Whenever I come to New York, I have every intention of eating out as much as possible. Usually what happens, however, is I gorge on bagels and smoked sable from the Polish district in Greenpoint (which my mother buys in bulk, and which is one of those foods that permanently alters your DNA so you crave it forever), and/or I stay at home and eat my mother’s delicious cooking. Last Monday, however, friend K asked me, “Have you been to Ippudo?” “Iiiipppuuudddoooo,” crooned friend C, her eyes glazing.
Ippudo is a Japanese chain founded by “Ramen King” Shigemi Kawahara. There are 43 shops in Japan, but according to Ippudo’s website, New York is Ippudo’s first international outpost. I love noodles in soup, and for me, ramen is like the Holy Grail; I will go on the modern-day equivalent of a knightly quest if good ramen is promised at the end of it. K claimed this was “the best ramen.” She was right.
I should offer a couple of disclaimers. First, I have never been to Japan. Second, I was absolutely trashed by the time I turned up at Ippudo for our 8:45 reservation (the martinis at the W Bar on Union Square are LETHAL). Likely for this latter reason, I have found writing this blog post a struggle. Also, I didn’t take any photos. (See second disclaimer, above.) Fortunately, there are about 248,000 photographs online (I love the lunatic dedication of foodies), so you can rely on the internet to supplement my enchanting prose.
Everything at our meal was a bit of a blur (martinis!) but I can say this: it would be a mistake to come to Ippudo and bypass the hirata pork buns ($9). $9 may seem like a lot to pay for two pork buns, but consider: these may well have been the best pork buns I have eaten in my life. I don’t say this lightly. Sweet soft steamed rice buns were stuffed with oblongs of hot sticky grilled pork belly, glazed in a sweet chilli sauce. The use of belly means that no actual mastication is required; hot sweet tender porky goodness just kind of spreads itself in your mouth in ecstatic entropy. We had a couple of other starters but both were relegated to wallflower status by the pork buns.
The ramen portions are large – big enough to share, if you’re also having starters, which is useful if, like me, you find it difficult to order anything in a ramen restaurant except tonkotsu ramen. We ordered Shiromara Hakata Classic (Ippudo’s tonkotsu ramen, $15), Akamaru Modern (tonkotsu topped with “Ippudo’s secret ‘Umami Dama’ miso paste,” $15) and Karaka Men (spicy ramen, $16). Done right, tonkotsu ramen is a milky-white broth made from pork marrow bones, cooked long and slow until the bones are gelatinous and the broth is silky, fatty, and opaque. Too often it will be too thin, or too salty, or have that unmistakable ‘stock cube’ finish. Ippudo’s tonkotsu was phenomenal, with a deep, saturated marrow flavour, like veal broth, and a slight natural pork sweetness, nicely balanced by the sesame kikurage mushrooms and pickled ginger. The ramen itself was cooked so it had an al dente bite to it, and gorgeous (literally, as well as in the comestible sense) in the beautiful hot soup. For $2, you can order kae-dama, or an extra serving of noodles.
I’m a purist: when the tonkotsu ramen is this good, I don’t see any reason to order anything else. In fairness, though, the Karaka Men was delicious, with a nice pervasive delicate heat. I don’t remember much about the Akamaru Modern (I was drunk!) but I recall thinking it didn’t work quite as well as the others.
Ippudo is noisy and always incredibly busy, but when you eat you’re left blessedly alone without the usual New York passive-aggressive hovering. This is no small thing in a restaurant that frequently has two-hour wait times. Ippudo’s website proclaims, “Under the banner ‘Keep changing to remain unchanged’, the IPPUDO team, tapping the potential for ramen, will spread the ‘Japanese ramen culture’ from New York to the rest of the world.” Bring it.
65 Fourth Avenue, New York, 10003
Price per person: $20 – $30 at dinnertime
The verdict: Must try!