The problem with going to Japan is that it completely shifts your expectations of Japanese food. When you come back, what you thought tasted great before you left now feels bland. Dishes that you thought refined look sloppy. You realize that very few restaurants in North America live up to the high Japanese standards, even those managed by Japanese chefs, perhaps because they’ve slowly adapted to a less demanding crowd. Don’t get me wrong, there are great Japanese restaurants in the Western world, but Japan is… something else.
I just realized that I’ve written very little about my trip to Japan (besides my first culinary impressions and an account of my visit at the Tsukiji Fish Market). I needed time to assimilate and understand all the new flavors I tasted while I was over there. Every day brought new discoveries, every dish left deep impressions. I have only recently started reading about Japanese cuisine again. I also did some reading before I left for Japan and I thought I was prepared, but learning about Japanese food before ever tasting it is like thinking you’re fluent in a foreign language before you’ve tried to speak with locals. Soon enough, you realize you don’t know anything, or at least, much less than what you expected.
Since I came back, I’ve had very few encounters with authentic Japanese cuisine, but one left long-lasting tasty souvenirs. Back in March, I hosted Mayssam from Will Travel for Food in my Edible Cities column. Her city was New York, and her dish was a life-changing ramen at Ippudo. I was leaving for New York a few days later, so you bet a bowl of ramen was at the very top of my priorities list. In fact, I got off the plane, dropped my bags off at the hotel, jumped on the metro, and headed straight to Ippudo.
Ippudo NY is located on 4th Avenue, a block north of Astor Place. Its exterior was the first hint that I was in for an authentic experience: the narrow, unassuming storefront with no western sign could easily be missed if you’re not paying attention. I passed the traditional noren curtains, giddy with excitement. It was still early for lunch (around 11:15 AM), which meant I didn’t have to wait before being seated. I was guided from the small entrance through a corridor to the surprisingly large dining room all the way to back of the restaurant, where I was greeted with the best “Irasshaimase” I’d heard since leaving Tokyo. If you’re not familiar with this salutation, it is a Japanese expression that welcomes someone to a place, and it’s commonly used in ramen shops. When a customer comes in, all of the staff scream Irasshaimase! at once. This tradition greatly adds to the experience of eating in a ramen shop, because it makes you feel honored and welcome, and then you hear that same salutation several times over the course of your meal. At Ippudo, where the kitchen is pretty large and there is a staff of 10-15, the call is quite impressive and it made me feel warm and fuzzy and nostalgic.
I was seated at one of the communal tables, where I had a couple minutes to admire the restaurant’s large dining room and contemporary décor, which looked very different from the ramen shops I visited in Japan (usually very small and humbly adorned). It didn’t prevent the space to feel warm and intimate; I especially liked the larger tables made out of reclaimed wood and the elegant booths, designed to reflect Japanese minimalism. I was quickly attended to and ordered the Hirata Buns with pork ($9) and the Kuro Kasane ramen ($16), a special available for a limited time only.
Service was very quick: within minutes, the steamed buns arrived. They were soft, light and pillowy, and the pork was juicy, brushed with a lightly spicy sauce. I was still busy savoring them when my bowl of ramen arrived. I was immediately transported by the soup’s aroma: the broth was every bit as flavorful as my souvenir dictated it should be. The Kuro Kasame ramen is a tonkotsu (pork bone) and chicken noodle soup, topped with chashu pork, cabbage, sesame kikurage mushrooms, pickled ginger and black garlic oil. The broth was unbelievably rich and creamy and the black garlic oil coated my mouth with deliciousness. I couldn’t stop until I (almost) licked the bowl clean. I was quickly served a cup of tea and then I left to give up my seat to one of the hungry diners that had started forming a line outside.
Although Ippudo’s ramen is significantly more expensive than any I had in Japan (I suspect my $30 tab would shock many Japanese diners), I would pay for this experience again and again. To be fair, I treated myself to the special soup and à la carte items, whereas most people choose the lunch set, which includes a bowl of ramen (from $14 to $17) and a rice bowl (topped with cod roe, roast pork, fried chicken or grilled eel), and a mini salad for $3 more. One can thus enjoy a generous lunch at Ippudo for under $20, which is fair considering the quality of ingredients and authenticity of the experience.
If you want to experience a truly authentic ramen and save on the costs of an overseas flight, go to Ippudo NY. I won’t ever go back to New York without paying them a visit.
65 Fourth Avenue (Between 9th and 10th Street)
New York, NY 10003
Open Monday thru Sunday for lunch and dinner. No reservations.