"The kind of ramen I'm going to do, New York hasn't even heard about yet," said Ivan Orkin in his mild Long Island accent. He's the kind of guy who talks with his hands, though he doesn't really need the extra emphasis—hearing a New Yorker say things about ramen that even a Japanese expert might find surprising is interesting enough on its own. "This idea that people sit and linger over a bowl of ramen seems crazy to a Japanese person," he continues. "Ramen is like the corner slice of Tokyo. You go in, you inhale it, and you're out in five minutes." It's actually a good analogy, because just as pizza rapidly degrades in quality as it cool, so does ramen, soaking up liquid, losing texture. And with great noodles, texture is key.
I first heard of Ivan Orkin a few years back when my mom returned from a trip to Tokyo and asked me, "have you heard about this American guy making ramen in Tokyo? That's so strange. I wonder if it's good." I have never had the chance to make it to either of his two Tokyo shops, but if last night's dinner at the Ace Hotel is any indication, It's not just good, it's game-changingly fantastic.
His story alone makes Ivan Orkin an interesting character. An American chef with a high end restaurant background picks up his family and moves to Tokyo in 2004 to learn about noodles. In 2007, Ivan Ramen opened its doors and was a near instant success with the locals—not an easy feat for a culture steeped in tradition. He's since opened a second location with a completely different menu. For his third restaurant, he has his sight set on New York, a city which, despite a huge interest in ramen and a growing base of great ramen-ya, is still only scratching the surface in terms of the breadth and diversity of the ramen you find in Japan.
Orkin likens it to Italian food. "Think about the Italian food scene in New York even 15 years ago. It was red sauce and spaghetti, and you give it to an Italian and they might say 'this is an Italian dish, but it's not what Italian cuisine is about.'" It's only recently that we've seen Italian cuisine diversify, become more representative of what food in Italy is really like—seen through a New York lens, of course. "We're at a good place now with Italian. We can get real Italian ingredients. We can get the flour we need to make pasta—you can find finely milled 'OO' and durum and all those things" that make cooking traditional Italian food possible.
"Anyone can make a junky pork broth that tastes good," he says. According to him, that's why most of the cheaper ramen shops in Tokyo and in New York specialize in it—even when it's not that great, it still tastes pretty good. The milder, subtler, smoked fish-based stocks that he specializes in are a more nuanced affair, requiring a more careful balance of ingredients and flavors. "In Tokyo you can walk down the street and find 50 different types of smoked dried fish to work with. Here you're lucky to find more than one."
Troubles with ingredients sourcing doesn't just end with the broth, however. Even the flour available in the U.S. is vastly different from the types ramen is traditionally made from in Japan. "Japanese flour is softer, more finely milled. You don't find the right kinds in the U.S." In his Tokyo shop, Orkin makes 100% of his noodles himself, with the aid of a high-tech noodle machine. "Noodle and broth pairing are my main focus," he says. "I get so frustrated when I go to eat ramen and I taste this amazing broth, but then it just runs right off the noodles because they aren't the right texture, or when you get great noodles with a flavorless broth."
"When I design my noodles, I'll start with one or the other. A broth I love or a noodle I love, then work from the other end to get a noodle or broth to match it." Currently, his plans for the New York shop don't include noodles made on-premises, but he's teamed up with Sun Noodles, a Hawaii and L.A.-based noodle manufacturer who just opened a plant in New Jersey to deliver fresh-made, custom-recipe noodles to his shop when it opens. Sun Noodles is like the Pat LaFrieda of the noodle world—they work with ramen chefs to develop custom flour blends, noodle sizes, and aging protocols. if you've eaten at a few of New York's best ramen joints, chances are good that you've had their noodles more than once.
"I like pork," says Orkin. And he'd better, because last night he cooked with April Bloomfield, New York's Queen of Pig; Orkin has said that Bloomfield's The Spotted Pig inspired some of his pork-based dishes. "But I do my own version of a pork broth. It's lighter and more subtle than a tonkotsu. It's hard to say what 'authentic' is with ramen, so when people ask me if my ramen is authentic, I tell them 'yeah, it's authentic to my shop.'"
Thus far, the only tastes that New Yorkers have had of his ramen were at the no-tickets, open-until-the-ramen-runs-out event at Momofuku a few months back, and this event at the Ace hotel last night. But that should soon change as he gears up to open his doors.
For now, Orkin is still trying to nail down a deal on a space. "It's impossible to open a restaurant in New York. You find a space, then they don't let you bring gas into it, or you find out it's going to take a year and a half to get your licenses while you're just sitting on an empty store." But he's confident that he'll be up and running within the next few months. We'll be waiting.
For a quick look at the dishes he served at last night's dinner, take a look through the slideshow above.