I can almost recapture a warm, yummy-in-my-belly feeling just writing this; see, Ramen Setagaya, the new noodle spot on First Avenue, was such a pleasing eating experience that even thinking back on all the details of the meal is satisfying. And it's all in the details when it comes to ramen, the simple but complex dish treated with reverence and awe in Japan. At least, that's what I'm lead to believe by the movie Tampopo.
Foodies here in the states also take this bowl of noodles, egg, pork, vegetables and broth (all of which you can see in this lovely photo from Gothamist) very seriously and, if they're to be believed, Ramen Setagaya is the very best in the city. If you don't trust them, listen to the spirited chef Charlie Huh, who famously challenged Momofuku when he opened. And if you feel you can't trust any of the above, you can always listen to me.
While I cannot compare this to all the competition, this was not only an exceptional ramen, but one of the most gratifying food experiences of any kind. Most run of the mill ramens that I've had suffer from the sad indignity of flavorless broth. Here however, the broth is fragrant, rich, full of flavor with a fishy tinge of greatness. Floating in the broth are toothsome curly ramen noodles the likes of which top ramen has never known. Also present? Fresh scallions for crispness, seaweed, bamboo shoots, and beautiful pork slices. Two of the slices are glistening and fatty and melt in your mouth, the other two are hearty and lean. But what amazed me the most was the egg. Cut in half in the perfect state between soft and hard boiled, most people would have to take a photo to see an egg kept in that condition.
The food is so good, including their gyoza, that we didn't even mind a wait (there was a line at 5:00 pm, only thirty minutes after they opened for dinner) or the stools. The tiny space is bustling and transports you to a ramen house in Tokyo, which always reminds me of Blade Runner – although this spot is too bright and cheery for the likes of a robot killer.
In a ramen loving town like this one, Ippudo is possibly the most anticipated – the mecca of authentic Japanese ramen. I was lucky to avoid the notorious hour long waits by going at lunch hour during the week. On my sister's advice, who visited the chain in Tokyo, I ordered their specialty : shiromaru (white broth) which is the cloudy, porky broth with intense flavor that takes 14 hours to make.
I am perhaps a slightly bigger fan of Setagaya's clear broth, but this is one superb bowl of ramen. On future visits I'd like to try the shiromaru with special sauce out of curiosity.
At lunch the menu offers a side dish of spicy cod roe and rice, yum. Other non-ramen dishes are available (but that's not why there are lines out the door, is it?).
The atmosphere is nice and upscale with arty bamboo fixtures and natural?surfaces of wood and stone. A tranquil environment to enjoy your ramen which I prefer to stools and rushing.
Ippudo is considered by many to be the only “real” ramen option in the city and “ramen king” Shigemi Kawahara is revered by ramen maniacs, (so my Setagaya comment is sure to upset some). And I can't really comment on that, as I am no expert in these matters. I do know that this meal, which runs about 12-16 dollars is worth every penny and I am thrilled to have this outpost in New York. I can't wait to go back.