Brooklyn was late out of the gate when it came to ramen. Manhattan had more than a score of spots long before the borough of Kings chimed in. And when it did, the places strove to be as nontraditional as possible, turning the pale wheat noodles into a form of culinary auterism. In Prospect Heights, Chuko pioneered a ghostly white broth served in limited quantities like a private-label scotch, while Williamsburg’s Ramen Yebisu introduced a bowl that, with more seafood than noodles, constituted a sort of Japanese bouillabaisse. Weirdest of all was the so-called deli ramen at Dassara in Carroll Gardens: chicken broth like a Jewish mom might make, bobbing tiny matzo balls and floating slices of pastrami. Oy!
But just fooling around with the broths and throwing in extra ingredients may not have ultimately been the way to go. Now, two new Brooklyn spots are trying to change our idea of what we might want in a ramen restaurant. Located just off the second stop into Brooklyn on the L in a narrow, well-windowed storefront, Suzume offers sushi on an equal footing with noodles. A handsome, handcrafted wooden bar serving sake, beer, and wine runs the length of the room, opposite two-tops illuminated mainly by yellowish light from the street. A small one-man sushi bar sits in the corner, and beyond that a framed window peers into the kitchen. What goes on in there could be mistaken for a hyperactive family racing around an adjacent apartment.
The noodle offerings are limited to five bowls modest in size but stylistically diverse. One called “spicy butter tofu ramen” ($10) offers triangles of tofu poking like icebergs out of a dairy-enhanced pork broth. It’s fortifying, but butter and tofu together is undeniably strange. Against all odds, Suzume drops roast salmon—whose strong taste would overpower most soups—into a broth and makes it work, the orange fish swimming happily among little shrubs of wakame seaweed ($12). But Suzume’s split focus on raw fish can make for strange gastronomic bedfellows. You may disdain eating steaming-hot noodles and cold sushi in the same meal: Would you ever find two such incongruous specialties in a restaurant in Japan?
More important, can they really make good sushi in this hipster-run place? The unexpected answer is yes! The fetish of the menu is locavoric fish, which is a good idea and something that’s long been done in San Francisco. Unfortunately, Suzume pats itself a little too hard on the back by marking nearly every selection with a black curling wave signifying “ocean friendly.” Most of the fish on Suzume’s list are good sustainable choices, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. (The sole current exception is the Norwegian farm-raised salmon.) The lineup also includes black bass, scallops, yellowfin tuna, and mackerel. Topped with tiny red roe, painted with spicy mayo, and wrapped in nori, the scallops ($5 per piece) are particularly irresistible; there are maki rolls, too, including a faddish spicy tuna with a nest of wiry fried potatoes on top. You could make a very nice sushi dinner here—if you can ignore everyone around you slurping noodles.
Found on a darkened street in downtown Brooklyn that is nearly deserted in the evenings, save the occasional groan ing garbage truck, Ganso is quite simply one of the best ramen parlors in town. The broths are rich without being fussy, and noodles of differing thickness are selected for each soup. I brought with me a friend who’d lived in Tokyo, and she went gaga over the shio ($12), a transparent amber broth tasting mildly of chicken and salt. “This enhances the delicate flavor of the ramen,” she said enthusiastically, pulling noodles up to her mouth in a continuous stream. The house special Ganso ramen is equally elemental, a soy broth with pork shoulder and belly, gooey egg, and wad of tangled bitter greens. Two of the six broths are spicy, further demonstrating the penetration of dried red chiles into mainstream Japanese cooking.
But the appetizers manage to almost overshadow the noodles. There are wonderful gyoza ($7), six dumplings connected with a lattice of batter like an edible doily, and bulging shrimp shumai, each surmounted by a green soybean. Dark-meat chicken taken from the drumstick, skin attached, is cooked under a brick and heaped luxuriantly, while baby-back ribs arrive gobbed with miso, hoisin, and five-spice powder in an Asian-flavor group grope. Ganso is really like two restaurants in one. You could skip the noodles entirely—heresy at a ramen joint—and still walk back to the subway with a smile.