There is a scene in the Japanese cult classic film Tampopo, in which an old ramen master teaches the main character how to eat a bowl of ramen. "First observe the whole bowl," he says, "appreciate its gestalt. Savor its aromas." His routine goes on to include steps such as 'caress the surface to express affection,' and 'apologize to the pork.'
The scene is absurd and silly, as nearly a minute passes before he even tastes the soup, but the truth is that a good bowl of ramen deserves close inspection and admiration. Is the broth fragrant or flat? Have ingredients been carefully placed on top? Or dropped in to the bowl like change scattered on the sidewalk? Is the chef trying to impress? Or are they merely trying to feed?
The "Stamina" Ramen ($14) at Ganso is a beautiful bowl; a slick of bright red chili oil hides the soy-based chicken broth that smells strongly of ginger and garlic, not too hot or salty, but definitely assertive. Resting on top are slices of chicken chashu, tiny dried shrimp, and green onions; tangled in the noodles are shreds of napa cabbage and pungent garlic chives. It's not the ramen that will sate your cravings after a night of drinking, but one that reveals small surprises as you slurp: a few spare slippery wood ear mushrooms, a shoot of bamboo, a dried shrimp that has plumped from soaking in the broth.
On the other hand, The Spicy Miso Ramen ($13) is exactly the ramen to seek out for those late night second dinners. It's topped with a bright layer of red chili oil, and the bowl literally smiles back at you with a mouth made of gai lan, and winks with eyes of pork belly and soft boiled egg. Pork is so abundant that it's impossible to take a sip of broth without some of the braised shoulder making its presence known. The noodles, which are made by Sun Noodle in New Jersey, are firm and snappy until the end; their wavy shape is ideal for snaring small shreds of meat or herbs.
The rest of the dishes on the menu are Ippin, classic Japanese small plates. The Shio Saba ($10)—salt cured and grilled Boston mackerel fillet—has an unctuous, fatty flesh and a blistered skin.The accompanying mound of grated daikon and jalapeño dotted with ponzu, offers freshness and heat to the rich fish; wedges of lemon deliver a punch of acidity, a small piece of winter squash just the slightest bit of sweetness.
I could have finished the Shio Saba in just a few bites if I hadn't been slowed by a few pin bones. I don't know if they are left in intentionally, but they did make me pause, take notice, and enjoy the dish more carefully.
Why would anyone order dumplings at a restaurant, when there are exceptional, inexpensive dumplings available at small shops all over Chinatown and Flushing? The Crispy Gyoza ($7) at Ganso, however, are worth the markup. A thin pliant wrapper embraces a pork and garlic chive filling that is light and juicy. They arrive at the table upside down, displaying a delicately crisp lace of starch that has formed at the bottom of the pan. That layer delivers a pleasant crackle that you rarely get with a dumpling.
The Hijiki Salad ($6) is a simmered and then marinated mix of black Hijiki seaweed, barely tender carrots, and springy fried tofu looks, almost comically, like a wet pile of twigs and dirt clods. The aroma though, which permeates each bite, is a pleasant mix of soy sauce, mirin, and sesame oil.
The restaurant features an open kitchen that is enclosed in a glass cage, not unlike Hannibal Lechter's prison cell. While some open kitchens are theaters where you only see the most aesthetically pleasing kitchen flourishes—searing meats, zesting citrus, garnishing with herbs—Ganso puts everything on display. During my meal I watched a cook stuff and pleat gyoza, then prep raw shrimp for the shumai. Even the dishwasher is in clear view.
It's obvious that the owners of Ganso are trying to create a fun restaurant experience; it is nothing like the demure ramen-yas in Tampopo, where diners sit quietly and talk only to their soup. The pop music broadcasts over the speakers just loud enough to force everyone's conversations into the public, but it's not so distracting that you would miss the few wood ear mushrooms hidden in your ramen, or the atjiama egg and its perfect gold yolk, or any of the other small details that make Ganso worth a trip.