Ivan Ramen's Slurp Shop: Damn the Authenticity, Full Speed Ahead
Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop
600 11th Avenue, Inside Gotham West Market (44th street and 11th Avenue; map); ivanramen.com
Setting: Upscale food court
Must-Haves: Smoked white fish donburi, slow-cooked pork donburi, chili eggplant mazemen, classic shoyu ramen
Service: Food court-style self-service, but the cashiers are friendly and the food comes out wicked fast.
Compare To: Yuji ramen
Recommendation: One of the most unique and delicious ramen shops in the city. Unashemedly inauthentic. A must-visit.
Ivan Ramen's Slurp Shop is open, and it's good. Really, really good.
When my friends first moved to the far western edge of Hell's Kitchen a few years ago, there were nothing but fancy new apartment complexes, street vendor warehouses, and lots of cabs to take the folks who lived in those fancy apartments to neighborhoods worth visiting. But that was before Gotham West Market opened its doors a few weeks ago, serving up lunch and dinner food court-style. It's got a few high-profile tenants like Brooklyn-sandwich shop Court Street Grocers, a Spanish tapas joint called El Colmado, a burger joint called Genuine Roadside, and a few others.
But wander through the open communal seating throughout the complex and you'll notice one thing: almost everyone there has a bowl of ramen in front of them. It's not surprising given the amount of hype that Ivan Orkin has been building up through various pop-ups and events around the city for over a year now. Slurp Shop, as the Gotham West Market outpost is named, is the first and smaller of two shops he has planned for the city, his first two restaurants since opening up his now-legendary Tokyo back in 2007.
Here's the thing about ramen in Tokyo: it's post-adolescent in a way that hasn't quite hit New York yet. It's gone through its phases of authentic rigor and regional stylistic adherence and has become what, say, pizza has become here: a framework. A canvas for which to work upon (don't believe me? Just check out what's going on with our community-submitted pizzas each week). That's not to say that there are no standards. Just as a wildly inventive pizza built on a flawed crust is going to fall flat, no amount of creativity can rescue poorly crafted noodles or broth lacking depth and technique. Ivan Ramen's thin, slightly wavy noodles, made by Sun Noodle (a.k.a. the Pat LaFrieda of noodles) using Orkin's recipe, cook in about 40 seconds and come flecked with bits of rye flour. They're consistently bouncy and fresh, an impeccable base to build a bowl on.
The last great ramen rush in New York was all about the pork. Joints like Ippudo and Hide-chan made rich, creamy tonkotsu broth the standard. It's not until the last year or so that we've been dipping our feet into craziness that is modern ramen. Yuji Ramen brought us Italian pasta shapes made with ramen dough dressed with small dollops of wildly inventive sauces. Bassanova brought us the signature green curry ramen from their Tokyo shop. Slurp Shop goes even further astray, while still riffing on classic flavors, both Japanese and New York.
Glancing at the menu, you might not notice a few familiar items. Classic Shoyu Ramen ($13) is probably the most traditional of the lot, though it's a stretch to call it "classic." The broth base is similar to those in the other soups, made with a combination of chicken broth and dashi which then gets flavored with a soy sauce-based tare and a drizzle of flavored fat. It's lighter and more delicate than most ramen broths I've had. The bowl comes topped with a slice of slow-cooked pork chashu and a tangled nest of scallions. It's a solid, comforting bowl, but not the star of the show.
A vegetarian version of the shoyu ramen ($13) is more interesting, with a strong stock flavored with mushroom and seaweed along with a slick of what chef Mike Bergemann calls "vegetable fat,"—oil flavored with their house soffrito and seaweed.
Classic Shio Ramen veers even further off course, with a stock that's darker than you'd expect for a traditional shio (my Japanese mother even asked if we got the right dish after seeing its appearance). It's served with a dusting of powdered katsuobushi, the dried smoked bonito that is used to make dashi and is often served as a topping for tofu or rice. It's one of Ivan Ramen's signature moves and adds an intense umami smokiness to the dish.
If you want to bulk things up, very lightly marinated soft-boiled eggs can be added for a couple, as can an extra slice of pork belly chashu ($3). The pork belly comes served as-is, with none of the torching or grilling action you get at some other ramen shops, but it's faultlessly juicy, rich, and well seasoned. The most interesting add-ons are slow-roasted plum tomatoes ($2, Ivan Orkin might have found the only good use for those roast tomatoes that get pushed aside on a full English breakfast platter) and a chili garlic oil ($1) which is heavy on the garlic and light on the chili.
Speaking of garlic, you might have read Brian Koppelman's short paean to the Roasted Garlic Mazemen ($13), which is probably the most talked-about dish at the restaurant, but not its best. Served in a near brothless style that Orkin invented at his Tokyo joint, the noodles instead come dressed in an intensely flavored sauce with a creamy texture. It's similar to the Triple Garlic Mazemen that I tasted at a dinner a couple months back, though the slurp shop version is missing the balance that pickled garlic brought to that dish. I miss that pickled garlic.
Occasionally the broth can also be too creamy. With ramen, eating the noodles while they're still hot is always vitally important for their texture, but in this case, it's actually the texture of the sauce that suffers: If you don't get to the bottom of that bowl within a few moments of having it delivered to you, it thickens up into a starchy, almost paste-like consistency that plasters the remaining noodles together. On one occasion, the noodles came served in a bowl that was cool enough to thicken up that sauce before I even got halfway through them. Better bowl-heating would go a long way in smoothing out this occasional inconsistency.
Of the noodle-based dishes, the most interesting—and my favorite—is the Chili Eggplant Mazemen, which goes the furthest into straddling the fusion line. Eggplant is slow-cooked in a tomato-based soffrito until it melts apart into a rich, noodle-coating sauce with plenty of flavorful oil added to the mix, making the dish something like an abura soba. The scallions on top come dusted with what looks like Japanese togarashi, but is actually smoky powdered chipotle peppers.
If there's one complaint that can be made about the ramen, it's the portion sizes. These are moderately-sized bowls that come sparsely adorned. Extra eggs, chashu, and toamato can bulk things up a bit, but Ivan Ramen is never going to be the kind of place where you can leave stuffed with a single serving of noodles.
If filling up is your goal, you're better off looking towards the Rice Bowls ($12 each), which I'm going to declare as the strongest part of a strong menu. Slow-cooked pork shoulder comes shredded in a rich, sweet and savory sauce served on top of rice seasoned with a puree of umeboshi (salt-preserved Japanese apricots flavored with purple shiso) and wasabi. Those slow-roasted tomatoes sit on top, along with some more of that flavorful oil.
Curry Rice ($12), a Japanese lunch counter staple, comes served with a big sprinkle of lightly pickled radishes. Rather than a standard roux-based curry sauce, Slurp Shop makes their with a smooth puree of cooked cauliflower, apples, and other vegetables, leading to a lighter texture. Despite the strong taste memory, there was something lacking here—I longed for the super-soft chunks of potato and carrot Japanese curry typically comes with, and found the shaved ribeye to be an odd choice of protein. It's not a bad dish, but not as strong as the other rice options.
That takes us to the Whitefish Donburi, one of the most surprisingly delicious things I've tasted all year. Has anyone done Jewish-Japanese fusion yet? (Yes, but still.) It starts with a warm rice base tossed with homemade furikake, a Japanese seasoning blend used to flavor rice. Their's has the standard sesame seeds, nori, and sweetened smoked bonito flakes, but augments it with ground fried onions. The rice comes topped with slivered cucumber, scallion, flaked smoked whitefish, and a dollop of salmon roe.
Stir it all up and each bite brings you a crazy burst of flavors and textures: sweet bonito flakes and crunchy fried onions coat bits of crisp cucumber. Hints of smoke come through from the whitefish, which melts into the rice. Salty salmon eggs burst against your tongue. It reminds me of the simple breakfast my Japanese grandmother used to serve us of white rice with jarred furikake and grilled cod roe, but with better balance, more excitement. (Sorry grandma.)
The rest of the menu is comprised of a couple of sides: an excellent sweet-and-tart Negi Salad with pickled cucumber and scallions, and some eggplants in thick gravy that is tasty if a little stodgy.
It thickens up similarly to the garlic mazemen if you don't down it fast enough. For drinks, you have your choice of a refreshing yuzu lemonade, which is wisely mostly lemonade with just a hint of yuzu, Japanese barley tea (which I wish were brewed a little stronger), or the "Ivan Palmer," a 50/50 mix of the two.
I chatted with Ivan briefly after one of my meals (he floats around the dining room chatting with patrons in a very Paulie Gee-like way) and talked to him about the more exciting menu items, that whitefish donburi in particular. Good news: according to Ivan, the larger menu at his soon-to-open East Village shop is going to be greatly expanded in the realm of these unique Jewish-New York-Tokyo-style dishes.
If we've already dipped our feet into the craziness of modern ramen, Slurp Shop marks New York's first headlong dive, and it's fitting that a Jewish guy from Long Island is bringing it to us, leaving authenticity far behind in the dust.
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.