This is a tale of two bowls of noodles on one rainy night. The first because I was hungry. The second because I was still hungry.
Last week I mentioned that I was on quest for soba, a quest that continued this week and will conclude, noodle willing, by next week.
I had it on good authority that the handmade soba at 15 East was good. So one evening I went with Robyn to see. The restaurant is a block west of Union Square, with the nifty address 15 East 15th street.
Before I left the house, I remembered to change out of the sweatpants that I usually go around in, into one of the few dresses I own that is not stained, torn, or a relic from my middle school/high years. A good thing too, as 15 East turned out to be a swanky place with what Robyn called "sexy samba" music playing in the background.
We were shown to our table and shown the wine and sake list. Perusing the list, I began to understand that neither of us would be able to afford much besides the noodles we were after. This is because we are a) tightfisted with our money and b) not what you would call well-off.
"Anything to drink?" our waiter asked.
We politely declined, and the menu was taken away.
I got up to use the bathroom. There was a beautiful Japanese woman standing in the corner, and from what I could tell, one of her primary jobs seemed to be opening and closing the bathroom door for customers. Now, it makes me slightly uncomfortable to be waited on, period, but when an extraneous service such as door-opening is provided, that is probably when I start to grow nervous.
We ordered our soba, cold. For $14, the base price for a bowl. You can select toppings (we had salmon roe, $5 and sea urchin roe, $7). This is not where you go to satisfy a cheap noodle craving.
"Can I get you an appetizer?" our waiter asked.
We shook our heads, and our menus were taken away again.
An amuse bouche was brought to our table—a tiny square of cooked daikon on top of which lay a half-circle of clam, less than the size of a quarter.
I chewed once, maybe twice, and it was all gone.
Our noodles came. In comparison to the size of our amuse bouche, these bowls were gargantuan. But in comparison to other bowls of noodles, these were small. Nested inside the bowls were mounds of soba, thinner than any other handmade soba I've eaten.
I took up a strand, and chewed. A little brittle, but cooked al dente, and with great buckwheat flavor. They were good noodles. If only there were more of them, I thought.
I was really very hungry. Or so says MFK Fisher in one my favorite essays of all time, about her experience with a French waitress in Burgundy who insists with dictatorial finality that she must try everything, and maniacally feeds MFK everything, until she is grossly overstuffed. I sat there wishing for that plight instead of the one in which I found myself.
In what seemed like five or six slurps, my noodles had disappeared, leaving the pile of roe sitting in the puddle of dipping sauce. It made me think of how fish eggs are released into the water, how they float in perilous solitude and expire quickly.
It was maddening. I kept trying to retrieve every salmon globule from the dark liquid, and in doing so made myself even hungrier.
By this time, our waiter might have given up any hope of making real dough on us, because we sat there unattended for a while after we were through eating, too frozen in embarrassment to ask for the check.
Then, we were brought the dessert menu, we declined, and the menu was taken away. In its place, they brought out a bento box with two tiny macaroons and two tiny madeleines, which, like the amuse bouche, were too petite to be fully experienced. They were pretty good, or at least I think they were.
"What should we do now? Want to go out for ice cream?" Robyn asked. One of the many things I love about Robyn is her unflaggingly cheerful temperament.
"No, I'm still hungry," I said.
"Well what would you like?" she said.
"Noodles," I said, and it takes a real friend to agree to a second noodle dinner directly following noodle dinner number one.
The night was hot and humid. We trudged, under heavy rain, across Union Square, and a few avenues and blocks further still, to Rai Rai Ken on 10th Street. When we reached the ramen joint, we were wet and famished. Actually I was famished, and Robyn was peckish by then, and said that she would be happy to share a bowl.
Have you ever felt as though the first three sips or so from a piping hot bowl of ramen could be a curative for anything? Our bowl of miso ramen came brimming with corn and chicken. A slice of butter was floating—no, melting gracefully, across the broth. I dipped my spoon in and broke up the butter into a swirl, and drank the broth.
My, but it was nice broth! Meaty with good miso flavor, buttery, and in between sips, there was what practically a whole ear's worth of corn kernels on the side, along with tender slivers of chicken. The noodles themselves were good, not great (I prefer the bounciness of noodles from Ippudo), but this was a lot of food for $11.50, and while no one component really stands out in my mind, everything together—the tonic-like broth, the hearty noodles, the filling and juicy corn, not to mention the pat of butter—was just what we needed after our minimalist meal at 15 East.
We ate and we ate, and then the hearty buckwheat in our guts finally kicked in, because we couldn't finish the bowl of ramen.
When the waiter came to take our check, we asked for our leftovers to go, and I promptly dumped my portion of the broth into Robyn's bowl, so that nothing would be wasted. This is one of those gross practices that you can really only do in the company of good friends who don't mind your cooties.
When we left the ramen joint, the rain had only just stopped, and the streets had that quiet hush about them.
Today I can rationally admit that the soba at 15 East really was very good, and the bowl wasn't really all that small, and the noodles really weren't so expensive, all things considered.
Perspective is so much easier to achieve on a full belly.
Rai Rai Ken
214 East 10th Street, New York NY 10003 (map)
About the author: Born in Shanghai and raised in New Mexico, Chichi Wang currently resides in Manhattan, where she divides her time between writing, cooking, and tracking down the best noodles in the city. Visit her blog, Mostly Tripe.