At this point, anyone who's paid a nanosecond of attention to the ramen scene in New York knows all about Ippudo, the East Village Japanese export famed for its incredibly rich Tonkotsu-style ramen and incredibly long wait times. Ippudo came in a close second in our ramen taste test a few years ago, and diners have been waiting for the chain to open its second NYC outpost, in Midtown West, for over two years.
After a string of delays, Ippudo II is now officially open on West 51st Street, with a slightly more streamlined menu than the offerings downtown. We stopped by the soft open for lunch last week to see how the Midtown branch stacks up.
Fist things first: the Midtown space has slightly fewer seats than the East Village location, but it's split into two stories, with one ramen counter on each level, plus a more traditional dining room on the ground floor. The menu has three ramens that each share a name with a downtown equivalent, but the broth in Midtown has been slightly tweaked to include mushrooms during its two-day cooking process, which is designed to result in a rounded flavor. All noodles and broths for both restaurants are being made in a shiny new factory in the basement of the Midtown branch.
The lunch menu only has a handful of appetizers, none of which looked exciting enough to try, though the dinner menu has a much wider selection, including several items that aren't available downtown. Midtown plans to expand their ramen selection in coming months, but in the meantime, we took it upon ourselves to sample all three of the ramens currently on the menu.
Shiromaru Hakata Classic ($14)
This is a traditional tonkotsu version with thin, straight noodles—the kind of classic, straightforward bowl that originated in Fukuoka, the southern Japanese region where Ippudo began. The broth was milky, porky, and unctuous—perhaps slightly too unctuous, in fact, as a thin layer of fat seemed to have congealed on top during the bowl's journey from pot to table, which is more a sign of slow service than poor-quality broth (to be fair, it was the restaurant's first week of service).
The broth itself was clean and pure-tasting, and the noodles retained a pleasantly bouncy texture. Toppings included thin, floppy slices of too-lean pork loin chasu, too-thick sticks of menma, sesame kikurage mushrooms, fresh scallions, and shredded pickled ginger to slice through the fat. Rich and soothing, yes, but has a few kinks to work out overall.
This Ippudo invention takes the classic tonkotsu broth and thin noodles and tops it with a pungent blend of hot spices and fragrant garlic oil (another minor difference between the locations: downtown's intensely strong garlic oil is nearly black, while Midtown's is milder and golden in hue). Toppings include thick-cut pork belly chashu, which we found more appetizing than the loin, cabbage, sesame kikurage mushrooms, and scallions.
This bowl tasted abrasive and unbalanced—the combination of the bright red chili paste with the cabbage ended up making the whole bowl taste vaguely of kimchee (no offense to kimchee, it just wasn't what we thought we were getting into here). Although it wasn't terribly spicy, the heat did have an unfortunate effect of making the broth seem less rich, when it reality it packs just as many calories (or more likely, more) as the Hakata Classic.
Akamaru Modern ($14)
The third time was the charm for us, with another Ippudo invention the restaurant claims is their most popular offering. Billing itself as a bolder, more modern translation of the original pork broth, the Akamaru strikes a perfect balance between the mild Hakata Classic and the overly aggressive Karaka-men. It has the same tonkotsu broth and noodles as the others, plus a scoop of red "Umami Dama" miso paste that melts into the broth and dovetails neatly with the amber garlic oil. Together, the miso and garlic create a sweet-hot bass note across the whole thing that had us slurping out of our bowls. Toppings include the pork belly chashu, cabbage, kikurage mushrooms, and scallions.
I'm curious to see how the Midtown Ippudo grows over the next few months. In our experience, Ippudo's appetizers aren't stellar, but some of their expanded dinner offerings do look intriguing. And there's of course the possibility that the Midtown location will eventually develop its own distinct ramen (or at least a few) that are totally separate from the downtown offerings. Here's to hoping we get double the pleasure.
The pork-centric pleasure.