Ramen is popping up seemingly everywhere in NYC these days, much of it quite good. One of the more unique places was recommended to me by my friend, Jeff Chin, who was a judge alongside me at The International Chocolate Awards. Yuji Ramen is currently a pop-up in the Whole Foods on Bowery and E. Houston in NYC. The pop-up is part of a wonderful program at the Whole Foods showcasing quality small food makers from Smorgasburg across the bridge in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Yuji Ramen has occupied the space since March and will be there at least into August, after which they will be opening a restaurant back across the river in Williamsburg called Okonomi.
The style of ramen that Yuji Haraguchi, a self taught cook and former fish seller par excellence, specializes in is called Mazemen, which resembles Italian pasta in some ways more than it does the classic soupy Japanese ramen. Typically three different mazemen are available at the counter, each priced about $9. These are Japanese alkaline ramen noodles served “dry” with toppings and sauce, but no broth. For those who were lucky enough to snag advance tickets, Yuji and his team including co-chef and co-owner Tara Norvell (former Roberta’s back kitchen sous chef) also serves omakase dinners at the counter. Dining with my friend, Michael, we were not so fortunate as to have had the full omakase, but our timing was perfect for convincing the kitchen to prepare a few dishes off the omakase for us in addition to a few from the regular menu.
Haraguchi, may not have been formally trained as a cook, but like his mentor, Carlo Mirarchi at Roberta’s, that hasn’t stopped him or Norvell from preparing amazing food. We started with a cold mazeman of custom-made (by Sun Noodle Co. for Yuji Ramen) curly temomi ramen noodles that resembled Italian fusilli with house-cured salmon, salmon skin, shiso, nori and Camembert cream cheese. This was a delightful combination of springy noodles, soft fish and creamy cheese that afterwards reminded me of a bagel with lox and a schmear only even better. With this dish, I knew that Jeff’s recommendation was right on.
A second mazeman, served hot, consisted of the same curly noodles (with a different texture due to the cooking method) with bacon and egg. Comprised of the same temomi noodles along with a poached egg, smoked bacon, chiffonaded kale, garlic flakes, bonito, sweet soy sauce and fish sauce, this was another noodle tour de force, this time reminiscent of the Italian Pasta Carbonara. Taste memories may have been evoked, but these were superb, fresh takes on these memories, bringing back enough to provide context, but remaining fresh enough to still be exciting.
We were each given a dish from the omakase menu. This one used raw scallops as a vehicle to carry the flavors from the rest of the dish. The scallops were sliced into noodles and used for a highly seasonal dish along with a cold clam and English pea shoyu broth, fresh peas, white soy, shiso oil, yuzu and sake steamed scallop roe. Unlike the previous two dishes, which were flavor powerhouses, this was delicate and subtle. Shiso was the dominant flavor, but not to the point of excess. It was an interesting contrast to the mazeman dishes.
The dish that I had really been hoping to try was only available on the omakase for the evening. Shoyu ramen with mussels and mussel stock was made by infusing their house shoyu broth with mussel shells that had been fired with a blow torch to release flavor. The shells were steeped along with some bonito in the hot seafood and vegetable broth for a few minutes in a French press and then poured over Kyoto noodles with dried monkfish scale powder, mussels, scallion and nori. The dish was a prime example of their philosophy of using everything and wasting nothing. We begged, but the difficulty lay in the French presses, which, as one might imagine, have a high casualty rate. They have enough on hand for the number of omakases for the evening. Our service would depend upon the survival of two presses.
It turned out that we were in luck. After the omakases had been served further down the counter, they had enough to prepare two more servings – one each for Michael and myself. This was once again a full-flavoed dish with the smoke from the shells and the bonito and the onion flavor of the scallions up front. The noodles were again beautifully cooked with a totally different texture than either set of mazemen noodles earlier. This dish was a winner on edibility as well as showmanship and theater. Yuji Ramen made its case for parsimonious use of product. Few do it as effectively.
We had a bit of dessert to round off the meal. Annin Dofu with tri-star strawberries. This was clean, refreshing and very tasty without being too sweet. It was an ideal ending to a lovely and relatively inexpensive meal.
Given that it is currently located in a Super-Market, the ambiance and setting of the current iteration of Yuji Ramen are surprisingly congenial. While the place doesn’t really add to the experience, it doesn’t detract from it either. The truth is the food I tasted was good enough at a reasonable enough price point that neither the setting nor the attitudes would really have much of an impact on its popularity. When they move into their new digs at Okonomi in Brooklyn, the setting may be an enhancement or not and it won’t likely make much of a difference. As for the attitude, that is what really brought the entire experience up to the level of really being special. Yuji, Tara and their team really seem to enjoy doing what they do and their excitement and enthusiasm is infectious. I believe they would be successful even without that appeal, but my evening, at least, was much the richer with it. I am excited to see what the future holds for them.