Being in NYC in the winter was an experience: snow, blistering winds, scarves, gloves and hats - all things that we don't really experience in Sydney (and by the way, I now have the cutest collection of winter hats!). It also was the perfect weather for eating. Lots of it. And of the ramen variety. When it is cold, there is nothing I crave more than a great big bowl of noodle soup. This is comfort food at its best, and when I was in NYC, I had read or received lots of different recommendations for ramen - all of them claiming to be the best. So what is a conscientious food blogger to do but to try them all out?
First up, Totto Ramen. Recommended by K's best friend, it was close to our apartment and on one particularly freezing evening, we decided to go give it a shot. Patting ourselves on the back for being early, we fronted up at 6 and were astonished to see the crowd of people lurking outside the restaurant, on the pavement and even on the road. Crap. I elbowed my way through the crowd to put down my name and then went back outside to wait.... and wait... and freeze... and wait... and freeze! Firstly, it was about 0 to 3 degrees Celsius that evening, and also, with a restaurant that only seats 20, the wait was always going to be long. After one and a half hours, and plenty of opportunity to study the menu, we were finally called and seated - and by this stage, we were definitely looking forward to a warming and comforting bowl of ramen to thaw us out.
Between the two of us we ordered the miso ramen, the spicy ramen, and two side dishes of the broiled char siu pork and the avo tuna. We were very excited to finally be inside the restaurant where it was warm and there was food, and when the two side dishes came out first, we quickly polished those off as both were delicious. The pork was seared on one side and blasted with a blow torch on the other, and the good portion of fat on the pork made it incredibly juicy. The avo tuna was delicious - torched tuna sashimi with this amazing yuzu garlic dressing, the avocado was a bit take-it-or-leave-it but all in all, it was a dish we enjoyed immensely.
When the ramen came out, I first thought that they were very generous in size (especially at about $10 per bowl), but my second thought was that the broth was incredibly oily. I'm not a huge fan of oily soups - for me, the perfect broth will always be clear, light, but full of robust and subtle flavours. The spicy ramen was especially oily due to the chilli oil that they add on top to add heat - although tasty, when it leaves your mouth feeling like it's an oil slick afterwards, it's not a good finish. Needless to say, K and I were both a little disappointed to find that a hyped up restaurant with a 1.5 hour waiting time was considered, by us, as a little above average. Whilst we were eating at Totto, we were both musing about the quality ramen to be found in Sydney - Gumshara was our benchmark!
When in NYC, you Yelp. I used Yelp so much to find highly rated restaurants (and even food carts on corners!) when in particular neighbourhoods. One day, K and I were venturing to the Upper East Side to visit the Guggenheim and the MET. That area, home to all the well to do in New York, didn't seem to have much by the way of lunch options so we went to Yelp and quickly discovered a ramen bar - brilliant as it was a icy cold day and there was nothing that we wanted more than some comfort food.
Naruto Ramen, if possible, is even tinier than Totto Ramen. In NYC, where space is at a premium, this restaurant didn't even have tables - it just had the bar that ran along the length of the kitchen, 12 seats in total. We visited Naruto after the Guggenheim (where be warned, the people that work there are absolute nazis about things!!) and arrived at just after midday and already there were a few people in front of us. By this stage, I was well and truly feeling like all I did in NYC was queue and eat! Putting our names down, we hovered about for about 20 to 30 minutes before we were seated and we were quickly won over by the lunch special - for $9.75 (plus tax) you could order any bowl of ramen, plus a side of either gyoza, chicken teriyaki and rice, pork fried rice or curry chicken and rice - a huge bargain!!
|See how tiny the restaurant is?!|
The pork ramen, upon arrival, impressed us immediately. Cleaner in finish than Totto Ramen, it was also a very generous serving for the price. The noodles were good quality - thicker than those served at Totto - and the broth packing lots of piggy flavour. We immediately rated Naruto as being better than Totto Ramen, and once that had been decided, put our heads down and got to the business of eating! I really enjoyed my chicken teriyaki and rice, so much so that when K went to do the swap as we always do, I was actually quite annoyed! However, once I took a sip of the ramen soup, I was consoled and merrily finished the rest.
Naruto Ramen is definitely a find for the Upper East Side. Ridiculously cheap for lunch, it is still a bargain at dinner without the specials - the prices just a little bit cheaper than those at Totto at under $10 a bowl of ramen. I can imagine that the queues could get quite lengthy here due to the shoe-box size of the restaurant, but it is highly recommended for lunch if you're in the UES for any reason!
Next up, a few days later, we wandered into Momofuku Noodle Bar. Again, arriving early to try to beat the crowds, we were ecstatic to find that we were just ahead of it - we were there before 6pm and we were seated immediately, but soon thereafter there was a long queue formed at the door! I was so excited to have my first taste of the famed Momofuku steamed pork bun, but of course we were also here for a big bowl of comforting ramen. Scanning the menu, we ordered the steamed pork buns, the grilled octopus (served with scallion - spring onion - kim chi, salsify and cara cara orange) and the momofuku ramen to share.
The steamed buns arrived first and hello, they completely justified their hype and infamy at that first bite. The steamed buns, reminiscent of the Chinese bbq pork buns, was pillowy soft; the pork belly fatty but perfectly balanced by the sauce. We happily demolished the buns and at that very moment I vowed to replicate them at home - when I do, I promise I will blog about it! The grilled octopus was a marvel - it was very Korean in flavour with the kim chi, but unlike anything that I have tasted in Sydney. Momofuku (at this restaurant and at the Ssam restaurant - another post to follow) could be best described as Korean fusion - something that has yet to make its mark in Australia, despite all the Korean restaurants in Sydney.
|I'd love some more of these babies right now..|
When the ramen came out, I immediately peeked into the bowl and was elated to say that not a speck of oil was floating on the top. The broth itself was absolutely delicious - full of subtle flavours, I could have drank up a big bowl of just the broth on its own. K, on the other hand, has his own barometer to measure a good bowl of ramen - the noodles. He was not impressed with the noodles that Totto Ramen dished up, saying that they were more like Chinese egg noodles, but he was very impressed with the noodles in the Momofuku version. Fatter than the Totto Ramen noodles, they were chewy and had that little bite to it in the middle. Topped with a strip of pork belly, there was also slow cooked pork shoulder that was so tender it shredded to bits, completed with the poached egg which oozed yolk perfectly to add a richness to the soup.
|Our dessert: beet and lime soft serve!|
Last, but not least, on one of the last days we were in town, we decided to brave Ippudo. We had read lots about it, heard from many and all had said that the queues were astronomical. Planning a lunch time visit to avoid the hoards of people that descend when nighttime falls, we were deceived when we saw no queue out the front - however, there were about 30 people inside waiting! Ippudo, on a much larger scale than Totto, Naruto or even Momofuku, is a large restaurant in the East Village and even though there was quite the queue when we arrived, it moved quickly and we were seated within half an hour.
Ippudo apparently originated from Japan where there are dozens of them all around the country. The NYC restaurant is the first one out of its home country, and has done a roaring trade since opening in 1995. Walking to our table, I saw lovely decor with a red / black tone. Service was swift and the restaurant prompt - food coming out very quickly after ordering. Much to my delight I saw that Ippudo also had steamed pork belly buns on their menu and I knew that I had to order them. Although tasty, they weren't as brilliant as those at Momofuku - and that was namely down to the bun which was chewier and the sauce which was completely different.
K ordered the Karaka Men which was the original tonkatsu soup, topped with hot spices, pork, cabbage, onion, minced pork and scallions. I had read the reviews on Yelp and ordered the Akamaru Modern which seemed to be a reviewer favourite - it is exactly the same as the karaka men but instead of the hot spices, it is topped with their secret miso paste. Ippudo's price point is about the same as Momofuku - $15+ for a bowl of ramen. However, I did think that Ippudo's serving size was not as generous - I easily finished my bowl, even after eating the steamed pork buns, and I never usually can!
Ippudo's ramen ticked some of the boxes for us - the noodles were quite good, the pork that came with it good quality and tender. However, it was pretty oily... But at the end of the day, was it the best one we had in New York?
The resounding answer came to a big fat NO. It was good but it wasn't amazing. The best ramen that we had in NYC goes to Momofuku Noodle Bar - for its quality soup, perfect noodles and different bits of pork - belly and shoulder. But how does that stack up against our well loved Gumshara? They're different - Momofuku's is light compared to the thick heartiness of Gumshara, so it depends on personal taste. For me, I prefer my ramen broth light but I know that K loves that the density in the Gumshara soup. When it comes to the different price points though, Naruto wins in the $10 market and Momofuku in the $15+ price range - and Momofuku overall.
This was a brilliant challenge and a very fun post to research and write! We got to eat what we loved - four different times - and writing makes me want to pop down to Chinatown to get myself a pork rib ramen. Perhaps that's exactly what I'll do...