A Slurp Worth Waiting For: The Fabled Ramen of Ippudo

2014-02-05 12.46.03

Among the many reasons why I know that inside I’m an old lady (my reprehensibly early bedtime, my inability to heat my extremities, my tendency to bake cookies when bored), one of the strongest arguments is my love affair with soup. Chili, stew, chowder, consomme — gimme a bit of broth and I am down to disco. Not convinced that I’m weirdly into soup? Check out my adoration of the avgolemono at Village Taverna — that’s just chicken noodle!

Combine this with my umami lust, and the first item on Maggie’s winter dining list has got to be ramen. I’ve actually only discussed ramen one time on this blog, despite its treasured place in my heart. I guess the truth is I really don’t have it that often, and perhaps that’s why I leapt when I had the chance to actually eat at Ippudo last week, despite the staggering mountains of snow streaming down from the clouds.

Calling Ippudo “popular” is like calling Yo Yo Ma “kinda good at cello.” If you’re not a fan of the “no reservation” trend in NY dining, do not go to Ippudo (unless it’s in the middle of a snowstorm, as we will see). In a world of long lines for NY ramen, Ippudo is king. Their original location in the East Village is known for handing out epic wait times ranging up to 4 hours, and most visitors put their name on the list knowing full well they’ll need to head to a nearby bar and fervently pray for ramen sometime in the near future.

Ippudo opened up a new location in Hells Kitchen this past year, with a larger dining area and their noodle kitchen in the basement, but most people I’ve talked to didn’t know about it. Thanks to a robust snowfall (and a power outage at work), Jacob and I had a snowday, and decided that ramen was the perfect cure for the wet and windy weather. We opted to go to Ippudo Westside, even with the extra hurdle of subway snarls, because of the extra seating (and the potential back-up option of Totto Ramen, which has also been highly recommended for its noodle bowls).

 

First Impressions:

With it's simple exterior and plain sign, it's easy to completely miss the entrance to Ippudo Westside.

With it’s simple exterior and plain sign, it’s easy to completely miss the entrance to Ippudo Westside.

Ippudo Westside is located just off of 8th Ave, on 51st Street, and has about as nondescript an exterior as you can get without appearing to be intentionally hiding. The entrance is on the basement level of the building, so you have to go down a small set of steps to get inside. A large plate glass window gives you a glimpse of the ramen counter in the first room, but it’s not until you pass through the series of doors and curtains to the interior that you realize there’s a whole other room full of booths and tables.

The ramen counter as nearly as busy as I had expected it to be...

The ramen counter as nearly as busy as I had expected it to be…

... but the dining room was nearly empty.

… but the dining room was nearly empty.

 

The decor is pretty much what you’d expect from a Japanese restaurant — lots of bamboo, clean lines, and accents of white, black and red. Ippudo is actually an international chain, with restaurants in Australia, Malayasia, China and more, so I have to imagine their aesthetic is standardized. Regardless, you’re not coming here for the paint job, so let’s talk ramen.

The Food:

I had honestly expected to wait, even on a Wednesday at 1pm in the middle of a snowstorm, but although the ramen counter was pretty full, the dining room had just one table occupied, and so we were ushered right in. Which means I can’t really tell you if Ippudo is worth a 5 hour wait, but for a 30 second wait, it’s really frickin good. The staff was super-attentive — our waiter must have checked on us ten times over the course of the meal, seeing if we were ready to order, refilling our water, wiping down our table, clearing and replacing our plates at every stage of the meal, and of course repeatedly asking how every piece of food was. As a whole our lunch sped by, the entire meal taking probably less than 45 minutes, which I suppose makes sense in a restaurant where you’re trying to clear the tables as fast as possible for the endless stream of diners looming in the wings.

Jacob was ravenous, so we ended up ordering way more food than I had anticipated (fool me once, shame on you, fool me way too many times at this point …).We got the Ippudo Lunch Set, which gives you a choice of ramen with a small salad and a rice bowl topped with either pork, chicken or eel. We chose the Akamaru Modern Ramen and the Eel Rice Bowl, with an order of the Hirata Vegetable Buns to start. Then, after we had finished all that, Jacob was still hungry, so he peer-pressured me into getting another order of buns, this time filled with chicken. And that didn’t prevent us from going for dessert later that afternoon (although we had a nice walk through wintry Central Park in between, and afterwards, back at home,  I fell into a slight food coma back at home).

 

The Vegetable Hirata Buns -- renewing my love of kewpie mayo.

The Vegetable Hirata Buns — renewing my love of kewpie mayo.

The Chicken Hirata Bun, distinguishable only by the color of the glaze.

The Chicken Hirata Bun, distinguishable only by the color of the glaze.

As I mentioned above, it seemed like our order of Hirata Buns (Steamed buns(2pc) filled with your choice of Pork, Chicken or Eggplant & Eringi Mushroom, served with Ippudo‘s original spicy sauce and mayo) arrived a snap second after asking for them. They were very simply plated, the pair of buns sitting solo on a rectangular plate, but just like the decor, Ippudo let’s the food speak for itself. The only way to distinguish the vegetable buns from the chicken was the hue of the patty — the vegetable a deeper chocolate brown compared to the chicken’s lighter orange brown. Both patties were deep-fried and slathered in sauce and (what I assume was) kewpie mayo (http://www.thekitchn.com/what-is-kewpie-mayonnaise-44639). The creamy mayo balanced the heat and acidity of the sauce perfectly, and in both rounds the steamed bun itself was terrific, soft and chewy against the crunch of the romaine. I thought the chicken was satisfactory, though not mindblowing, triggering nostalgia for the General Tso’s chicken you get free samples of in mall food courts (Jacob said it took him back to childhood meals at Pick Up Stix).

I was much more intrigued by the vegetable buns, especially since they combined two of my favorite veggies. The mix of eggplant and mushroom were cooked to silky smoothness, but with enough remaining texture to be almost meaty, standing up against the panko coating. I was reminded of a cheeseless eggplant parm, and I mean that in the best way possible.

 

The basic, but artfully dressed side salad.

The basic, but artfully dressed side salad.

The salad and the Eel Rice Bowl were both just entre-acts before the main event, like clown cars before the trapeze artists step out on the platform. Again, both were cleanly and simply presented, the salad in a white, vaguely pentagonal bowl and the eel in a shiny black one. The salad was made up of a variety of greens, with some red cabbage and radicchio thrown in amongst the arugula and spinach. It was tossed in a subtle dressing, lighter than the usual viscous ginger-carrot dressing you get with a sushi bar salad. I’d guess it was the wasabi goma shoyu dressing used in the Ippudo Salad, but I didn’t really taste the wasabi at all, mostly just a subtle soy-based vinaigrette that helped the salad to function as a palate cleanser between the buns and our ramen.

 

The Eel Rice Bowl -- better in bite size, sushi form.

The Eel Rice Bowl — better in bite size, sushi form.

I had pushed to get the Eel Rice Bowl because eel has become my favorite order for sushi. The broiled eel arrived brightly seared and fragrant, sitting atop sticky sushi rice and a bit of seaweed. It was salty and smoky, but overall a little one-note for my taste. I think I prefer the bite-size sushi ratio of eel to rice better than the bowl version here, where it was hard to make the eel meat last through the entire portion of rice.

 

The Akamaru Modern Ramen, which actually lived up to all the buzz about it on the Internet.

The Akamaru Modern Ramen, which actually lived up to all the buzz about it on the Internet.

As you can see from the photo, we hadn’t even made it through our Eel Rice Bowl by the time the Akamaru Modern Ramen (“A more bold, modern translation of the original pork broth; thin noodles topped with Ippudo’s secret “Umami Dama” miso paste, pork chashu, cabbage, sesame kikurage mushrooms, scallions, and fragrant garlic oil”) arrived. My pre-meal research had told me that this was the best of Ippudo’s offerings, foregoing the more traditional ramen for this variety. Well, I have to say thank God for Internet-based food crowd-sourcing, because dammit if this wasn’t the best ramen I’ve ever had. Maybe I need to experience more ramen (and get over my Jewish guilt about eating pork), but I was just knocked out by this bowl of soup. The tonkotsu broth was incredibly rich and creamy, with small circles of fat floating lazily on top of it. I know it’s an overused descriptor, but you can’t help but describe the broth as “silky.” The black ribbons in the photo are actually shredded mushrooms, the slim ramen noodles hiding just below the surface. The red dollop is the Umami Dama miso paste, which when swirled throughout the soup provides a wallop of earthiness to augment the mushrooms. Counteracting that is the bite of the garlic oil and the acidity of the scallions. The noodles were perfectly al dente, holding their structure to the last slurp without becoming tough and chewy. I mostly picked around the slices of pork chashu, but the bites I tried were melt-in-your-mouth tender, salty and satisfying, although Jacob, of more refined pig palate, thought they were fairly run of the mill. I much preferred the soft boiled egg we had added to the order. You can see from the picture the semisolid state of the yolk, and the white was warm and toothsome. My only complaint was the temperature of the ramen — Jacob was content because he’s a wimp when it comes to hot soups, but I thought the broth could have been a touch warmer to start with. Ippudo offers the option of Kae-dama, or supplementary noodles, but frankly, I think you’d have to be half-starved to want them, since there were more than enough for Jacob and me to split and feel like we’d gotten our fill.

 

Final Thoughts:

Before we knew it, our whirlwind trip to Ippudo was at an end, our waiter rushing us off with a multiplicity of shouts of “arigato gozaimasu” (thank you very much) echoed by each member of the staff as we made our way out the door. It was an entertaining, if somewhat surreal experience, so different from what I had anticipated in terms of wait and dining time that I was caught somewhat off guard. Perhaps the secret of Ippudo Westside is not really out beyond the Midtown lunchers, or maybe other New Yorkers aren’t as devoted to ramen exploration as I am, preferring to stay local when a blizzard strikes. Regardless, it gives me possibly false hope that I can find the right time to arrange a return to Ippudo. This westside location has a vegan ramen that is supposed to blow the lid off of lame veggie ramen (which I have experienced before). The company is also apparently planning a secret restaurant in the upstairs space of Ippudo Westside, allegedly called Men-Oh and offering a completely different menu from the ramen locations. Given my experience with their vegetable and chicken buns, I’d be more than willing to see what non-ramen offerings the Ippudo kitchen staff can come up with.

All in all, I’d say Ippudo is worth the hype, but I feel I have to reiterate the unique circumstances of my visit. Is it worth a bit of a wait? Yeah, I’d say I’d wait an hour to have the high quality Japanese food they offer. 4 hours, well, I’m not sure about that, but I’m also the girl who got her Cronut through an intermediary. But if you’re willing to play the game and go during an off-time, you may just have the speedy, efficient, friendly service I experienced, in which case you’re in for a treat of noodle soup to brighten an old lady’s week. So put down your knitting and aim for the early bird special — I hear we’ve got a few more weeks of winter left and Ippudo’s ramen will definitely warm you to the bone.

 

Ippudo Westside

321 W 51st St (between 8th and 9th Avenues)

http://www.ippudony.com/about-west.html

Vox Populi: Spuds 2.0 Unveiled at Shake Shack

Although the title implies I’m going to be talking about Shake Shack, I promise that no hamburgers were consumed in the making of this post. After my killer dinner at Peter Luger, I’m letting the dust settle a bit before breaking into beef again. If you’re really curious, I do like the Shackburger, but this time around we’re going to focus on some of the lesser known elements of the menu.

If you haven’t heard, Danny Meyer recently admitted a gap in the Shake Shack menu, a crack in the metaphorical frozen custard concrete of the brand. Granted, he only admitted that flaw by immediately offering a new solution, but who would expect any less from the Sultan of Shack?

The issue: the Shack’s french fries, a quintessential part of any fast food meal, and a topic of some controversy in the food blogosphere. Prominent food writers like Ed Levine of Serious Eats had bemoaned the Shack’s cooked-from-frozen crinkle cuts, limp and generic in the face of Meyer’s ethos of heightening fast food with fresh ingredients and quality service. Personally, I’d never given much thought to the fries at Shake Shack. I’m actually pretty ambivalent about the restaurant on the whole — I know both people who actively dislike it, and some diehard fans who rack up multiple visits in a week. I can vouch that I’ve never had a bad meal there, but I’ve probably only been a handful of times since they opened their first shop in 2004. Casting a more contemplative eye towards the fries, however, I do tend to agree with the critics. As a potato enthusiast, I liked the old Shack fries because of a certain level of nostalgia (they reminded me of the Ore-Ida frozen fries my parents would occasionally serve as a dinner treat), but the truth is that they were substandard given the care put into the rest of the dishes Shake Shack offers. Yes, the crinkle cut fries had merit, since frying from frozen guarantees a consistent level of quality. But it also means that the flavor potential is capped — you’re never going to achieve the freshness you’d get from newly cut potatoes straight out of the fryer.

And so, 9 years after opening, Shake Shack admitted that they really had been listening. As they proudly announced on their website (http://www.shakeshack.com/2013/08/06/fresh-cut-fries-debut-at-ues-shake-shack/), they are, as of last week, serving fresh cut, never frozen, skin-on fries. It was revealed that the Upper East Side location served as the test kitchen, the staff spending countless hours training before opening each day. Right now you can only get the new fries at the UES branch, leaving a strange potato-paradox of past and present iterations coexisting in Manhattan, the crinkle and the fresh-cut fries simultaneously available with only a cross-town bus ride between them.

As it happens, despite living on the UES for 3 years, I’d actually never been to the Shake Shack up by me (I’ve visited their Upper West, Times Square, and Madison Square Park locations), so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to check out my local shop and be overly judgmental about some side dishes.

 

First Impressions:

The familiar logo at the entrance to the UES Shake Shack.

The familiar logo at the entrance to the Upper East Side Shake Shack.

The UES Shake Shack is on 86th Street between 3rd and Lex, so it’s nearly impossible to avoid walking by unless you’re a hermit who never leaves the neighborhood. The entrance features the familiar prominent plate glass windows, metallic lettering, and green neon fixtures of the rest of the chain’s locations. The restaurant itself is below street level, along with the outdoor plaza next door, which is technically open to the public but seems pretty much exclusively used by Shake Shack customers. Inside you’re greeted with the same pseudo-industrial aesthetic I noticed at BurgerFi — plain planks of wood siding and tables, green plastic chairs, and cool metal surfaces.

Looking down into the public plaza that also serves as an outdoor dining  area.

Looking down into the public plaza that also serves as an outdoor dining area.

The restaurant was in full-on fry propaganda mode. Outside, the windows had signs announcing “fresh cuts,” and the normal burger-shaped neon sign had been swapped for a new icon displaying a cup of fries. Inside, all of the employees were decked out in brand new green shirts with the same fry-cup design, topped with the caption “We Heard.” The Specials chalkboard near the menu featured the following message (note the hashtag), and there were announcement flyers detailing the new fries prominently displayed near the registers.

Did we mention we have new french fries?

I’m not sure if you knew, but Shake Shack has new fries.

No seriously, they're brand new.

No seriously, they’re brand new. But they’re keeping it kind of on the DL, hush-hush, you know?

I figured that as long as I was being adventurous, I might as well take a chance on Shake Shack’s vegetarian option, the ‘Shroom Burger, to make sure I ingest as many fried foods in one sitting as possible. Luckily, Jacob was there to split my order of fries, and he also opted for a non-hamburger item, choosing the Chicken Dog with Shack-Cago style fixings. Post meal, because somehow we weren’t totally stuffed, we also split a Single Concrete of Vanilla/Chocolate swirl with Chocolate Truffle Cookie Dough.

 

The Food:

Our overflowing tray of the new fries -- golden-brown, crispy, and a major improvement.

Our overflowing tray of the new fries — golden-brown, crispy, and a major improvement.

First things, first — the fries. In my review of BurgerFi, the french fries ended up being the standout dish of the meal — my preferred medium-cut with good crisp and a bit of skin still on. Shake Shack’s new fries are very much of the same spirit, except thinner-cut. They completely lived up to the advertising copy — thin, starchy, salty, with obvious skin on at least one side of each fry, and a discernibly fresh potato flavor. None of the fries were limp or soggy, nor did I find any blackened burnt sticks, an impressive feat given the relative inexperience of the kitchen. Our generous portion seemed to be the norm as I watched other orders being filled, and because the fries are now thinner, I think it’s better bang for your buck than the chunkier old crinkle-cuts. Overall, I was impressed by the consistency of the fries, and the streamlined service the staff at Shake Shack had already conformed to — they had upwards of 5 people working the fry line during my visit (only a few days after initiating Operation: New Fries). It’s definitely a positive change for Shake Shack, especially because it’s more in line with their ethos of conscious fast food.

The fry line in action -- there are at least three people farther down the row working the friers.

The fry line in action — there are at least three people farther down the row working the friers.

The 'Shroom Burger, a vegetarian, if not exactly "lighter" option at Shake Shack.

The ‘Shroom Burger, a vegetarian, if not exactly “lighter” option at Shake Shack.

Unfortunately, I think there is still room for improvement in the vegetarian section of their menu. The ‘Shroom Burger (Crisp-fried portobello mushroom filled with melted muenster and cheddar cheese, topped with lettuce, tomato and ShackSauce) came out looking like a thick hockey-puck of crispy fried breading, like someone had tried to surreptitiously replace a beef patty with a monstrous mozzarella stick (on second thought, that doesn’t sound half bad). Although it plainly states on the menu that it’s a fried mushroom, in my head I had just skipped over that fact, imaging a vegetarian take on a Midwestern Juicy Lucy (a burger stuffed with cheese) with the portobello meat as the main attraction. The ‘Shroom comes with the same fixins’ as a regular Shackburger, and I while found the trademark Shacksauce paired well with the salty layer of fried crust,  I felt the sauce’s tanginess clashed with the mushroom flesh once I made it deeper into the patty.

Biting into the 'Shroom Burger, you're met with a oozing onslaught of hot cheese. Delicious, but slightly dangerous .

Biting into the ‘Shroom Burger, you’re met with a oozing onslaught of hot cheese. Delicious, but slightly dangerous .

As Jacob had warned, biting into the fried ball yielded a cascade of gooey molten cheese, so proceed with caution lest you burn your tongue. The muenster and cheddar were a great combination — once I was past the middle of the patty, and had mostly leftover cheese and naked mushroom flesh, that’s when I thought the dish really succeeded, with a strong flavor from the portobello shining through. Ultimately, I found the breading merely a distraction from the merits of the burger, unnecessary especially considering the lovely potato bun that Shake Shack uses for its sandwiches. The breading was salty and overwhelming, distracting from the inherent umami combination of the mushroom, tomato, and cheeses. I’d rather Shake Shack take their Shackburger and just sub the beef for a couple portobello caps, or even make a ground up mushroom burger and stuff that with cheese, rather than hiding the pleasure of flavorful fungi behind a mask of crowd-pleasing battered breading.

The Chicken Sausage Dog, piled high with all the Shack-Cago trimmings.

The Chicken Sausage Dog, piled high with all the Shack-Cago trimmings.

Jacob seemed to enjoy his Chicken Sausage Dog (Shake Shack chicken, apple and sage sausage), which was topped with the Shack-cago Dog fixings (Rick’s Picks Shack relish, onion, cucumber, pickle, tomato, sport pepper, celery salt and mustard). I thought the sausage itself was great — don’t expect it to taste like a hot dog, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the interplay of the sweet apple and the earthy, herbal sage. I found the toppings to be a bit overwhelming, however. Maybe I’m just a fuddy-duddy when it comes to hot dogs — gimme some ketchup, maybe some mustard, and I’m all set. Here I was disappointed by how the pickles and celery salt overpowered the subtle sausage flavors with their intense vinegar bent.

Our swirled Vanilla/Chocolate Concrete with Chocolate Truffle Dough. Take that, Dixie Cup!

Chocolate custard with dark chocolate truffle pieces — proof positive you can never have too much chocolate.

I feel like I barely have to give a review of the Concrete, because most of the time I find Maggie + ice cream = immense satisfaction, and this is just another proof of the validity of that equation. But I do think I should mention that while BurgerFi wins the french fry race in my heart (because of their slightly thicker-cut fries), Shake Shack has a lock on the frozen custard competition. Both the vanilla and the chocolate flavors were smoothy, creamy, and tasted exactly like what they claimed to be (some might think this would be obvious, but some frozen dessert shops, like Tasti D-Lite, offer vanilla and chocolate flavors that are somewhat different, but definitely don’t taste like a chocolate bar or a vanilla bean. It’s more of a “flavor A” or “flavor B” scenario). The texture of Shake Shack’s custard is somewhere between Mr. Softee’s soft-serve and Rita’s frozen custard. The Chocolate Truffle Cookie Dough was misleading, because it seemed just like small chunks of chocolate truffles (I’m pretty sure truffles aren’t baked anyway, so using the term dough seems unnecessary), but regardless of nomenclature, they were delicious —  rich, dense, dark chocolate, just chewy enough to linger on your tongue as the custard melted away. My only complaint is that the truffle pieces were few and far between — I could have doubled down on those truffles, easy-as-pie (or custard, I suppose).

 

Final Thoughts:

Shake Shack’s empire is expanding exponentially these days, with new locations popping up both around the country (Washington DC and Boston this summer, Las Vegas in 2014), and around the world (London and Istanbul in just the past few months). With all of this growth, it’s gratifying to see that the company is still looking for new ways to improve their offerings. It still makes a difference what people are saying about their food, beyond focus groups and market tests. Will these french fries ever win a worldwide competition? Hardly — you’re better off checking our Pommes Frites down in the East Village if you want some hardcore fry action. But if you’re in Shake Shack, contemplating your options, pick up a side order — they’ll put Mickey D’s fries to shame.

I don’t doubt that once Shake Shack rolls out these new fries to all their locations, there will hardly be the same level of quality assurance. But the initial impulse comes from the right place. Yes, this is a fast food chain, yes, it’s a corporate monolith (although not faceless like McDonalds, thanks to Danny Meyer), and yes, there may even be a bit of disappointing discarding of principles in the face of business decisions (such as Chipotle’s new investigation into using antibiotic-treated meat). But for now, as Shake Shack is so proudly shouting out to the world, what the people want, the people will get. Maybe if we use our mouths as more than hamburger-receptacles,  it could lead to more changes, like a few more vegetarian options on the  menu. Danny Meyer’s aiming to empower, so  speak up, the Shack‘s all ears.

Shake Shack

(Multiple locations, new fries only at 154 E. 86th St)

http://www.shakeshack.com/