Zutto: Slurp That Meaty Liquor
When life is rough and loud, you need food that will transport you. Few dishes are as capable as ramen, a little bowl of well-made broth and noodles that can engage you completely, sending everything that's bothering you to outer space, if only for 15 minutes.
At Zutto in Tribeca, the tonkotsu ramen broth is thick and cream-colored, so concentrated with marrow and bone that it nourishes and obliterates you all at once ($16). A few hot slurps, and the pork buzz kicks in. Your lips get sticky, and you're taken over by an unquenchable thirst for cold beer. You get to the toppings. Instead of belly, there's sweet, tender pork jowl chashu, whose fat wobbles like a softly set egg white. There are tiny piles of fermented bamboo shoots, frilly wood ear mushrooms, pink strands of pickled ginger, and over it all, a sprinkling of toasted sesame. Forget the terrible music, the tweaky boom-hiss of the speakers, the stained menus, the wrinkled laminate of the old tables: Beneath the fat-slicked surface of this meaty liquor, there's a party of noodles waiting for you to check in.
Zutto has been puttering along for 30 years. It was one of the earliest sushi spots in the neighborhood, quickly eclipsed by grander joints—Nobu opened a couple of blocks away in the mid '90s. Megu, Brushstroke, and others followed. Zutto's latest incarnation is led by Joshua Smookler; the chef joined last fall and revamped it under the same name (which fittingly translates to "always," or "forever"). Smookler was previously a wine director at Bouley and a captain at Per Se, where he ventured into the kitchen as a stagiaire and found himself enamored with the back of the house. After staging at Michel Bras and Pierre Gagnaire in France, then running a wine bar in California, he's back home in New York to try his hand at ramen.
No, you won't find the low prices of Hide-Chan, the house-made noodles of Ippudo, or the dreamy eggs of Setagaya, but we can't go around drafting fantasy ramen from all our favorite shops in the city, can we? We can only visit one place at a time, taking in what it does well. And Zutto is doing well with some rich, over-the-top flavors. There are seafood and wasabi-spiked ramen on the menu, though none is as good as the tonkotsu and parma-karma ($18). You'll forgive the name, maybe, and even the high price, when you're hit with that wacky, sonic boom of umami—the tonkotsu broth, already boiled for 36 hours with pork bones and aromatics, has been amplified with Parmigiano, roasted garlic, and rosemary.
The space seems mostly unchanged. A wall of glass looks out to Hudson Street's well-heeled pedestrians, and colored paper lanterns hang over a large communal table, which is surrounded by smaller ones. The sushi menu has been revisited and offers higher quality fish than it used to but still seems gratuitous. One hopes it will phase out soon, and the neighborhood will embrace Zutto's new beat—Tribeca already has enough sushi.
The greasy, pubbier dishes are put together with a heavy hand, but there are crowd-pleasers among them, like the delightfully trashy pair of wagyu buns ($12)—thick, rare patty melts with caramelized onions, sliced pickles, and oven-dried tomatoes—and the short rib buns stuffed with kimchi and fermented chile mayonnaise ($10 for two). Smookler has a fondness for yuzu, the Japanese citrus fruit, and you'll find tongue-tingling yuzu salt on charred shisito peppers and edamame, as well as an izakaya-style fried shrimp dish with yuzu-flavored mayonnaise ($12).
The staff is friendly, chill, tattooed with anime characters, but as business picks up in the evening, they are easily frazzled. The ramen can suffer then, too, arriving a bit cool or with overcooked noodles. Food lovers looking for a ramen retreat should visit Zutto at lunchtime, when the restaurant is slow, the music soft, and the bowls of tonkotsu seem to get someone's full attention. Sitting by a window, slurping at bone broth, life's as sweet as a mirin-braised jowl.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.
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