Slurping up a great ramen broth while sitting in a restaurant filled with slim-hipped hipsters from the East Village* could be a mixed bag. But in this case it was a pleasure. The hipsters were slightly more interested in the food than themselves, and anyone who is interested in eating is, at the very least, tolerable in small doses. The aggressively friendly and insistent waiters kept the dose small indeed. They weren’t rude or obnoxious, but they were certainly focused on turning tables. And at these prices I can understand why.
We had three appetizers at first, but couldn’t resist the pork buns and ordered another round of those. Two bowls of ramen, six beers, and the bill was less than $100, including a large tip. We ordered two of the appetizers off of the specials menu, but when I return I will stick to the less expensive regular menu. The Smoked Duck With Basil Sauce was good, but overpriced at $12 for six or seven small, thin slices of duck. The Rice Ball and Unagi (eel) just missed, but was fun. Imagine a chunk of cheese in the middle of a rice ball, topped with a very nice piece of smoked eel, all swimming in a nice light broth. Weird, interesting, but ultimately not a keeper.
The buns were another thing entirely. Ah, the buns. The buns. Just wonderful. In my youth I would go to whatever Chinatown was near and pick up Char Su Bao, or steamed buns stuffed with pork. Usually the bun dwarfed the pork, and often the bun was dry and chalky. But they were insanely cheap, so I ignored the variable quality. Ippudo’s version is nothing like the typical stuff found at every Dim Sum parlor in the world. The buns were ethereally light, perfectly fresh and tender, and delicately flavored. The pork was lightly sauced with something that they cleverly call “Spicy Buns Sauce.” And there was some kind of green stuff in there too, but I ate them so quickly that I didn’t get a good look. But it was good.
But what of the ramen? Pretty damned good. I ordered their classic ramen with Berkshire pork and a bunch of other stuff that was excellent. The broth was intensely flavored, but not particularly fatty, and that is a challenge for any cook. One of the garnishes was a hard-boiled egg, and that did not make me happy, but more on that later. My dinner companion (that sounds so mysterious! It isn’t. She was my sister). had a similar ramen, but it was made with a darker broth, included a fish cake, and was glazed with a layer of oil. The broth was spectacular! Better than the original, with an interesting note of peanut and miso.
The only disappointing note, aside from the thoroughly pedestrian beer (why can’t the Japanese make good beer?), was the egg garnish. This dishes cries out for a gently poached or fried egg, or even — dare I suggest it in more than a whisper — a raw egg! I’m not particularly worried about Salmonella, and I would happily sign a waiver, giving up all rights to sue for $100,000,000 for slight gastrointestinal upset. But even with a silly hard-boiled egg, this restaurant is a delight — fun, relaxed, interesting looking, and best of all, great food. Oh, there is parking in the neighborhood!
*The web-site is pathetic. Unless you read Japanese, in which case I have no idea. It might still be pathetic in Kanji.