126 North 6th Street (b/n Bedford and Berry; map); 718-782-1444; ramenyebisu.com, [email protected]
Service: Japanese and smiley
Setting: Clean, modern, bright, small
Must-Haves: Miso ramen, abura ramen
Cost: Ramen bowls $8 to $17
Grade: A to C, depending on which bowl you order
As a food-friendly neighborhood, Williamsburg's got plenty going for it: some of the best pies and sandwiches in the city at Best Pizza; modern casual cuisine without the hipster factor at Gwynett Street. Even the best bang-for-your-buck Japanese omakase menu can be found at Zenkichi. But noodles—and I'm taking springy, slippery, ramen noodles in a rich, salty broth—were a hole that needed filling.
Enter Ramen Yebisu to fill the void. The noodle-centric brick-and-mortar restaurant first started earning its devotees at its stall at the weekly Smorgasburg food fair a few blocks away. The fans have followed.
Helmed by chef Akira Hiratsuka, former chef at the awesome Yakitori Totto, Yebisu specializes in Sapporo-style ramen, a style not common in New York, a city rife with Southern-style porky tonkotusu and salty, soy-flavored shoyu broth.
Sapporo is the largest city on Hokkaido, the large island to the north of Japan. With its cold weather and proximity to the ocean, the ramen tends to be both rich in sea flavors and in fat. You'll find that all of the soup-centric ramen bowls at Yebisu comes with a film of oil floating over their surfaces, and all of them have a light seafood aroma—a product of their shellfish and bonito-based broth—underlying everything. (Those with shellfish allergies are out of luck here).
The noodles themselves are also thicker and more flavorful than the thin noodles of Hakata-style ramen joints. They have a resilient chew like good Chinese egg noodles, with a faint funk that comes from a 48 hour fermentation period. The waiters and cooks were a little reticent when it came to divulging the exact source of their noodles, but they did tell me that they are custom-made and cooked the same day they are delivered.
I've tasted eight bowls of ramen there now, and the noodles have been exceptional every time.
A thin slip of a shop with a few high tops and counter service along the glass wall looking into the kitchen, the service is friendly and efficient in that uniquely Japanese "I want you to feel extremely welcome but also I'll sometimes yell my greetings a bit too loudly and smile brightly but knowingly at you after you've finished eating until you pay your check and leave" kind of way.
With a very limited menu (one appetizer, five different ramen bowls, soft drinks and beer), and reasonable prices (four of the five ramen bowls are between $8 and $12), it's easy to eat your way through the whole menu in a few visits. The best bowls are excellent, though there are a couple hiccups here and there. Here are my thoughts.
Miso Ramen ($12)
As a specialty of Hiratsuka's native Hokkaido, it's no wonder that the miso ramen is the best of the bunch here. It's got a thick, meaty base with the opaque creaminess and rich texture of a good tonkotsu-style pork broth, coupled with the salty tang of miso paste.
They make the bowl by stir-frying a mixture ground pork, bean sprouts, and onions, flavored with ginger and garlic in a raging hot wok, Chinese style. The wok then gets deglazed with the broth, which picks up a hint of smokiness from the hot steel. Charred onion bits floating on its surface are almost blackened, adding another layer to this already complex, satisfying stuff.
Opt for an add-in of a dash of their house-made spicy garlic oil, and I'd rank the broth up there with Ippudo's spicy broth as one of the best in the city.
Spicy, rich, oily, salty, and filling, this is precisely the kind of fare you're looking for in the middle of the night to ward off a potential hangover the next day—an oft-prescribed prophylactic in this neighborhood packed with bars.
In Hokkaido, it's common to serve miso ramen with corn kernels and butter—I'd be interested to see if Hiratsuka's got any specials or new bowls planned down the line.
Abura Soba ($8)
Abura soba translates as "oil noodles" and abura-ramen are exactly what they sound like: ramen noodles served with oil. Though the soupless-version of ramen is popular in Japan, I'd never seen it before in New York. Heck, I don't think I've seen it anywhere in the United States. Have you?
The bowl starts with the same excellent thick ramen noodles that then get tossed in a bowl with a drizzle of lobster oil and soy sauce. On top, a perfectly soft-poached egg is nestled in next to slices of their tender, not-too-fatty cha-siu pork along with bamboo shoots and plenty of scallion whites. The idea is to mix it all up in the bowl, letting the soft egg and oil emulsify with the soy sauce into a rich, noodle-coating sauce. Japanese carbonara, if you will.
To be honest, the lobster flavor is completely lost amongst the other strong tastes, but it didn't bother me in the slightest. At only $8, it makes for a good light meal or big snack.
Shio Ramen ($10)
Another specialty of Sapporo, shio-ramen ("salt noodles") is one of the oldest and simplest forms of the dish. As its name would suggest, it's got an intensely salty flavor, but there's a distinct minerality to it—a combination of ocean flavors from the sea broth and wakame seaweed floating in the bowl, along with mineral-rich sea salt harvested and imported from Japan.
A great broth for minimalists, or to order if you want to prove one of your "all salt tastes the same"-spouting friends wrong.
Shoyu Ramen ($10)
Ingredients: Slices of roasted pork shoulder, bamboo shoots, and scallions, ocean broth
A fine example of shoyu ramen, though not the greatest in the city. I found the broth to be a touch too salty to appreciate the more delicate underlying aromas of the soy and seafood.
Yebisu Ramen ($17)
At $17, it's the most expensive thing on the menu and the signature bowl of the house, but it was the only one I found truly disappointing. A seafood-based broth was overpowered by salt with very little seafood aroma. You could have told me it was chicken broth and I would not have argued—odd, considering the ocean aroma was more apparent in other bowls.
The seafood itself was also unfortunately heavily overcooked. Tough shrimp, three pellet-like mussels, and a fresh-from-the-shell scallop that Barbie might keep on the back of her Jeep to use as a spare tire. The snow crab leg was the only bit that tasted the way it should—sweet, tender, and barely cooked.
Homemade Spicy Oil ($2)
At $2 for what amounts to about a two tablespoons of oil, you may at first glance think you're getting ripped off. That is until you taste this stuff. Packed with sweet slow-cooked garlic and flavorful but not-too-hot chilies, it's a must-add to the richer miso and abura ramen bowls.
"Tasty Boiled Egg" (A.K.A. Ajitsuke tamago $2)
A picture perfect ajitsuke tamago with a tender, flavorful, sweet-and-salty white and a warm-but-still-soft (or is that runny-but-not-raw?) yolk perfect for stirring into your broth.
Roasted Pork ($3)
The Lone Appetzier: Chicken Salad
A strange, strange dish, though not altogether un-delicious. Steamed shredded chicken meat served on top of a bowl full of un-dressed bibb lettuce with scallions, tomato, and a dollop of whole-grain mustard. Is the mustard supposed to dress the greens? Should we toss everything?
Or perhaps you are meant to do what we did: Eat the moist chicken and mustard at the beginning, then save the greens to pick at through the course of your meal as a bland palate-cleanser for the salty, meaty bowls ahead.
Judging from Akira's pedigree and the as-of-now woefully underutilized kitchen space, it's a good bet that the menu is going to expand a great deal in the months to come. Perhaps we'll see some Yakitori Totto action in Williamsburg this winter?