August 7, 2010

Ippudo NY: More than Ramen

Ramen Bowls

The last time when I tried to get into Ippudo, the hyper-popular ramen joint in the East Village, the estimated wait was an unbearable two-hours long. Fortunately, attempt #2 was more successful. I'm quite convinced that my new food buddy, Jesal of Veggiewala, brought good luck to the situation. The wait was only an hour this time (be grateful if you encounter that) and it went by super fast (sharing summery cocktails at Angel's Share in the meantime helped) and thanks to Jesal's vegetarianism, also I was able to try some mindblowing apps that I may not have ordered myself. More pics on the next page!


Whenever possible, I like to sit at the kitchen bar and be in front of all the action. At high end sushi bars, that's the ONLY seat that matters. Needless to say, I was pretty giddy when the hostess escorted us to two sky-high, low-back bar stools in front of the open kitchen. It's a great way to feel engaged with the restaurant and your dining buddy at the same time.

Ippudo Chefs

The kitchen staff were all dressed in colorful Japanese-print shirts. They wore these surgical blue gloves and the guys sported cool-looking black cloth doo rags. Whenever guests entered the dining room, the entire staff would loudly yell out "IRASSHAIMASEEEEE!" A welcoming greeting commonly used in stores, restaurants, and other business establishments. The atmosphere was buzzing with energy: catchy tunes played in the background, sizzling and shouting in the kitchen, and enthusiastic chatter among friends between the chomping and slurping. Needless to say, the place was noisy.

Making the Cucumber App

While I snapped away at the scene, Jesal asked the waitress for some recommendations and received two interesting appetizer suggestions: deep-fried Shishito peppers and Yamitsuki Goma Kyuri, which on the menu was described simply as "japanese cucumber mixed with sesame oil dressing."

Contrary to my vegetarian friend, I'm a meat eater... ok, ok, meat lover. So my eyeballs immediately locked on to the Tako Wasabi (raw octopus marinated in wasabi) and steamed pork buns. But eventually, I opted to try something new and different... Shisito peppers and a roll of cucumber it is!

Shishito Peppers

Shishito peppers are actually quite a common Japanese summertime finger food, despite their intimidating appearance. Ippudo serves a handful of them freshly fried, coming to us gleaming with oil. A small cup of yuzu salt and a wedge of lemon were the condiments of choice. I can't handle super spicy stuff all that well, so I was a little nervous about putting a chili pepper-esque bites into my mouth. Surprisingly, they were sort of sweet! The thin, crunchy pepper walls were just a tad spicy. When drizzled with lemon juice and dipped into the salt, I soon found it hard to stop snacking. They're 100x better than potato chips.


The second appetizer (Yamitsuki Goma Kyuri) was also very simple by nature. The long row of thick Japanese cucumber slices were drizzled with a sesame oil-based sauce, then frosted with yuzu sea salt and chili pepper flakes. The seasoning flakes on top, which sort of tasted like shredded wheat, soaked up the oil and added a deliriously savory flavor to the cucumber. Again, the spiciness level was deceptive here: the chili pepper flakes added more aroma than tongue-burning hotness to the dish. 

Ramen at Ippudo

The round of appetizers were so incredible, that I wasn't sure whether or not the ramen could live up to the experience. I ordered the special Szechuan ramen, which came with thin slices of pork belly, shiitake mushrooms, a heap of bright red ginger shreds. To further emphasize its imminent fury of heat, it came in a steaming fiery red bowl. Bracing my tastebuds, I went for the first slurp. This time, the heat was really on. After a few sips of the salty, savory broth, I began to feel my tear ducts activate. I also felt the tingly, tongue-numbing flavor of the Szechuan pepper oil at work, which surprisingly was not the culprit behind the spiciness (chili peppers should be credited for that). Szechuan pepper or Hua Jiao, is not a pepper at all. It literally means "flower pepper," and is not nearly as hot or pungent as black pepper or chili pepper. They merely set the stage for spicier ingredients.


The Szechuan ramen was pretty delicious and there's no doubt that a spicy food-lover would enjoy it. The pork belly was buttery soft and the mushrooms were pleasantly chewy. As for the noodles, they were done slightly past al dente. The unending, spaghetti strands of ramen fell straight and laid in tangled twists. I prefer my ramen noodles to be slightly wavy, but these were still quite good. Good enough for me to request kae-dama, a second serving of noodles. For $2 per plate, it's a cheap and efficient way to fill even the most expansive of stomachs.

Vegetarian Ramen

Fortunately for my guest and myself, Ippudo also offered a vegetarian ramen. It's not on the menu, but they definitely have it (just ask). In Jesal's own words, here's how her bowl broke down:
A generous helping of noodles was topped with pan-fried tofu, scallions, mushrooms, and seaweed that danced about in a shitake, soy sauce and kombu broth. The ramen was satisfying and flavorful without being overly salty. -- Veggiewala
In the end, I had to waddle out of the restaurant. Stuffed, happy, slightly sleepy, and still a bit numb... Ippudo met my expectations and more. I could be persuaded to return for the ramen (although I still prefer Menkui-Tei over Ippudo and Totto Ramen), but I'd definitely go back to try more appetizers. If you're looking for a ramen experience that is slightly more upscale in style and offerings, Ippudo is the place to be.

P.S. While they don't take reservations from the majority of people, I hear that they do for some. It's really about who you know and when you want to go.


Alisa said...

Lovely photos! It was surely worth the wait. The shishito peppers look interesting :)

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