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Apr 7, 2008 06:56 AM

Hakata Ippudo NY- 1 thumb up, 1 thumb down

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".

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  1. Hi Silverjay,

    Thank you for the great review. Tonkotsu ramen has always been my favorite type of ramen despite growing up in Tokyo. It irked very much when I saw that they didn't get the basic like gari right. No sign of their garlic was definitely another negative. I don't know if it was my imagination but I recalled the pork to be better in Japan - thicker perhaps? I did think the broth and noodle were close to what I had in Japan. But again it might be just me but I found the "koku" (how to translate this into English?) of the soup a bit lacking. I always prefer hosomen so its noodle fitted to my liking.

    And $13 is definitely a NY pricing. To answer your question of whether it is worth it. I think for those who haven't tried tonkotsu in Japan should pay a visit, as it is possibly the closest to what you can get in Japan in Manhattan. Of course, if you are willing to venture out of the city (just a bit), I prefer Santoka (for shio / miso-shio ramen) or Ichiran to Ippudo, but that just a personal preference.

    1. Silverjay, thanks for the detailed review and analysis. I'm not living in NYC any more but I will be curious to sample the new wave NYC noodle culture on my next visit.

      To be honest it doesn't surprise me to hear about the immense hype preceding each opening and then the anticlimactic reaction post sampling of the fare on offer (Setagaya, Ippudo, will Ichiran complete the hat-trick?). My theory is that Japanese food overseas, for better or worse, is still disproportionately defined and represented by sushi and sushi shops which goes some way to explaining why there are so many sushi bars in NYC and LA, why the gap in quality between the best of them in NYC/LA and Japan is relatively narrow and why each and every izakaya in London doubles up as a sushi bar. By contrast, in Japan itself, the food culture seems most defined by noodles and noodle bars (and maybe also izakaya culture) with sushi still being viewed in many households as special occasion food and eaten only a few times per year (albeit not in my girlfriend's household where they eat raw fish every day, her dad is from Kagoshima).

      All of which leads to the conclusion that noodle bar culture and quality in NYC has a long long way to go before it gets anywhere near to the quality, range, popularity etc to be found in Japan, the current gulf is massive. I've enjoyed the likes of Ippudo in Japan but only now after my most recent trip to Japan, and having travelled around with my noodle-obsessed girlfriend for an extended period, am I beginning to understand just how brilliant noodle culture is there and how little of the good stuff we are exposed to outside Japan. And if you think noodle culture is bad in NYC, you should come to London where it's positively woeful even though sushi bar and izakaya options have improved considerably in recent times.

      1. You're right about their obsession and specialization of their craft, extending to things beyond food. Thanks for that detailed review. Have been enjoying your informative meticulous posts on the Japan board prepping for a trip. Love hakata style ramen. Will make sure to try Ippudo soon.

        1. I tried Ippudo recently and have similar misgivings. It is a good bowl of ramen, especially by NYC standards. However, like those who have been complaining about the rise of costs of pizza slices, a $13 bowl of ramen is like a $5 slice of pizza. It might be good, but is it worth it, and with the long wait? (search DiFara on the outer boroughs board). I understand why Ippudo went with the "ramen dining" angle, especially in NYC where it's difficult to make any money just on the food. The profits come from alcohol sales. Otherwise, it's about quick turnover, which doesn't seem to fit well with the habits of NYC diners.

          But there are other problems. First, there's a lot of wasted space inside. There's a lot of needless kitchen space, especially the area behind the ramen counter, where a couple of cooks prepare various non-ramen appetizers. They also have a kitchen in the basement where the noodle soup is being made, and the room with the noodle cutting machine (you can peek in there going downstairs to the restrooms). They could have designed the space more efficiently to accommodate more diners, I think. I came to this conclusion as I sat at the counter with my party of 4 watching all the activity in that kitchen, wondering why they don't have real cooks doing some real cooking there. The rest of the menu seems such a waste. Most everything else on the menu are items slapped together with premade materials, the only exception are the premade materials that are deep fried. I guess it would be a stretch for them to be making gyoza or chahan (the traditional ramen accoutrement) since it might require some actual skills. If this were just a fast food operation, it would be praiseworthy, but as a "ramen brasserie", it seems a little too lightweight.

          As I compared notes with some friends who ate there during their soft opening, we realized that they changed the ramen formula since then, especially with the shiromaru ramen. The one I had recently was rich and creamy. But the one my friends had during the soft opening period was described as "assari" (which mine wasn't). They seem to be tweaking the ramen formula during the month, trying to figure out what styles are best tailored for the NYC ramen eating public. But I wonder if they really need to bother. Ippudo has been successful with a long established formula and they should just go with that, instead of trying to fine-tune it for whatever they think NYers like. The akamaru modern NY ramen might be that newfangled creation, and I thought it was pretty good, but after tasting a few appetizers, I realized that the red miso sauce tasted an awful lot like the style of mabo tofu that's really popular in Japan. That flavor is fairly ubiquitous on their other menu items. While I do enjoy that flavor, it seems redundant. The kakuni pork in the akamaru made for a better accompaniment than the pork in the shiromaru.

          So to echo Silveryjay's feelings, one thumb up, and another down. If I can go there and have a quick bowl of ramen, I might feel better about it, but I won't feel any value in paying that $13 though.

          1. Silverjay,
            Thanks for yet another detailed and thoughtful account. As a fellow ramen lover, I appreciate your heavy duty analysis and can identify with your passion. If I weren't headed for Tokyo - in 4 days (make that "daze") to be exact - I would probably have made a bee line for Ippudo at this point. Alas, there's an amazing Tsukemen place, in Koiwa, 10 minutes away from my in-laws' house, that I have to save up my calories for.

            I have to admit, though, that when it comes to the NYC Ramen scene, I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy, very hopeful and optimistic. I remember when, not too long ago, people raved about Rai Rai Ken, Sapporo and Minca. Based on my ramen experiences in Japan, these places rank with the joints that have to open at 11pm to service the drunks, the insomniacs or the people who just missed the last train home(not that they don't have their hidden charms and surprises). Yet, we have more and more places opening, more competition and more interest in general. Why is Ippudo even interested in coming here to begin with? For my wife and myself, Setagaya - at least when it opened - definitely upped the ante to a whole other level; we felt like we were back in Japan.

            I also enjoy Eric's comparison to DiFara's which is, to my mind, in essence, a ramen place at heart. People go there for one reason: to eat, to savor the taste of the food. I can deal with the high prices, but also cannot identify with a ramen joint that is anything other than just that. An eating place. Eat, slurp, have a beer and few gyoza, maybe, and then get out.