Joshua Smookler has never set foot in Japan.
He's yet to lap up porky tonkotsu thickened with its own fat at one of Kyushu's open-air yatai (outdoor food market stall) or wander down Sapporo's famed Ramen Alley for a warm bowl of wok-fired miso ramen. Instead of working his way from the back of the ramen-ya, washing dishes and shaking noodles from strainers, he started out working front-of-house jobs at high-end joints like Bouley and Per Se, then traded them for hard hours as a kitchen stagiaire, and a chance to cook ramen in the back of a bagel shop in Long Island City.
Across the East River, Shigetoshi "Jack" Nakamura, popularly deemed one of Japan's four ramen gods and the youngest of the bunch, is toying around with noodles by day in a Nolita R&D lab, and by night, turning it into a 10-seat chef's counter with just two ramen and an ethereal gyoza on the menu.
This is the New York ramen story, a meld of Japanese tradition and a borderline obsessive (if irreverent) love for the iconic noodle soup. It may seem as if everyone has a ramen-ya these days, but the older ones aren't innovating and the younger shops often aren't up to snuff. Have we hit full ramen saturation in this city? Maybe. But mind-blowing bowls at Smookler's Mu Ramen and Nakamura's Ramen Lab prove there's more delicious innovation out there.
Long after shutting down his highly praised pop-up this past March, Smookler is back in Long Island City with a style all his own at Mu Ramen. He meticulously presses out all the fat accumulated from 23 hours of furiously boiling the tonkotsu broth (the horror!) and plucks brisket and half-sour pickles from the deli sandwich and stacks them on the house ramen (the nerve!). We'll get to his version of tebasaki gyoza, dumpling-stuffed chicken wings, later.
Draining ramen noodles | Photo: Dave Katz/Tasting Table
"Can I make tonkotsu like Ippudo?" Smookler muses. "It's like any artist. For someone who does abstract or surreal, they can paint or draw, so there's that standard of Oh, hey he knows what he is doing. But since nobody taught me, I have a different perspective on what ramen is."
The proof is in his noodles. Stripping the tonkotsu ramen ($15) of tongue-shellacking grease leaves a subtler, more delicate broth of melted marrow to splash around in. It's all the better with succulent chashu pork jowl, braised until creamy, instead of the now-standard, quivering belly. "I'm so tired of it. It's the kale of ramen," Smookler grumbles.
And back to that gyoza, Smookler swaps out the typical pork filling for foie gras and brioche bound by a quince jam, then coats the stuffed wing in siphoned egg whites and rice flour before deep-frying. The result is a rich, satisfying French roulade-like spread surrounded by a crackly, craggy crust the Colonel would be proud of.
There are just 22 seats at the cozy, wood-paneled restaurant; six occupy the chef's counter, and the other 16 surround a succulent-adorned communal designed by Smookler himself. Numerous patient and persistent calls to the restaurant around 3 p.m. will score you one of these seats, and the standout ramen and chicken. And unlike other ramen-yas, there's no slurp and silence, meaning you can sit, talk and feast at your own pace and in peace.
Though the deli sandwich soup mash-up, the namesake Mu Ramen ($18), commands top ramen dollar, it's the best of the bunch: funky and ultra meaty from the oxtail-based broth, which vaguely recalls kori gomtang, and Jewish deli-leaning stacks of housemade brisket and long pickle spears. It's not just an homage to Smookler's past—a Korean-American kid adopted by Jewish parents and raised on Long Island—rather for the guy who spent more time with his tonkotsu broth than his young family in the early days of his pop-up, this bowl announces Mu Ramen has returned.
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Smookler's next step is getting his own noodle machine (now simply a dream, so the restaurant's current offerings are made by Sun Noodle), but Nakamura has already made it his vocation.
Inside his spare, slim, whitewashed ramen-ya, Ramen Lab, Nakamura stands right near the door, hovering over the noodles, making magic happen. While the chicken broth warms up for the classic Tokyo torigawa ramen ($13), he spackles chicken fat, scallions and tare in the prepared bowl, then breaks out a bag of noodles and gives them one forceful squeeze into a small strainer. Soon Nakamura's hand arches grandly, raising the noodles and dispelling the water in a single shake. All gnawing and chatter ceases.
"I actually didn't think about the appearance of my tenku-otoshi or how I cut the water out of the noodles," Nakamura explains. "In the beginning, I didn't raise my hand so high. But bit by bit, I got more comfortable, and I found that cutting the water is more efficient the higher it gets. The appearance was a nice coincidence."
This is just one trick from Nakamura. The other, that little massage, transforms each noodle into a nearly translucent, chewy, gossamer thread, clearly the star of the simple, cleanly flavored torigawa.
He scatters tiny fermented beans in the XO miso ramen ($14), a clever addition to the oolong tea-based broth enriched with Kaizen Trading Co.'s paste made with the same beans. Here the noodles are thick to stand up to the chunky, richer ramen.
This is not the place to catch up with friends. This is the place to wrangle obsessive eating companions willing to wait outside in the cold for an hour for the right name to be called and once inside, ask tons of questions of the affable Nakamura. After 30 to 45 minutes of listening and slurping, your time is up, but you couldn't be happier.
Now, what you're really wondering: Are these new red-hot ramen-yas worth their notorious waits? To borrow from Smookler's art metaphor, think of Ramen Lab as a work of an old Dutch master and Mu Ramen as gifted Abstract Expressionist. Wildly different expressions, but always a feast for the senses.
So, one word: Go. (And maybe bring a book with you.)
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