When I meet someone for the first time, the conversation turns quickly to food, and sooner or later (but usually sooner), my new acquaintance will ask, “So, what’s your favorite restaurant?”
For some reason, I strongly dislike this question. Maybe it’s my indecisive Libra nature, but I experience some degree anguish trying to name a favorite anything. With food, it’s even more difficult. There are so many layers of subjectivity, and so many conditions and factors to take into account. I like different restaurants for different reasons on different occasions.
I have eaten at Ippudo at least a dozen times since my first visit last September. The total would be higher if I hadn’t been away much of the fall and Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is a weekly thing now. I eat there more frequently than any other restaurant. When I’m there, slurping up noodles, all I can think about is when I’ll be able to come back. I crave Ippudo.
Does this mean it’s my favorite restaurant? I’d say it’s one of my favorites, right now, and that’s about as committed a statement you’ll ever get from me on this topic.
Ippudo serves ramen, or “Japan’s soul food,” according to the website. Actually a chain in Japan, with 34 locations, Ippudo opened its first U.S. branch almost a year ago here in New York. Ramen is serious business, an object of worship, a subject of debate, a hotbed of secrecy. Ramen chefs develop (behind tightly closed doors) a signature style, and gain a devout following. I cannot tell you if Ippudo serves the greatest ramen in the world. I don’t know how such a thing would be judged, and even if I did I am loathe to make these kinds of proclamations (see above). But the ramen at Ippudo is delicious. The broths are complex and rich, the ingredients are high-quality, the noodles are always perfectly cooked. I might also add that the restaurant’s founder, Shigemi Kawahara, is known in Japan as “The Ramen King.”
Ippudo is a far cry, a universe away, really, from the grocery store three-for-a-dollar variety of ramen, though there is a cheeky reference to the instant soup under the surface of the glass-topped bar.
It’s a clever wink, but don’t worry. Like any self-respecting ramen shop, Ippudo makes its own noodles in house, and it’s worth a trip to the downstairs bathroom for a peek at the action: A long, narrow window along the hallway looks into a tiny room where the magic happens.
I’ve walked right in at lunchtime, but in the evening there is always a wait. It has never been so crowded that I couldn’t manage to get a beer at the bar, and anyway, I don’t really understand people who get so angry about having to wait. Is it low blood sugar that makes them so cranky? I can think of so many worse things than hanging out for 45 minutes with a friend or two, having a drink, knowing that in just a short while you are going to be face to face with a huge bowl of delicious noodles.
And if there is a hypo-glycemic emergency at hand, Ippudo offers a few snacks at the bar: Fried shishito peppers (be careful, some of them are hotter than others!), crispy chicken wings with a sticky black pepper glaze, pork buns, or edamame.
Once seated the appetizer choices broaden, though this brings up my only disappointment with Ippudo: The absence of gyoza, the crispy-on-the-bottom dumplings typically served with ramen. I love them. I don’t know why Ippudo doesn’t serve them. It makes me sad.
Prone as I am to food ruts, I cannot steer myself away from the spicy tonkotsu ramen. Tonkotsu is a rich, intense pork broth, and this one comes as hot as you like it, the red of the chili oil visible on the surface before you break it with your chopsticks and a cloud of steam rises, smelling better than anything. A few slices of roast Berkshire pork, scallions and cabbage complete the dish. The akamaru modern is my second choice, when I can’t take the heat, and miso lovers will love the nutty, mellow miso ramen.
On my last visit, the couple across the table from me (most of the seating at Ippudo is communal) was served their ramen, but one of the pair had just left for the restroom. Seconds later, a concerned manager came over to ask the woman where her friend was. “Um, he just went to the bathroom,” she replied, a little baffled by the intrusion. “Okay, because, you know, the noodles need to be eaten,” said the manager, in a grave tone. Noodles have needs! All of this is to say that, for the sake of quality control, Ippudo does not do take out. You aren’t even allowed to take your leftovers home. Deal with it.
Eating ramen is a two handed affair. Hold the chopsticks in your dominant hand and the big spoon in the other, and lean forward to minimize the distance between your face and the bowl. The spoon will hold some broth and catch the noodles you can’t fit in your mouth right away. I’ve gotten pretty good at it.
But then, I’ve had a little practice lately. I’ll probably eat at Ippudo again tonight.
Ippudo 65 4th Ave (at E. 10th), New York, NY, (212) 388-0088 , No reservations. website