We watched, literally on the edges of our seats as Yuji lit up his blowtorch and pointed the blue flame towards a tray full of mussel shells. The shells crackled and spit briefly, their edges glowing, remnants of their beards flying up in the air as red embers caught in the updraft of smoke. Yuji transferred the mussel shells to miniature French presses, added a handful of smoked shaved bonito flakes, then ladled in a clear broth and placed the pitchers in front of us on the table. A few moments later, bowls of noodles lightly dressed in soy sauce, Japanese pepper flakes, and scallions arrived and Yuji instructed us to strain our torched mussel-infused broth over them.
This was the last course in one of the most remarkable ramen-based meals I've ever had. And I had it at a lunch counter. Inside a Whole Foods. Weird.
You may have had your first taste of Yuji Haraguhi's ramen at Smorgasburg. Or like me, you may have seen the lines and decided it wasn't worth the wait. If so you (and I) decided wrong: the man is making some of the most strikingly original ramen around.
For the next two months, Yuji is calling the six-seat Smorgarburg stand on the top floor of the Bowery and East Houston Whole Foods Market his temporary home. His menu comes in two parts. From 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. each weekday and all day on the weekends, he serves a small a la carte menu of three mazemen options (brothless noodles served with toppings and sauce), along with a daily rotating soy broth-based ramen. On weeknights he'll do five-course omakase dinners at 6 and 8 p.m. for $40; he'll also do seven-course omakase dinners on weekend nights at 7 for $65. (Tickets here.)
Even those familiar with ramen may not have had mazemen, a style of ramen that is becoming increasingly popular in Japan that I first saw in New York a few months ago at Yebisu Ramen in Williamsburg. With mazemen, the noodles are treated more like Italian pasta. Rather than swimming in broth, they are coated in just a bit of flavorful sauce along with a few toppings, all meant to be stirred together.
It's fitting, then, that Yuji actually makes his mazemen noodles in the style of an Italian pasta—rolled flat and cut wide like fettucini, a technique he says he learned during a stint as a cook at Roberta's. "I thought, if I'm making all of this pasta with Italian dough, why can't I make it with ramen dough?"
The result is noodles that have the characteristic elastic bounce of an alkaline ramen noodle, but with the wide, sauce-clinging texture of Italian pasta.
And what sauces do they get? From the a la carte menu you get a choice of three ($9 each). Bacon and Egg combines a slow-cooked, perfectly soft egg with crisp bacon, shavings of smoked bonito, and greens, while the Miso Roasted Vegetables has cauliflower, carrot, and turnip coated in a barley-based miso sauce and is served with shredded kale and seaweed. "We are using only seasonal vegetables for this, so when spring comes, we'll replace them with peas and asparagus and other green vegetables," says Yuji. The sauce is a purée of the same vegetables along with a vegan seaweed-based dashi.
Most interesting is the Salmon Cheese mazemen, made with raw salmon that's been house-cured with lemon zest and Sichuan peppercorn. And wait, what? Cheese on ramen? Yep. That's a mix of Camembert and heavy cream drizzled on top. It's one of those dishes where when you see it on the menu it leaves you scratching your head, but when you taste it you go, ah... that makes sense. It's light, subtle, and remarkably fresh tasting, literally and figuratively.
The broth and toppings for the soy ramen change daily depending on available bones and trim from the Whole Foods meat and fish counters downstairs. As a former fish salesman with True World Foods (I first met him years ago when he sold fish to a restaurant I worked at in Boston), Yuji knows his fish inside and out. The broth we tasted was made with monkfish head, lamb bones, and pork ribs, with a distinct flavor of seaweed. "Seaweed is important to ramen flavor, so even when I use non-traditional bones and ingredients, I want to make sure people still think, 'this is ramen,'" explains Yuji. The noodles for the soy-based ramen are more traditional thin and wavy ramen noodles made at Sun Noodles. The Hawaii-based noodle company with a new facility in New Jersey is fast securing its reputation as the Pat LaFrieda of noodles, specializing in making noodles from custom flour blends for ramen shops around the city.
On weeknights, Yuji serves what he believes is the first ramen-based omakase-style seasonal tasting menu. For $40, guests receive a five-course all-ramem meal based around seasonal seafood and vegetables. On the weekends it's seven courses for $65.
Our tasting started with a small portion of that salmon and cheese mazemen, this version with crisp chips of sweet salmon skin on top. Next was what appeared to be an Italian-style meat ragú served with orrechiette. In reality, the ragú was a spicy sauce made with finely minced squid along with a sprinkle of toasted sweetened sesame crumble. The orrechiette look like regular pasta, but have a much bouncier, chewier texture, reminiscent of the squid they come coated in.
Third course: other looks-Italian-tastes-Japanese concoction. Wide, flat raviolo stuffed with a miso and uni puree that melts to a sauce-like consistency when the raviolo is cooked. It comes topped with fresh sea urchin, blood orange, and fresh shiso leaf. I ignored Yuji's recommendation to break the raviolo on the plate to mix the sauce around and popped the whole thing in my mouth instead. It burst like the world's most intense soup dumpling.
Next up was a bowl of warm noodles served with a clear, gelatinous broth on the side. As you pour the broth into the noodles, the two combine and the jelly becomes liquid again. The refreshing soup came with a couple of plump raw fresh-shucked East coast oysters.
Finally we get to the charred mussel noodles, one of the most exciting bowls of ramen I've had in ages. The concept is so remarkably simple and brilliant. The broth starts with a chicken and mussel base and is intensely savory on its own. The torched mussel and bonito infusion adds a current of smokiness to the whole thing that waves tantalizingly in and out of the noodles. It's dramatic, sure, but it's more than just smoke and mirrors. It's downright delicious.
The bad news: Every single seat for his tasting menu has already been sold out for the full two month period he's at Whole Foods. "It sold out in about two days! We weren't expecting that," says Yuji. He's opened up more seats but they're moving fast too, so act fast.
The hopefully exciting news: Yuji claims to have a full brick-and-mortar restaurant in the works where he'll continue to explore his somewhat wacky, always delicious brand of Japanese food. "Japanese food is not about ingredients just from Japan, it's about celebrating seasons and keeping flavors simple and balanced," Yuji says. "Creativity comes from using what's best and what's fresh, so my food is original, but always Japanese."
Peep through the slideshow above for a closer look at the tasting and lunch menus.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.