Oodles of Udon: At Raku, a Jolly Chef Masters the Art of Japanese Noodles
Dipped in sauce or swimming in broth, these are destination-worthy noodles.
Japanese cherry blossom shrimp are blush-pink when raw. But the miniature crustaceans, known in Japan as sakura ebi, turn a vivid crimson when sun-dried, which intensifies their briny, umami-rich flavor. Chef Norihiro Ishizuka serves both versions of the Suruga Bay delicacy, one at each of his two East Village hideaways.
For the past three years, the fresh ones have appeared within curls of brittle seaweed as a seasonal nigiri at Kura, his cubby-sized omakase destination on St. Marks Place. And at Raku, the equally diminutive noodle shop he opened last October, the dried shrimp lend a funky sweetness and crunch to deep bowls of udon, where they're drowned in seafood dashi along with spinach, scallions, tempura flakes, and a soft-cooked egg. The shrimp disappear in one bite at Kura, but at Raku there's plenty of time to appreciate their wonderful, pungent quality — after soaking in the broth, they develop a pleasant chewiness, like shrimp-flavored gummy bears. Together, the stylish East Village restaurants serve as something of a greatest-hits collection from Ishizuka's decades-long career.
Before studying sushi, Ishizuka (who is somewhere in his early seventies — he declines to share his age) trained in kappo cuisine, a more immediate, chef-to-customer approach that is less ceremonial than the kaiseki style, which is seen as a more haute version of Japanese dining. Examples of these small tastes are found in the appetizer section: chilled preparations of simmered seaweed, daikon, and braised burdock; chunks of firm, sweet braised tuna sprinkled with sesame seeds; and expertly deep-fried chicken, eggplant, tofu, or dumplings, all served with their own piquant condiments. As a $5 side dish, the kitchen also offers three pieces of sabazushi — a lightly pickled mackerel — delivered fresh daily from Kura. The cured and torched fish (available only for dinner) is an inexpensive way to sample Ishizuka's considerable sushi skills.
Zaru udon comes with pickled mushrooms, wasabi, scallions, and a raw quail egg.
But it's the noodles that deserve the most attention at Raku — slippery, handmade udon strands that Ishizuka imports from Japan, exceptional for both their buoyancy and their bite. The standard noodles are thick and unwieldy, with considerable snap — all virtues of ideal udon. Thinner and floppier inaniwa udon, an off-menu variety available on request, are more like a stretchy spaghetti. Order either version in soups ($9–$18) or in a $9 plate of chilled zaru udon, dusted with nori powder and served on a small bamboo mat. The cold noodles come with a gently sweet sauce, along with an assortment of scallions, grated wasabi, pickled mushrooms, and a raw quail egg to tangle before dipping. I'm happy to report that both udon varieties ably absorb the kitchen's long-simmered fish and beef bone broths, all while retaining their bouncy essence.
Portion sizes for the noodle dishes are generous. A modest $10 bowl of the rather unfortunately yclept bukkake udon, abundantly strewn with sakura shrimp, makes for an inexpensive and satisfying weekday meal, especially if you order extra noodles for a $3 surcharge. But the solo diner who can finish Ishizuka's $17 niku udon — a monster serving incorporating fork-tender boneless short rib and slow-cooked honeycomb tripe — on anything but a ravenously empty stomach deserves a round of applause. For the equally famished, his ankake udon, a soup with threads of scrambled egg, has a porridge-like heft. And the chef gives us Japan's answer to matzo ball soup, albeit with dense and almost gluey mochi rice cakes the size of sea sponges.
Cured mackerel sabazushi
At Kura, the jovial master often jokes with customers while putting on little performances — a recent trip found him slamming a live clam onto his prep table to demonstrate how its body expands and contracts on impact. Ishizuka's presence is missed at the noodle shop, but his staff is warm and welcoming — even at dinner, when Raku's compact dining room turns raucous and you'll have to wend your way through hordes of guests entering, leaving, or jockeying for seats. In comparison, the lunchtime crowd basks in an unhurried calm punctuated by vintage reggae on the stereo and the afternoon light streaming in from two prison-size windows.
A few blocks northeast, Ishizuka ends his omakases with sorbets and ice creams made in-house. Those have yet to appear on the Raku menu, but if you do have room for a few more bites, I'd argue for closing things out with a round of mackerel sushi.
342 East 6th Street, rakunyc.com
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