive. The noodles are wavy and chewy and miso adds a level of earthy complexity to the dish. They sometimes serve the soup with diced white onion instead of the green onion, which makes the already sweet broth a bit too sweet for my taste. The pork belly which in itself is a work of art rounds up all flavors with its smoky perfection.

Miso ramen at Totto Ramen

Another nice thing about Totto Ramen is that it's modeled on authentic Japanese ramen joints (so I heard). You don't go there to spend time. You go there to satisfy your hunger or a craving as the case may be. You go in ( that's actually is not entirely true, as the lines outside usually stretch out the experience by extra 30 min), you eat your noodles and get out. The best place in the house is at the counter where you can watch chefs boil noodles, check the fat content of the broth and torch the pork belly and joke with each other at the expense of dinners they find entertaining.

Chef crisping pork belly with a torch

Sorry for the crappy photo quality (thanks for nothing iPhone)

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