ZuZu Ramen Leads the Noodle Charge East
In the port city of Yokohama, Japan, there is an attraction called the Ramusement Park, an odd hybrid of museum, arcade, and food court dedicated to glorifying ramen—thin, thick, or curly noodles; soy, miso, or salt broth; myriad toppings. If you should happen to visit the Ramusement Park, you can learn the story of ramen's genesis between slurps of noodles and broth: Though the noodle is now practically Japan's national dish—popular enough to support more than 200,000 ramen restaurants—the noodles are actually Chinese in origin, and it was Chinese migrants who brought the springy wheat noodles to Japan in the early 20th century. Japanese cooks remade the noodles to their own taste, and, by the 1950s, Japan was the ramen-crazy country it still is today.
New York has its own mini ramen genesis story: The shops began popping up in earnest circa 2003, and today, the East Village has become a kind of Ramusement Park of its own, where you can find noodles on practically every corner. Until recently, ramen shops hadn't spread very much beyond their downtown epicenter (with a few exceptions: the handful of ramen shops in Flushing, Queens—because everything delicious is in Flushing).
In March, ZuZu Ramen opened on the western edge of Park Slope. The owners are Martine Lafond and Jason Crew, the team behind the Australian pub Sheep Station that's just two blocks away. The executive chef is Akihiro Moroto, a chef whose bio reads like a publicist's dream: He grew up helping out in his father's Nagoya ramen restaurant before moving to New York, where he worked at Lespinasse and Jean Georges. Now, he comes back to noodles. Despite his classical training (both Japanese and French), Moroto isn't afraid to mess with tradition: Several dishes on the menu, such as green curry–miso ramen and hot-and-sour ramen, are his own invention.
The restaurant is utilitarian and comfortable, with a small, glassed-in kitchen at the center of the room. You can perch at one of several tables, but the barstools are, as usual, the best seats in the house, giving you a chance to marvel at the choppy ballet of two chefs in a small space—the sous chef takes a blowtorch to the pork-belly charshu to caramelize the edges; Moroto carefully eases a soft-boiled egg out of its shell and into a hot bowl of soup. The glass divider gives the proceedings the feel of a zoo exhibit—staring through the glass, I felt there ought to be a sign: "Don't tap on the glass. It stresses the chefs."
There are four kinds of ramen on offer—ranging in price from $9.50 to $14—two that are fairly traditional and two that are not. Although the more traditional bowls are very fine, the more inventive varieties are the ones I'd go back for. In particular, the green curry–miso ramen might be something that you either love or hate, but I fell into the former camp. The broth is so full of assertive flavors that it's almost, but not quite, overwhelming—it's fragrant with lemongrass and kaffir lime, and tastes both sharply herbal-green and darkly salty.
The soup is topped with a length of pork-belly charshu, tender and fatty, with delicious caramelized edges. Because it's sliced long and thin, bacon-style, it falls apart into the broth. There's also a jiggly, barely set egg; pierce it, and the creamy yolk oozes out to enrich the whole bowl.
The noodles themselves, which are made elsewhere to Moroto's specifications, are of spaghetti girth, pale yellow, smooth and springy, and cooked to a nicely al dente state. Still, you can tell the noodles are not made in-house; they don't have the vitality of homemade noodles, like those at Ippudo. Still, not every ramen house has the resources to create their own noodles.
Another invention, hot-and-sour ramen, was inspired by Thai tom yum goong, a sour-spicy, lemongrass, kaffir lime, and shrimp soup; its merger with ramen is totally successful. Zipped with lots of red chilies, the soup is wonderfully aromatic, citrusy, and sinus-clearing. Slurp it loudly for maximum flavor. Moroto populates the soup with tiny, popcorn-size shrimp instead of the larger crustaceans I would have preferred.
The two traditional bowls of ramen are more sedate. The signature ZuZu ramen benefits from a flavorful, smoky dashi broth. It's topped with more of the charshu, some bamboo shoots, a gushy egg, and toasted nori. Garlic soy ramen, a vegetarian option that can even be made vegan, if you request it without the egg, is a gentle, well-made but unmemorable bowl of soup. The garlicky broth and noodles are augmented with bok choy, nori, and bamboo shoots.
Although ramen is the heart of the operation, there are several other good options, chiefly anything that involves Moroto's Japanese beef curry. If you like the stewy, simple concoction that is Japanese curry, you will love Moroto's version, which is richly spiced and full of great hunks of carrots and potatoes and nubs of tender, coarse-grained beef. You can get the curry poured over ramen noodles—a dish straightforwardly dubbed "noodles in sauce"—or over rice. A second rice bowl option involves rice topped with nothing but the fatty, caramelized charshu and a soft-cooked egg.
One night, our group of four ordered a bunch of appetizers (which range from serviceable vegetable gyoza to fantastically juicy, chewy-skinned pork gyoza), ramen, and glasses of sake. The sake at ZuZu is served in small boxes, which is one of the traditional ways to serve the beverage. In a ritual gesture of generosity that seems a bit odd when performed by a bored-looking hipster, the servers pour the sake until it flows out of the box completely, floods the saucer beneath, and drips onto the table. Trying to pick up the box meant spilling even more sake, so instead, we lowered our heads and lapped at the boxes, like wildebeest at the watering hole. I appreciate the generosity, but that's one stab at tradition I could do without.
Even if ZuZu isn't the ultimate ramen in New York (and, to be fair, it's aiming more to be a comfy neighborhood spot than a destination), it's exciting to find a young chef who has classical skills but is not yoked to tradition—you never know what he might think of next. Clam-chowder ramen? I'd try it.
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