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

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America, F*ck Ja!: Celebrating Independence Day at Reichenbach Hall

I spent this Fourth of July as our founding fathers did — drinking hefeweizens and eating sausage at a German Beer Hall. I mean, George Washington probably ate some bratwurst with some Hessian POWs during the Revolutionary War, right? And you know Ben Franklin would have been all about alcohol served by the liter. So in the spirit of honoring the great beginnings of these United States, I fled the scorching streets of Manhattan to the cooler climes of Reichenbach Hall, to stuff my face with meat, carbs, and some fermented hops. I can’t think of a better definition of pure patriotism.

I’ve only been to a couple of beer halls in my time — the first during a Spring Break roadtrip in Covington, KY, and more recently to the popular Radegast Hall & Biergarten in Williamsburg. I found out about Reichenbach Hall from the NY food & culture mailing list Thrillist, and I’ll admit I was partially drawn to it because of the literary allusion (the even more shameful admission is that the bigger motivation was thought of Benedict Cumberbatch, rather than Basil Rathbone). Factor in the relative ease of access since Reichenbach is a scant 4 blocks from Grand Central, and it seemed like a near duty to dip in Deutsch waters.

 

First Impressions:

 

A brightly colored sign helps to point out Reichenbach's entrance amongst the bland office buildings.

A brightly colored sign helps to point out Reichenbach’s entrance amongst the bland office buildings.

Reichenbach Hall is found in the strange no-man’s land of Midtown South, below the Beaux-Arts grandeur of Grand Central but not quite into the wilds of Brotopia Murray Hill. Just off 5th Ave on 37th St, Reichenbach is surrounded by nondescript office buildings, a few delis, and the occasional noncommittally-Irish pub. On the one hand, this makes for a bit of an incongruous setting for an establishment of Reichenbach’s ethnic enthusiasm. On the other hand, the area gives you access to a huge amount of real estate. Coming in from the urban monotony, I was delighted to find a cavernous hall with lofty ceilings that immediately transported me from the dim and dusty dive bars of Manhattan to the open and airy space that I’d experienced at Radegast.

 

Reichenbach Hall, decked out in red white and blue.

Reichenbach Hall, all decked out for the holiday.

As with my Brooklyn and Covington experiences, Reichenbach’s interior design is dominated by dark paneled wooden, long communal tables, and wrought iron lighting fixtures. German paraphrenalia line the walls, and along the right side of the hall runs a massive bar filled with beer steins of both expected and prodigious size.

The interior of Reichenbach -- you'd half expect Quasimodo to be hanging around up in those rafters.

The interior of Reichenbach — you’d half expect Quasimodo to be hanging around up in those rafters.

Can't have a beer hall without a bar, or without TVs for showing ESPN, apparently.

Can’t have a beer hall without a bar, or without TVs for showing ESPN, apparently.

I was a little surprised to find Reichenbach nearly empty on July 4th — a family with small children was finishing up their meal as I arrived, and once they left my friends and I were the only patrons in the whole restaurant. Perhaps because of this (but hopefully not), the service was truly great. Not one, but two waitresses served us over the course of the meal. (Fortunately, my initial disappointment over their respective Irish and Australian accents was soon assuaged when another server announced the arrival of our food in an honest-to-goodness thick German accent.) A couple of my friends beat me to the bar, and when I got there our waitresses were explaining that the gas line for the beer taps was broken. As compensation they brought over 3 half-litres of beer, on the house — literally the last bit of beer they could squeeze out of the taps. They continued to update us on the situation during our stay, and luckily, being collective lightweights (and with this as our first meal of the day), we found ourselves with beer to spare when the taps were finally fixed. From start to finish, the staff apologized for any confusion and delay, happily gave further details on any of the beer or food on the menu, and offered their recommendations when they could. I can only hope they’re this eager and attentive during dinner rush.

 

The Food: 

Of course, the real reason I wanted to visit Reichenbach Hall is food-related. My email from Thrillist not only touted the beers offered at Reichenbach, but highlighted a certain off-menu item, the “Wow Pretzel.” As the picture shows (http://www.thrillist.com/drink/new-york/midtown/reichenbach-hall), this is no ordinary soft pretzel. This is the ubermensch of pretzels, my friends. Don’t be fooled by the misleadingly titled “Giant Bavarian Pretzel” on the menu — this is a misnomer in the face of its reclusive older brother. Naturally, we ordered one for the table. Misjudging the amount of food we were about to receive (or perhaps unknowingly creating a challenge of Joey Chestnut proportions for the holiday), we also put in entree orders. Diana chose the Bratwurst plate, Laura the Kase-Wurst, and I tried the Curry-wurst.

 

Idealistic optimism in the face of a pretzel of mythological proportions.

Idealistic optimism in the face of a pretzel of mythological proportions.

The Wow Pretzel arrived first. Normally accompanied solely by the in-house mustard, our waitress had suggested we also add a side of the O’Batzda cheese sauce (especially once Laura made it clear that the inclusion of cheese is a high dining priority). O’Batzda is a traditional Bavarian cheese spread made from cheese, beer, and spices and topped with sliced onion. Digging underneath the onion, the spread seemed reminiscent of queso dip, thick and viscous in texture. It had a strong yeasty quality, but the sharpness of the raw onion helped to cut the richness, and with the dense dough of the pretzel, I almost preferred the cheese a little less gooey. It paired fantastically with the bite of the mustard, and of course the Wow Pretzel was a great vehicle.

 

The Wow Pretzel up close and personal, with mustard on the right, and O'Batzda on the left.

The Wow Pretzel up close and personal, with mustard on the right, and O’Batzda on the left.

The Pretzel itself was as large as advertised — easily the circumference of an inner tube. As we first tore into it, the pretzel was still fresh and warm, and the shiny veneer of the smooth crust gave way to a perfectly dense, chewy inside. Unfortunately, because of its size and geometrically-induced large surface area of a soft pretzel, it cooled down fairly quickly. I would also have liked it to have had more salt covering it, to compensate for the sheer quantity of bread. I’d gladly order it again to share with a large group, and I think the addition of the cheese really shakes up the flavor profile of the appetizer beyond the same old Auntie Annie’s order.

 

The generously portioned sausage plates -- Kase-wurst in back, bratwurst in front.

How about a whole mess of sausage to go with your pretzel? Cheesy Kase-wurst in the back, classic bratwurst in the front.

Shortly after we dug into our intimidating appetizer, the rest of our food arrived. The sausage plates came with sizable portions of Rotkohl (red cabbage salad), Kartoffelsalat (potato salad), and sauerkraut. I didn’t try Diana’s bratwurst, but it seemed like it was well-cooked, with distinct grill marks but not charred. I had a bite of Laura’s Kase-wurst, since I was curious about what a cheese-filled sausage would be like. I’ve had the hamburger iteration in the form of a Juicy Lucy (check out Whitman’s down in the East Village if you’re interested), but this was a different beast. The Kase-wurst seemed to be filled with the same type of soft cheese that we had with the pretzel — more oozing liquid in consistency than the gooey mozzarella-stick-style I expected. I found it a bit rich for my tastes, but I’ve never been one to opt for the cheese-whiz-topped dog at the ballpark, either.

 

My close encounter with Curry-wurst, plus the typical side of fries with mayo.

My close encounter with Currywurst, plus the traditional side of fries with mayo.

I was a little nervous about ordering the Currywurst, since Diana had told me she didn’t particularly enjoy it when she visited Germany. Luckily, I had nothing to be anxious about. Currywurst is one of the most popular fast food dishes in Germany, and consists of “steamed, then fried pork sausage cut into slices and seasoned with curry ketchup, regularly consisting of ketchup or tomato paste blended with generous amounts of curry powder, or a ready-made ketchup-based sauce seasoned with curry and other spices.” The doubly-cooked bits of sausage had that great snap of the casing as you bit into them, the insides tender and salty. It was only in retrospect that I realized that I’d eaten pork sausage — I’m more of a beef/turkey sausage kind of gal, so I think if given the option I’d like a noveau beef currywurst even more. But to be honest, my favorite part of the dish was the curry sauce itself, so the particulars of the vehicle are somewhat moot. The sauce brought me back to the few times I’ve had curry fries — and because of this I largely ignored the mayo-topped fries on my plate, hunting and digging underneath for the untouched potatoes I could dip into the pool of curry ketchup. I’m generally a purist when it comes to french fries – as Patrick Henry said, “give me ketchup, or give me death.” But for curry fries I make the exception — they have just the right amount of spice to make you perk up and pay attention to what you’re eating, and the contrast of the slight curry heat and tomato tang against the soft, oily undercooked center of a french fry is almost too good to be true. (If it wasn’t obvious by now, my relationship with french fries borders on the inappropriate).

 

Das on-the-house biers.

Das on-the-house biers. From left to right: the Schofferhofer Grapefruit Hefeweizen, the Veltins Pilsner, and the Spaten Oktoberfest.

I can’t very much write a review of a beer hall without mentioning the beer, now can I? Our on-the-house pints were the Schofferhofer Grapefruit Hefeweizen (Bavarian Hefeweizen mixed with grapefruit juice), Spaten Oktoberfest (AKA Marzen-Oktoberfestbier, or March Beer), and the Veltins Pilsner. I then also ended up getting a half-liter of Weihenstephaner Heferweizen, which ended up being my favorite. I love the light and fruity tones of hefeweizens as a category, and this one was delightfully cold and refreshing in the face of the intense July heat outside. The Grapefruit Hefeweizen had a very sweet and intriguing taste on first sip, but I’m not sure I could handle an entire half-liter of it. My other favorite of the day was the Spaten Oktoberfest, which came at a bit of a surprise. Although I’m working on expanding my palate, at this point I’m still not very interested in darker beers — I usually find them too heavy or bitter. However, the Spaten is described as being a sweeter than a traditional German lager, which may be behind my interest in it. I thought it had real bitter coffee-like tones to it, which paired well with the rich sausage and cheese fest we were enjoying for lunch.

My second beer -- the

My second beer — the Weihenstephaner Heferweizen, in all its lofty glory.

Final Thoughts:

I’ll admit, there was something a little odd about sitting in a German beer hall, chowing down on sausages as the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest played on the TV behind the bar. But if you really think about it, all those foods we consider quintessentially American — the very tubes of indiscernible meat mash ol’ Nathan’s turns a profit on — well, it’s not like they were on the menu for the first Thanksgiving, right? The more you dig into it, the more our hamburgers and hot dogs and pancakes and pizza and french fries turn out to be not so native at heart. Maybe the true celebration of our nation’s independence comes from acknowledging the fruits of the freedoms we’ve fought and died for over the decades, even if that means reveling in the sheer melting pot ridiculousness of taking a traditional Oktoberfest pretzel and making it goddamned American-Supersized. I mean, if we’re going to turn the Fourth into another American holiday of eating-as-celebration, it seems perfectly reasonable to me to enjoy the diversity of our nation’s culinary past, present and future. Plus, what red-blooded American is going to turn down the chance to drink a liter of beer?

All in all, Reichenbach Hall is a great addition to corporate landscape of Midtown Manhattan. With plenty of seating, a fairly authentic menu, a friendly and informed waitstaff, and over a dozen new and old style German beers on tap, it seems like a great after-work spot, and a worthwhile trip for my fellow uptowners who aren’t up for the longer trek to Brooklyn or the LES. I still need to try out some of the other beer halls and biergartens in the city to see how Reichenbach measures up, but for now I’m more than happy to stop by again and introduce more of my friends to the wonders of the Wow Pretzel.

 

Reichenbach Hall

5 W. 37th St (between 5th and 6th)

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Reichenbach-Hall/133720086731508