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Oct 9, 2012 05:12 PM

Ippudo-is it worth it?

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.

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  1. The ramen at Momofuku sucks. It's not in the same league...The best ramen at Ippudo is the Shiromaru Hakata. This is closest to the Hakata style ramen that Ippudo helped popularize in Japan. It is still a bit dialed down in funkiness for American tastes...The Akamaru Modern was developed specifically for the NY shop and dials down the funkiness even more. They are aiming for creamy and umami rather than all out porky the way the tonkotsu (not tonkatsu- different meaning) broths often taste. For either style, they will use Hakata style hoso-men thin noodles which is pretty standard. They are not meant to have much firmness but you can usually order your noodles how you like them and the shop will comply....Tan-tan-men is a popular Japanified version of Szechuan dan dan mien. It's more of a Wafu-chuka dish than a direct interpretation of Szechuan cuisine. Usually doesn't have actual "ma la" or even probably Szechuan peppercorns...I would never consider ordering shoyu ramen at this shop. It's out of their specialty......As to the atmosphere and service, they are trying to balance a goofy middle ground between offering New Yorkers ramen "dining" in a ramen "brasserie" with the downmarket fast food sensibilities of typical ramen shops in Japan. Your mileage may vary I supposed on how well they do that. In Japan I've been to some great shops where they are super friendly and warm and I've been to great shops where they seem to be under martial law. Either way, the experience is meant to be 15 minutes max, not a sitting down with a family of four for a meal of apps and bowls. So Ippudo is still feeling their way with the 'dining' concept.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Silverjay

      Thanks for such a well informed and helpful response. Very informative for many of us.

      1. re: Silverjay

        Do you have any experience with the Santouka ramen in Mitsuwa market place in Jew Jersey? IS that more traditional-non Americanized-tokotsu ramen?

        1. re: foodlovergeneral

          Santouka is another big chain from Japan. Bigger than Ippudo. Their soup is good too. Similar to the "modern" style at Ippudo. I like their toppings better. But I've had consistency issues at the the Mittsuwa branch. It can sometimes be lousy.... Something to look out for are visiting ramen events at Mitsuwa, where shops from Japan set up for a weekend.

      2. Have you tried Ramen Totto. My relatives and family friends (all Asian) go a little crazy over that one.

        I love Ippudo for their soups; sorry to hear they are not to your liking. Meanwhile the noodles are quite nice. I don't care for anything else on the menu, because the guesswork isn't fun.

        1 Reply
        1. re: calf

          i don't know much about ramen, but i preferred ramen totto over ippudo and noodle bar. totto is small though, and there is pretty much always a line.

        2. You should try Minca for their toroniku or the sister restaurant Kambi.

          2 Replies
            1. re: foodwhisperer

              Minca and Kambi are owned by same people. Personally I wouldn't go out of my way or wait in line for either of those shops. Actually, I wouldn't go to them at all as I don't think they are good.

          1. It sounds like you have much more experience with ramen in Japan than I do. I did eat some great ramen in Tokyo last spring, though. I think Ippudo's ramen (and I had the shiromaru hakata that Silverjay refers to last time - the akamaru modern, which I had the first time, was too fatty and upset my stomach big-time) would be good ramen in Tokyo - not great, but certainly good. And good ramen for Tokyo is amazing ramen for New York. Both times I were there, the appetizers I had were excellent. So my feeling is that it is a solid ramen plus appetizers shop in New York, and since I live close by, I can do an in-person reservation and cut down on waiting time. Will I do it often? No. But I'm glad I can.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Pan

              do they take 2 ppl for the in person reservation or is it for groups of 4 or more?

              1. re: Shirang

                day-of in person reservations for any party size

            2. I count on Silverjay as the resident japanese food expert. I like the ramen at Ippudo.Get it with the pork kakuni. The only app I ever get there is the spicy pork buns ever since they took the philly cheese steak roll off the menu. That's it. I don't expect anything else to be better than ok. Momofuku has some great dishes, but their ramen isn't one of the better things they do. My personal favorite for ramen is Totto Ramen. Great chicken based broth. Always get extra cha siu.I also agree that Santouka is inconsistent.

              6 Replies
              1. re: Bkeats

                Speaking of Totto Ramen, I just went today. Ramen great as usual, and the seasonal uni-don is back (for $6.50...prices went up by a bit in general, $0.25 - $0.50 as far as I can tell). I'm not a huge fan of uni but my gf loves it.

                I haven't had the Spicy Vegetarian Ramen for a while (because my gf shares my ramen and demands to have both the torched belly and the chicken broth) but I'm starting to crave it. Haven't found anything remotely comparable for veggie ramen anywhere.

                1. re: kyph0515

                  Sharing ramen? I don't share my ramen even with my wife. I order mine and she has to get her own. Wouldn't be enough to share. Maybe if you did kae dama, but even then....

                  1. re: Bkeats

                    Haha, I do get kaedama. And I like Totto for the noodles anyway (opposed to the belly) so I don't mind sharing. And that way I get some of whatever don she gets that day...

                2. re: Bkeats

                  The fried chicken app at Ippudo is excellent, and totally worth ordering (cheesesteak? i would say i need to know more, but since its no longer available maybe its best left to my imagination)

                  1. re: tex.s.toast

                    It was awesome. Thinly sliced steak and cheese in an eggroll wrapper that been deep fried. Cheese was melty and the crunch of the fried skin was much more satisfying than a cheesesteak sandwich. At least IMO.

                    1. re: Bkeats

                      interesting. it sounds like a much much more effective execution of a "rueben roll" i once had at, i think, the minnesota state fair. that was corned beef, kraut, and swiss in an egg roll, served with thousand island of course.