How Ivan Orkin is Changing New York's Ramen Cuisine
Ivan Orkin's Slurp Shop over in the Gotham West Market never pretended to be traditional in any sense of the word (see our review here), but it still had its feet firmly planted within the grounds of recognizable Japanese fare. Curry rice, noodles, and rice bowls are not particularly wild, even if they're topped with smoked white fish or slow-roasted pork shoulder.
With the opening of his flagship restaurant on the Lower East Side, however, things take a decided turn for the wackier. Beyond Orkin's lighter, less fatty ramen broths (a refreshing change-up from the New York standard), he now has menu items like fried tofu with Coney Island chili sauce and roast pork onigiri topped with tomato. Staid ramen bar this is not; Orkin's new restaurant shows the potential for ramen to join the broader category of American cuisine, not just Japanese food. To see just what that means we tackled the entire menu.
The downtown is much bigger than I expected, and it completely forgoes even attempting to look like a typical Japanese ramen shop. Same goes for the menu: there is nothing that you'd call traditional or authentic by any stretch of the imagination. A narrow opening room, plastered on one side with a mural of cut out Japanese and American manga and comic book characters, opens up into a diner-style space complete with a U-shaped bar surrounded by tall bolted-down stools and formica-veneered high-tops.
It makes perfect sense when you think about it. Ramen shops are really the greasy spoons of Tokyo, meant to provide quick, inexpensive, filling (and carb-and-fat-laden) meals. I wonder how long it'll be before some enterprising Japanese cook opens up a diner in Tokyo specializing in American-Japanese fried egg sandwiches and pancakes?
Where you really want to sit is in their garden out back. The tables are large. When was the last time you could sit in an outdoor space in New York without your elbows hitting your neighbor or with enough space to put down your beer bottle and your water glass at the same time?
Once ordered, the food comes fast, and the portions, while not big, are filling, especially if you start with a couple of small plates before moving on to the main event.
The menu is split into four broad categories: cold (salads and pickles), crisp (fried appetizers), warm (hot appetizers), and ramen. Here's what you can expect.
Full disclosure: the staff knew that we were there taking photos during our second visit, though we paid full price for everything. As most broths, sauces, and other preparations are made in advance, I don't believe it affected the way the food was prepared.
Pickled Daikon XO, $6
Shredded raw daikon is pickled in a sweet-tart brine, then doused in a not-too-hot chili oil flavored with dried shrimp and scallops. It's roasty, slightly fishy, sweet, and sour in a way that is really Japanese, yet totally original.
Should I order it? Definitely. One of the more unique and delicious things on the menu.
Chinese Broccoli and Garlic, $7
Tender but crunchy nubs of steamed Chinese broccoli served in a sweet and savory sauce with a ton of garlic.
Should I order it? Nobody does healthy cold vegetable side dishes better than the Japanese, and this one is pretty high up there on the deliciousness scale.
Little Gem Salad, $11
The Caesar salad my grandmother would have made if she made Caesar salads. The lettuces are dressed in a light tofu dressing (that tastes like a cleaner, fresher version of standard Caesar dressing), and in place of croutons and grated cheese, you get thick, lacy crunchy chips of frico, made with equal parts Parmesan cheese and little baby anchovies. (Yes, your Parmesan chips have eyes).
Should I order it? It's the lightest appetizer of the bunch, so a good plan if you're going to move on to one of the the heavier ramen selections.
1,000 Year Old Deviled Egg, $3.50
Deviled eggs made by combining regular boiled eggs with ash-cured thousand year eggs, flavored with shaved smoked bonito and tomato powder. Like a lot of things on the menu, it's a dish that's immediately recognizable as being both very American in culture and deeply Japanese in flavor at the same time.
Should I order it? Only if you really love deviled eggs (I do).
Japanese Fried Chicken, $8
Chicken livers and hearts double-breaded and deep-fried Korean Fried Chicken-style, served with a heavy dusting of powdered seaweed, along with a honey mustard flavored with yuzu juice. This is one of the crispest, tastiest things on you'll find in a neighborhood packed with crispy, tasty things. Think you don't like liver? This will change your mind.
Should I order it? Definitely. Nobody doesn't love fried chicken nuggets, and these are about as good as chicken nuggets get.
Tofu Coney Island, $11
Silken tofu coated in starch and fried, then doused in a vegetarian mushroom chili with a drizzle of mustard and chopped onions and scallions. Yeah, it sounds weird, and I almost didn't order it, but man am I glad I did. It combines the flavors and textures of two of my favorite foods—agedashi tofu and chili-topped coneys—with a flavor that's so odd that you think it shouldn't work, but it does. Beautifully.
Should I order it? If you're anything like me in that you enjoy well-crafted, crazily-conceived drunk food, then absolutely.
Pork Meatballs, $9
Crispy pork meatballs served up takoyaki-style with bulldog sauce, shaved bonito flakes, and what's that? That's not plain Kewpie mayonnaise... No, it's not: It's Ivan-style buttermilk dressing. Who knew that America's favorite dressing would work with Japan's favorite condiment? But Japanese buttermilk Ranch tasted pretty darn good.
Should I order it? I wasn't as blown away by these meatballs as I was by the fried tofu or the fried chicken, but if you like the sweet and savory flavor of takoyaki, this is the app for you.
Kewpie Ebi, $14
Lightly battered deep fried whole jumbo prawns tossed in spicy mayonnaise and served on watercress. It reminds me a lot of the spicy tempura rock shrimp that they serve over at Nobu, but instead of tasting like mayo-coated-batter, these guys actually taste intensely of shrimp, thanks to the flavorful heads and shells that are left in the mix. The watercress doesn't exactly mesh with the dish, but it was a welcome respite from the heavier appetizers.
Should I order it? Yes, but only if you promise to suck on the heads and eat those crispy little feet.
Roast Pork Musubi, $6
A small pile of rice topped with some juicy roast pork shoulder along with a not-too-hot pickled plum mustard and a slow-roasted tomato served on a piece of toasted nori. They're not particularly musubi-like—musubi (a.k.a. onigiri) are typically seasoned and packed by hand into dense snacks with a small amount of filling in the center, whereas these are left light and fluffy with the filling on top—but the ingredients are well-balanced nonetheless.
Should I order it? Yes, though the bites are tiny. This is a taste more than a real appetizer.
Lancaster Okonomiyaki, $12
What it is: This is the dish that both Robert Sietsema and Jonathan Gold called out as the best thing on the menu, but frankly, it didn't do it for me. Perhaps it's just because we've been waffling so much recently, but I expect a waffle to be crisp, especially when it's made from what should be fatty, porky scrapple. Both times I've ordered it, these waffles come out more tender and bread-y than crisp and greasy, lacking both the crispness of fried scrapple and the dense, cabbage-y crunch of okonomiyaki.
That said, the flavors of charred cabbage, kewpie mayo, maple syrup, and pickled apple are spot on.
Should I order it? You're probably going to order it anyway because it just sounds good, but there are better things on the menu (see: Tofu Coney Island or Japanese Fried Chicken).
Ankimo Dirty Rice, $14
A cross between Chinese-style fried rice and dirty rice, it comes flavored with a lemon sofrito, scallions, and scrambled eggs, and chunks of monkfish liver. And be aware: this is a large portion. It came to our table under-seasoned (salt please!), but the fresh lemon helped it out a great deal. Another great concept that could have been improved with better execution.
Should I order it? Monkfish liver, like sea urchin, is one of those things you love or hate, and you probably know who you are already. This dish is relentlessly liver-y and fish-y. My granddad would wolf it down. My sister, not so much.
Braised Ox Tongue, $9
Braised tongue served in fat slices with a clear beef broth and a swipe of hot, hot mustard. It's a minimalist dish, just about the cleanest-tasting beef tongue you'll find. And it'll leave you wanting some kind of starch to sop up that extra broth.
Should I order it? It's some pretty great tongue, though not mind-blowing in its conception.
Triple Pork Triple Garlic Mazemen, $15
Ivan's signature dish made with rich tonkotsu broth, a slab of slow-cooked chashu, bacon, and a dusting of bonito powder. The broth is extra-garlicky and extra-thick, designed for stirring the noodles and lightly coating them, Italian sauce-style.
Should I order it? This is one of the most original bowls of ramen around. Just don't expect it to taste anything like any tonkotsu ramen you've ever had or you'll be disappointed.
Four Cheese Mazemen, $15
Thick whole wheat noodles and pork belly with pickled bean sprouts and a touch of dashi in a rich four-cheese sauce. Think Japanese carbonara (or perhaps even alfredo). This will be the richest, fattiest bowl of ramen you've ever tasted.
Should I order it? If you've just trekked your way out of a WWII Siberian prison camp and have been surviving on nothing but leftover army rations and opossums for the past two months, you may be able to finish an entire bowl of this. Otherwise, plan on sharing, and bring some napkins with you.
Tokyo Shio Ramen, $15
Ivan Ramen's take on shio ramen is simultaneously lighter in texture (but darker in color) than most out there—he cuts his broth with a great deal of dashi (a light broth made with sea kelp and bonito), but also more flavor-packed, with a ton of powdered katsuobushi sprinkled on top. The broth is intensely minerally and savory. It comes with pork belly chashu, but you'll probably want to spring for the soft-cooked eggs and roasted tomatoes.
Should I order it? Absolutely. The thin rye noodles and intensely umami broth are delicious and light.
Classic Shoyu Ramen, $13
The broth base is similar to those in the other soups, made with a combination of chicken broth and dashi which then gets flavored with a soy sauce-based tare and a drizzle of flavored fat, though like the shio, It's lighter and more delicate than most ramen broths I've had.
Should I order it? Yes, like the shio ramen, Ivan packs a lot of flavor into a relatively light package.
Vegetarian Shoyu Ramen, $13
A fully vegan ramen bowl made with broth flavored with a mix of mushrooms and seaweeds, along with a slick of what Ivan's partner, chef Mike Bergemann calls "vegetable fat"—oil flavored with their house soffrito and seaweed.
Should I order it? Are you vegan or vegetarian? Check. Order this, go home happy.
Spicy Red Chili Ramen, $14
Even the spiciest spicy ramen is never really spicy, right? This one is. Very. Based on the same dashi and chicken stock combo as the shio and shoyu ramen, this dish is amped up with doubanjang (Japan's version of a hot Chinese chili paste) and a ton of red chili oil. It's not the kind of heat that slowly builds or catches you off guard. It's the kind of heat that tells you it's coming and doesn't relent until you finish the bowl.
It comes with chunks of ground pork and a smashed soft boiled egg mixed into the broth. To be honest, it tastes a lot like the bowls of ramen I make for myself late at night when I doctor up a bowl of Myojo Chukazanmai with chili paste, chili oil, miso paste, and a poached egg. I.E., it tastes like something you'd make while you're drunk, but unlike most drunk food, this tastes great even when you're stone cold sober.
Should I order it? Yes, but be ready to pay dearly for it down the line.