after dinner sneeze

a lot of g says, t says

t visits Momofuku and Ippudo

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t says:  I found myself in NYC last month so I visited two awesome venues in the local food scene.  First, I made it to the fabled Momofuku Noodle Bar.

November 2011, Thursday 4:22pm, Party of Me.  I rushed over to Momofuku with roller-suitcase behind me.  I made it in there just before the kitchen closes at 4:30pm (it closes for an hour before dinner).  I took off my jacket, and, despite eating a mere three hours prior, was in the mood for some pork buns (sorry – with the onset of December, it’s winter in my book, so Pork Caps is over).  The ramen was calling me as well, but I didn’t want to have to walk around the city with the slosh of liquid in my stomach – so pork buns it was!  Having had a number of Tyson Bee’s pork buns, I figured that I was prepared for Momofuku’s.  Actually, I was readying myself for disappointment, as surely this is one of those things that’s way overrated, right?  COULD NOT BE MORE WRONG.

pork bun = pork belly + pickle + sauce + ?scallion? + bao bun

HOLY CRAP.  I was so moved by it that I pulled out g’s iPad and started writing myself a note so I could try and capture what it was that I was experiencing.

“Holy bejesus.  Never have I seen pork belly this tender.  EVER.  I’m shocked to admit it but it kind of wrecks a LOT of other pork bellies for me – even those at restaurants.  So soft.  The softest ever.  Maybe not the crispest crust but among the best that haven’t been Fondified.  But not totally fatty – surprisingly little fat actually.  Puts Tyson Bee’s to shame.  No wonder they don’t serve it there anymore – someone must have sued them for having such an inferior product under the same name of ‘pork bun’.”

So yea, the buns had two of the awesomest pieces of pork belly ever.  If this pork belly and Fond’s got in a fight, I honestly don’t know whose would win.  Fond’s got the crust, but these have the fluffiest texture ever.  To boot, these tiny slabs were perfectly balanced little bites of heaven (sweet, sour, salty, savory – it was all here).  No wonder they cost $10 for 2.  They’re worth every penny.

I also ventured the “roasted rice cakes” appetizer.

roasted rice cakes

I do like the idea of this dish.  One would figure: if you take gnocchi and then brown them, they get a nice crispy outside, a soft pillowy inside, and an added layer of flavoring from the caramelized sugar.  Obviously, rice cakes could be done up the same way, right?  Eh … kinda …  The way it was done on this particular visit shows that the process added a crispy outside, but it didn’t quite add any flavor [that I could tell].  Then again, it also wasn’t really browned, either, so maybe it was ineffective application of heat?  That said, the sauce and sesame was spectacular. I think that because of these, I’ll label these as “good”, but look forward for [hopefully] a future visit that will prove to have a denser browning that the above.

So overall, I was satisfied with Noodle Bar’s offerings.  As I left, I was already dreaming of the return visit – after all, the ramen needed to be conquered, right?  During my stay in NYC, I got into a conversation with another about my recent visit to Momofuku.  He said, “yea, they have good ramen there – but if you want even better ramen, go to Ippudo.”  Whoa.  Better than Momofuku?  And this was professed to me by a native San Franciscan who also confessed to being food-centric.  I just had to go.  A few days later, before leaving NYC, I made the trek to Ippudo to confront their ramen.

November 2011, Tuesday Dinner, Party of Me.  As I stood around in the waiting area of Ippudo (i.e. the bar), I felt the energy of the place.  I was clearly in a hot-spot.  I was clearly out of my element.  It was loud and people were packed in tighter than sardines.  Patrons were willing to lie, cheat, and steal so they could get in – I heard the hostess tell people wait times of an hour or more.  Of course, maybe it was just a fluke and maybe this place is not as thumping/bumping/jumping as I perceived, but I just picked a bad night?  Regardless of the reality, I stuck with it and waited, silent and patient.  Why?  Because when you’re by yourself, the wait time is “5-10 minutes”.  It’s one of the few perks of eating alone.  But I wondered how many single-tops or bar-seating they had available for singletons like myself.  As the minutes went by, I missed g.  She’d probably like going to a noodle bar, and here I was about to go to two within five days.  Also, it was times like these when we’d look around an analyze things like the decor or patrons’ attires.  Later I found out that she had gone to Barbuzzo with some friends … I didn’t feel so bad anymore …

In 10 minutes, they took me to the main restaurant area.  As I walked in, some of the servers began shouting some sort of incoherent Japanese greeting.  Gimmick or legitimate or both?  Who knows?  That’s when I saw the communal tables.  Suddenly it made sense!  With all of the random-numbered parties in there, squeezing one here or there made it so they could fill the open gaps of the table with strangers.  And I didn’t mind, as I was here for one thing and one thing only: ramen.  Forget “socializing”.

I ended up ordering the “Akamaru Modern” which is their contemporary take on ramen (I think it’s one of the ramens they are most known for) and added a side of braised pork belly (“kakuni”).

akamaru modern ramen + kakuni

This ramen’s kind of different than what I think of when I say “ramen”.  It’s in a cloudier-sauced broth.  Furthermore, my addition of the the brown-sauced-shortrib yields a collision of the dark and light browns that you see in the pic above.  I must admit that I was totally digging having two porks in a single dish (the kakuni I ordered and the “chashu” which is included – I think both are belly).    What’s also fun is the additional soup spoon thing they give you.  While I’m not sure what the “right” way to use it is, I used it as an intermediate platform on which I set my noodles on so I can visualize how much I’m going to put in my mouth before I do it.  Like this:

the soup spoon is the last stop for those noodles and pork before my chopsticks lift them to my mouth

The ramen was pretty damn good.  The noodles had that alkali noodle taste and were perfectly al dente.  The broth was savory and had some weight to it in the mouth (?miso?).  The veggies still had bite while the porks were right on – perhaps not as soft as Momofuku’s, but respectable.  I felt that everything was in place for a nice solid bowl of ramen.  Mind-blowing?  No.  It’s not like there were unexpected tastes and textures, but it was very well-done indeed.  It was good enough that I’d definitely go back and try out some of their other noodles to see what kinds of flavors they might bring in (I think the special of the night was a wasabi one).  I suspect, however, that Momofuku’s is going to be a little more complex with the pork being more tender and flavorful (they use the same pork in their buns as they do in their ramen).  Alternatively, I recall Momofuku have a dinner special the night I went which was beef shank and gruyere … in ramen … crazy! … so that would have pushed the envelope a little.

I was about to leave but wanted a little something sweet and cold to close the meal.  I saw a number of sorbets and ice creams, but they looked a bit boring.  For $8, I’d rather hit walk around until I found some other dessert place.  Then I saw the “matcha brulee” which featured green tea brulee with green tea ice cream.  Gimicky?  Sure.  But I’m a sucker for green tea sweets.

the matcha brulee

You know – this was the surprise of the evening. The green tea ice cream had that bitter green tea taste, but wasn’t very sweet.  The creme brulee had more of creamier/sweeter profile and, obviously, a different temperature.  Add in the texture of the crust that kept the two from co-mingling until after they got in your mouth.  It was surprisingly good!  By themselves, the two components would have been a snooze-fest.  But together, and it was fun!  I’d say it’s worth 6 of the 8 dollars it cost.

In summary, what I found particularly interesting while I sat and ate and people-watched at Ippudo is that I feel like Philly desperately needs a noodle house like this.  Yea, we have some Asian-themed restaurants (e.g. Sampan) and some actual noodle houses (in Chinatown).  But we don’t have something like this.  This is like if Barbuzzo was a noodle bar.  It’s loud, it’s hip, and it’s a place to be.  That said, the food is good and it comes out fast.  Make sure it serves some vegetarian options (lookin out for you, dz!) and have the same servers that are friendly [enough] while executing exceedingly efficient service (they ran like machinese).  Considering what seems to be reasonably large profit margins (seriously – how much does it cost to make good ramen if Ippudo’s going to go and charge $15+ for it?), I think they could really do some damage on the Philly scene.  Maybe it won’t have the longest life cycle, but for a well-heeled restaurant group, it might be easier to get in and get out.  Ok, I’ll stop talking out of my derriere now – I just want someone to make a comparable ramen house here so I can get some ramen!

Written by afterdinnersneeze

6 December 2011 at 4:24pm

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