How Good Are Brooklyn's Japanese Noodle Spots?
In times of stress, the appetite turns to ramen for comfort. By flickering candlelight in a West Village restaurant during the hurricane's aftermath, a friend and I sat talking noodles. "Why do all the ramen places in Brooklyn suck?" lamented the Fort Greene resident. "Not sure they totally suck, but I know what you mean," I replied. "The soups often seem too compulsively creative, when you want something more predictable."
It was then I decided to embark on a whirlwind tour of Brooklyn ramen restaurants, visiting the most talked-about spots, sometimes more than once. My first stop, riding across the Williamsburg Bridge on my bike with the L still down, was the recently opened Ramen Yebisu (126 North 6th Street, 718-782-1444). It was founded by Akira Hiratsuka, who grew up on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido and has some very northern ideas about noodles. Many ramen enthusiasts idolize tonkotsu, the opaque pig-foot broth from far-southern Japan, but Hiratsuka doesn't make it. Instead, the flagship of his fleet is ramen Yebisu ($17), a shellfish bowl featuring mussels, a king crab leg, one completely intact shrimp—legs still thrashing, though quite dead—and a massive round crustacean with a curious ruffled anatomy. What the hell was it?
As I dined with a couple of friends from the neighborhood in the relentlessly black-painted space—where a no-nonsense sensibility prevails—we concluded that though the seafood component was generous for the price, the broth tasted like brackish floodwater. "This is no French fumet," concluded one chum. The other soups from the short menu are doctrinaire but good, limited to one example each based on shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt), and miso. Washed down with a bottle of unfiltered Nigori sake ($11), they are also, at $10 to $12, mercifully cheap. But I had other caveats: The ballyhooed noodles themselves, said to be homemade and fermented for 48 hours, were nothing special, and the only app, a weird chicken salad dressed with mustard and truffle oil, was awful.
I hadn't been to Chuko (552 Vanderbilt Avenue, 718-576-6701) since it opened a little more than a year ago on Prospect Heights' main drag. Then, the startlingly white pig-bone broth caused a sensation. Started by a pair of Morimoto veterans, the place is all bare brick and picture windows, and the ramen incorporates seasonal and locavoric tweakings. The miso broth I slurped was deep and rich, but the real star of the show was the vegetarian ramen ($12), a pleasing welter of cabbage, greens, and bright-orange acorn squash cut in cubes—utterly satisfying. The noodles themselves, though, were ropey, yellowish, and too thick, cooked al dente as if this were an Italian joint. Still, I'd come back for this bowl.
Perhaps the most transgressive ramen menu the city has yet seen is found along the thriving—but often mediocre—Carroll Gardens restaurant row. Dassara (271 Smith Street, 718-643-0781) is joined at the hipster with a cocktail lounge that produces some pretty good mixed drinks, probably representing the first time the humble Japanese noodles have been catapulted into the mixological firmament. The room is once again bare-brick boxy, and you can look into an open kitchen at the rear. Like all ramen shops, it is perhaps too well-lit.
Playing fast and loose with the genre, Dassara's most notable production (deli ramen, $15) is a bowl that represents what ramen would be like had it been invented at Katz's. Tiny matzo balls zip around in the broth, becoming tangled in the noodles, and slices of stylish Montreal-style smoked meat float limply on top. "These matzo balls are way too soft," a deli maven of my acquaintance proclaimed as we fished in the soup, wondering why we had only four. The menu incorporates other strange notions, as well. Instead of plain sheets of nori, bowls are decorated with narrow strips of the same seaweed, panko-crumbed and deep-fried. Does the recipe really need more grease? Probably not, because the lamb ramen—with chunks of fatty belly and a science-chef egg—doesn't benefit from more unctuousness. Still, it's the restaurant's best soup.
But this same fried nori functions magnificently in one of the apps: a miso-eggplant dip that's like a spicy, supercharged baba ghanoush, with the doctored laver providing extra crunch. In fact, the apps regularly outshine the mains at Dassara. Most notably, there are Chang-style ssams stuffed with—hold your breath—fried chicken. It's scrumptious in a Pies 'n' Thighs sort of way. But really, Brooklyn, wouldn't you rather just have a good bowl of plain miso ramen?
For more food coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.
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