I am starting a series titled Food Travel. I have long wanted to write about some of our dining experiences, and a series such as this would serve that purpose well. In early February, I had a chance to visit New York City (NYC) and eat at Ichiran. It was a unique dining experience and one I present below.
Missy JJ spent a summer last year in NYC and explored several eateries then. One of the places she highly recommended was Ichiran. My hotel during the visit, the Sheraton Times Square, was a couple of blocks away from this restaurant. The day of my visit being one of the coldest in NYC, I was loathe to venture out despite being layered from head to toe. But a feeling of restlessness and hunger eventually drove me to make the short walk. Missy JJ insisted that the place was to be experienced in person and not to order online. And boy, was I thankful she made me go!
Ichiran is famous for its classic Tonkotsu soup with its “deep savory flavors of pork-bone broth without the strong aromas.” The ramen noodles are made fresh in-house daily from a unique blend of flours. The ramen is then enriched by a red pepper sauce or the Hiden no tare made from thirty specially blended spices. Toppings and sides further enhance the soup’s taste and include Yakibuta (marinated pork in thick slices), seaweed, mushrooms, scallions, chashu (barbecued pork), white rice, and a soft-boiled egg. Ichiran serves vegetarian ramen (although not vegan). The diner can customize it with extra minced garlic, scallions, mushrooms, and an extra helping of spicy red sauce. If they choose, the guest can order either full or half servings of the noodles as Kae-dama or refills.
What is unique about the Ichiran service are the Aji Shuchu counters. Each guest is led to a single dining booth enclosed on both sides by the counter and in front by a curtain that separates the diner from the kitchen service. Essentially the guest is left to enjoy the meal with the least distractions. Also, since the freshly made noodles start expanding once added to boiling water, Ichiran guests are served the dish within fifteen seconds to enjoy the exact texture of the ordered noodles.
While waiting to be seated, guests order their meals using a written order sheet from which they can customize the toppings and sides. They can choose from soda, sake, draft beer, Calpico, and Ramune (Japanese soda). Matcha pudding serves as dessert. To order noodle refills, a Kae-dama plate is left at the booth. Guests place the plate on a sensor that activates a tune and notifies the staff.
The day I visited, there were about eight people in line ahead of me, waiting to be seated. I received the order sheet and filled it in, but I didn’t see an option for veggie ramen. As I neared the start of the line, I asked the waitress about veggie options, and she handed me a different sheet to fill. Soon, she led me to the single booth counters inside. She showed me where to hang my coat and mentioned the water dispenser. All but three or four booths were occupied. Soon the curtain in front of me opened, and I handed the server my order. She showed me how to place the kae-dama order. Then I waited patiently for the food to arrive.
I enjoyed some cold water and hot Matcha tea meanwhile. After the brisk walk in the cold, it felt cozy to be sipping the tea, lost in thought in my booth as the servers worked on the other side. Soon enough, the curtain opened, and a waiter placed a black dish before me. Inside was the gleaming ramen with scallions and extra servings of the spicy red sauce. The ramen was worth the trip! Tasting the umami of the broth at first without the sauce or the toppings felt perfect! Not too salty, light enough to swallow quickly, and rich enough to feel satiated. As I swirled the red sauce and the toppings into the ramen, the flavors came together, and I was lost for the next few minutes in the ramen-umami world! I saved some soup for the half kae-dama I had requested. Although it may be a bit too filling, I had a bakery to walk to next and knew I could walk it off.
Walking away from Ichiran that afternoon, I was glad Missy JJ pushed me to experience this unique ramen place. I can’t wait to return the next time I’m in NYC.