Holothurian. Scientists use that Tolkein-esque name when classifying sea cucumbers, and once you’ve crunched the animal’s fibrous life form between your teeth, you’ll have an idea why the tubular bottom-dwellers have such a fantastical cognomen. Curled slices, orange and rippled, sit in a loose, translucent nikogori jelly made from fennel and clams. Imported from Maine and decorated with green fennel fronds, white radish, and pink-budded chive blossoms, the cucumber — a relative of starfish and sea urchins — unleashes a slight gush of brine when chewed. The aquatic diorama tastes nearly as refreshing as a glass of bubbly: an ocean of bracing and concentrated tastes and textures, arranged inside a pleated glass bowl no larger than a Champagne coupe. Some seafood dishes reference the sea. This one re-creates it in miniature.
Yuji Haraguchi and Tara Norvell serve the righteous, submersible cuke as a $7 dinner appetizer weeknights at Okonomi and Yuji Ramen (150 Ainslie Street, Brooklyn; no phone) in Williamsburg. After three years lugging a ramen pop-up around the city, plying their trade everywhere from outdoor food orgy Smorgasburg to counters inside Whole Foods, the pair opened Okonomi and Yuji Ramen last year on a quiet residential block.
They’re not two establishments, but “one restaurant with two names,” Haraguchi — a self-taught chef who once worked in seafood wholesaling — explains, underplaying the striking twelve-seat space. Behind window bars adorned with nautical art (check out the whole dried fish skin), a modest modern dining room reposes in soothing gunmetal gray juxtaposed with light and dark woods, flattering in natural light as Okonomi, or under the many light fixtures that make Yuji Ramen a contender for the city’s brightest ramen-ya. The two concepts coexist as paeans to our local waters, driven and bound together by a Buddhist convention that advocates sustainability.
The chefs devote their mornings and afternoons at Okonomi to ichiju sansai, a Japanese breakfast composed of soup, fish, and accompaniments like pickled vegetables lent bite from rice vinegar and sour yuzu. They cook creamy cubes of Japanese-style rolled omelet, mixing the eggs with soy milk or heavy cream to create a deeply caramelized exterior. Haraguchi and Norvell get their produce from the Union Square and McCarren Park markets, blanching greens and topping them with shira-ae (a smooth tofu paste that acts like earthy whipped cream) and a scattering of sesame seeds. There’s also remarkably fluffy, nutty brown rice crowned with pungent cured bonito flakes. Spend an extra $2 for an onsen egg — poached in the shell and cooked to the approximate temperature of a hot spring — so you can pour its viscous yolk and barely-there white over the grains. Roasted barley tea is the drink du jour. Its steam mingles with the wisps from bowls of soup made with both barley and white miso steeped with market vegetables (fennel and spring onion, on my visits).
Okonomi’s prix-fixe (priced between $17 and $24) allows for a choice of cooked fish (Norvell and Haraguchi are enamored of less-used local species such as sheepshead, ocean perch, and blackfish), and the chefs experiment with different preparations from day to day. Big-eye tuna might receive a coating of salty miso, as was the case one Sunday morning, the marinade caramelized under the broiler. Other varieties, like tilefish, come simply salt-grilled. As in the best sushi restaurants, the kitchen ages certain fish for a day or two to allow flavors to bloom and enzymes to break down.
Perhaps that’s why fluke sashimi tasted softer and sweeter than I’ve encountered in some time. Plated on ethereal handmade pottery from local chef and artist Jordan Colon — like nearly everything else, from ramen to bowls of pickles — the barely opaque fish fans out over a single leaf of shiso, a type of mint with a citrusy edge. Norvell brought over a tiny saucer of cucumber-watercress ponzu, a peppery take on the traditional vinegar-based Japanese condiment, and instructed us to drag the thin slices of sashimi into a clump of yuzu kosho (a potent mash of chile peppers, yuzu peels, and salt) before plunking them into the ponzu. The aggressive spicing works wonders on the velvety, flounder-like fish. Tear off shreds of the shiso leaf and layer with the fish to kick things into overdrive.
The kitchen embraces even gutsier flavors at dinner for both the weeknight à la carte ramen menu (where I encountered that sea cucumber dish) and weekend ramen omakase dinners, which often tug at the threads that connect Italian and Japanese cuisines. Norvell hand-rolls ramen doughs for the eight-course processions of seafood, ramen, and brothless mazemen noodles, incorporating ingredients like buckwheat and seaweed to form supple orecchiette and tagliatelle and delicate agnolotti packets stuffed with monkfish liver.
That oceanic offal shows up to equally stunning effect during the week, loosely blended into a miso ramen broth studded with mustard greens and charred whelks. All soups start with stock made from the morning’s fish carcasses, along with chicken and pork bones supplied by the Meat Hook. The beloved neighborhood butcher shop also supplies Haraguchi and Norvell with the bacon for their fishless bacon-and-egg mazemen, something of a cult favorite that mixes one of those luxurious onsen eggs with pork belly and bonito flakes over noodles, with the option to add cheese.
Always add cheese.