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Well before you glimpse the understated white lettering of the Ramen Lab (70 Kenmare Street; 646-613-7522) sign, you see the line. Around 7 p.m. last night, close to two dozen people were bundled up in coats, waiting to score standing space.
In case you missed it, this is a ramen counter from Sun Noodle, a 30-year-old ramen noodle maker that got its start in Hawaii and now operates facilities in Los Angeles and New Jersey. Founder Hidehito Uki made it his mission to provide U.S. chefs with authentic Japanese noodles, and his reputation for doing so is such that Sun Noodle provides most of the city’s high-end ramen shops with noodles. Ramen Lab is a restaurant, but in the spirit of spreading the gospel of authentic Japanese cuisine, chef Jack Nakamura will also offer seminars and tastings, which is how this place gets the designation “lab.”
But back to last night. There was no waiting list; we had to stick it out in the queue for one of the twelve spots at the bar. Fortunately, there’s a bit of a show to pass the hour-plus you’ll be standing there: Nakamura stands right behind the front counter of the glass façade, tending the noodles; with every order, he pulls the baskets out of the water with a rolling shoulder movement that almost resembles a pop’n’lock. (On our visit, there was just one other chef working behind the counter.)
The show continues once you walk through the door — the small space offers the perfect opportunity to watch the chefs work.
There are only three dishes on the menu. The Torigara Shoyu Ramen ($13) is described as an “homage to circa 1910 Tokyo Shoyu Ramen.” It starts with a thin layer of a deeply colored liquid; it’s referred to on the menu as a special shoyu tare. Ladles of chicken stock and rendered chicken fat come next. Then, the noodles. Pork chashu, menma (fermented bamboo shoots), nori, spinach, and naruto fish cake are placed on top. The result is impeccable, delicate, and nuanced. The thin noodles perfectly absorbed the schmaltz-like broth. The pork is so soft it really does melt in the mouth.
The XO Miso Ramen ($14) is the exact opposite: extremely rich, particularly for a vegetarian dish. Thicker noodles swim with bean sprouts, nira (Japanese chives), and scallions in a bold miso-based broth with oolong tea and a slightly spicy XO sauce. A pat of butter and a thick hot sauce come on the side. Medium-boiled egg ($2) or extra pork (for the shoyu) are the only other additions offered.
Piping-hot gyoza ($7) with pork, Napa cabbage, and nira round out the menu options; however, the dumplings are not being offered at the moment. The chefs did assure us that they would be back soon, along with a vegetarian option. Seasonal ramens, available for two to three months at a time, are also slated to be added in the not-too-distant future.
One sake, two tea selections, and three beers (Japanese Orion Lager, Victory Pils, and Sierra Nevada Torpedo) make up the beverage program.
Ramen Lab is cash only; tax and gratuity are already included in the prices.