Marrow Minded: Steer to the Upper East Side for Mei-Jin Ramen's Beefed-Up Noodle Soup
All photos by Bradley Hawks for the Village Voice
If we were Lego figurines back from a fishing trip, it would have been an epic haul. The pile of pinky-size baby horse mackerel glistened with a light coat of oil, a deep-fried still life. Creamy and pungent owing to their high fat content, they were accompanied by a shallow dish of mayonnaise fortified with mentaiko, marinated cod roe. Next to the fish sat a lemon wedge, an acidic foil to all that briny richness. A superlative bar snack, they'd have been the star dish at any izakaya, the quintessential Japanese taverns that serve bar snacks that often outshine their booze. These certainly fit the bill. But there's an even better reason to visit Mei-Jin (1574 Second Avenue, 212-327-2800), the Upper East Side's newest noodle shop and dessert bar: ramen worth warming up to, even in this soup-saturated city.
The brainchild of Japanese expat chef Koji Miyamoto, a veteran of ramen kitchens in Nagoya, Japan, as well as midtown's Lucky Cat and HinoMaru in Astoria, Mei-Jin dishes up what are easily the neighborhood's best soups. Bored with the ubiquity of tonkotsu broth -- which gets its milky-white color and rich texture from the collagen and fat of pork bones and is found at nearly every establishment with a cauldron and a bandana-wearing cook -- Miyamoto chose beef-bone ramen as his calling card. Mind you, this was no fundamentalist stance; he simply saw an opportunity to capitalize on an underrepresented style. It also helps that "Americans love beef more than pork," according to the slender, magnetic chef.
Extracting divinity from bovinity requires sacrifices of both time and cow lives. Every day, over the course of 13 hours, Miyamoto reduces a broth made from 60 pounds of beef bones. The resulting elixir reeks of musk and marrow, capped by an amorphous sheen of swirling liquid fat. Halfway between sauce and stock, it serves as the base for three hearty styles. A simple soy sauce version is mild yet robust, with a gamy background note. "Spicy Chili" has plenty of fire to back up the claim, adding seasoned ground beef to a broth shimmering with neon-red hot-pepper oil. And the restaurant's signature blend, the "Mei-Jin," includes slices of beef and is doused with sesame and chile oils and supported by the funk and silkiness of miso. Chicken and vegetarian soups round out the ramen options, decorated (respectively) with meltingly tender pork or springy tofu. Though neither approaches the nuance and complexity of Miyamoto's beef stock, they're not to be overlooked.
Like most of his peers, Miyamoto buys his noodles from cult New Jersey purveyor Sun Noodle, which crafts a custom job for the restaurant: a thin, wavy rope made from wheat and egg. Accoutrements balance tradition and ingenuity. Every bowl receives a convoy of ingredients that might include scallions, fermented bamboo shoots, compressed fish cakes, sweet corn, garlic chips...even arugula. They're also blessedly affordable, priced between $9 and $13 amid a dining landscape that's no stranger to bowls that cost nearly double.
Compared to some of the city's postage-stamp-size ramen-yas, Mei-Jin is positively palatial, boasting three separate seating areas, including one meant to function as a dessert bar (more on that in a moment). Accordingly, the menu stretches to 28 items, not counting specials like the baby horse mackerel. There are chicken wings spiced with a blend of peppers, soy, and sesame to channel Miyamoto's hometown of Nagoya, as well as dainty salads of fresh vegetables kissed with sour yuzu vinaigrette. Most impressive among the non-soup dishes are the restaurant's Japanese-style curry platters. The decadent comfort dish is anchored by thick, sweet curry gravy poured over rice, and the kitchen sets about sizzling all kinds of proteins to complement. Chief among them is Berkshire pork katsu, a masterful breaded, deep-fried cutlet with equal parts seasoned crunch and succulent pig.
While the ramen operation announces itself to the block with a bold wood mosaic façade, the dessert bar functions in a far more nebulous sphere. Sweets, developed by Yuko Kawana, make ample use of Japanese flavors -- dishes like yuzu cheesecake with raspberry sauce, and crème brûlée flavored with roasted green tea, are perfectly satisfying if a bit simple. But the concept is murky. The menu's not broad enough to support a room of its own, and you don't need to darken the dessert bar's door to order from it. Not only that, but diners seated in the dessert bar space can order ramen, which raises the question: What's the point?
That miscalculation aside, let the accolades roll in. "Mei-Jin" is Japanese for "brilliant man." Surely, one way or another, Miyamoto will devise a sweet ending.
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