Battling crowds, assumptions, hunger: Ramen at New York’s Ippudo

Although the subject of this long-delayed second column was to focus on an education of ramen in the dish’s motherland, a recent bout of cold weather and the calendar have served as a reminder of one particular ramen run in the Big Apple that was documented, but never recounted. Therefore, as that topic of education is put on hold, another takes its place…

My initial adventures in ramen dining in England proved to be amateurish when, years later, a move to a major city (New York) with a sizeable Japanese expatriate community redefined my preconceived notions of authenticity, thanks to the restaurants associated with said expat population. Not surprisingly – and increasingly in the last few years in particular – this diverse quantity of restaurants includes a proliferation of ramen joints.

There’s an actual word in Japanese that mimics the slurping sound one makes when savoring a delicious bowl of ramen. That exclamation of “Zuzutto!” happens to come with a detailed definition:

“One should ‘inhale’ the noodles, creating a distinct noise that the Japanese describe as zuzutto. The zuzutto noise signifies the maximum enjoyment of the ramen, because it is created by simultaneously consuming the noodles and soup.”

Such wisdom has been parlayed in a brochure on “How to enjoy Ramen” published by Ippudo, a Tokyo-based ramen restaurant that has made its way overseas to Singapore and the United States. Each outing to the Ippudo branch in New York, whether it included an offering from the standard – if such an adjective can be applied – menu or one of its seasonal specials tends to start with a combination of giddy anticipation and pent-up frustration in the wait to be seated, and end with satisfaction when one’s taste buds have finally been sated.

For me, the most memorable Ippudo run to date took place about nine months after the New York branch opened. Tuesday, Dec. 30, was not the last day of 2008. But it was the last day of the year for Ippudo and, more importantly, the last day of the restaurant’s month-long, limited-edition roasted miso ramen special.

A friend and I had been salivating over the preview pictures on a blog for a good couple of months up to that point, particularly since Ippudo had catapulted to the top spot in our respective New York City ramen restaurant rankings after just one tasting. However, much to my shock and horror, he admitted on that very Tuesday that he had chickened out on the seemingly avant-garde roasted miso offering just two days prior, instead opting for one of Ippudo’s usual bowls. This prompted exclamations of “Loser!” and “Wimp!” from at least three people, including myself, and in a last-ditch effort to get him to summon his culinary courage, I offered to “sacrifice my stomach” late into the evening while he waited for his out-of-town friend to arrive by bus so we could chow down en masse. (Alas, the friend was stuck in bad traffic.)

That said, there are benefits to the solo ramen run, particularly when it comes to Ippudo. No matter what the time of day, there is a line out the door. Well, make that a mob. As I pushed through the crowd of people entering, exiting, milling and waiting around on a 35-degree Fahrenheit evening, I knew that declaring a party of one was equivalent to a Monopoly “Pass Go.” To put this into perspective, one guy ahead of me in line checked with the hostess on his “party of two” status. “You’ve only been waiting here for 30 minutes,” she reassured him.

I may not have been collecting $200, but a bowl of Ippudo ramen was a more than worthy equivalent. Pointing at the special menu, I told the waiter that I wanted the Kogashi miso ramen. (The full entry actually read, “The dark rich roasted miso broth noodles, topped with Berkshire pork, cabbage, bok choy, egg, naruto.”)

The waiter actually didn’t believe me. He mentioned that the restaurant offers two kinds of miso ramen, and suggested that I might be referring to their “regular” miso ramen, a worthy adversary with its thicker-than-usual hearty broth. “It’s oily,” he told me of the Kogashi offering.

“I know,” I replied, looking him square in the eye and smiling. “I’ve had it twice. And today is the last day, right?” And, by the way, was there any chance that Ippudo could add the dish to its daily menu? And, I added, could he throw in some extra pork belly (kakuni) in my bowl for good measure?

Shortly afterward, my bowl arrived, and the woman to my right couldn’t help but notice the textured broth of light and dark browns, and jet black specks of miso floating in my bowl. She and her friend, a couple visiting from Perth, Australia, had endured a two-hour wait in their third attempt to get into the restaurant during their vacation. (The lines during the first two tries proved to be daunting, she said, but they figured that the third time should be the charm – no matter how long the wait would be – after she had read about Ippudo in Time Out.)

She asked me what I thought she should order. I told her she was in luck and showed her my bowl. “This is the last day that you can try this,” I said. So she ordered it.

She loved it.

Since that cold December day in 2008, the kogashi miso ramen briefly made an appearance in the regular menu, then disappeared. It has now returned to Ippudo for a seasonal dinner run until the end of February 2011, in both a spicy and non-spicy format. Ippudo, 65 Fourth Avenue (between 9th and 10th Street), New York, NY 10003, Phone: 212.388.0088. For more information, go to www.ippudony.com.

This “Ramen Run” column is the second in an autobiographical series about the Japanese noodle by Editor-in-Chief Yuan-Kwan Chan.