Monday, May 21, 2012

A Tale Of Three Ramen

Rai Rai Ken is a Japanese restaurant in East Village, NYC, recommended in one of the tourist guide booklets. When we got there, the restaurant was only open to invited guests for tasting of their new menu. Disappointed, we walked a street up to the corner of  1st Ave & 10th St and and saw a Japanese restaurant called Sapporo East.

Sapporo is serves great Japanese food but the place needs a full revamp, especially the entrance which is blocked by a wall. Very bad feng sui, somebody should tell them.

This large bowl of Sapporo miso ramen (USD9) was delicious; I want to eat it again. I ate ramen 3 times in NYC and this was the best. Ramen is true comfort food in cold weather.

Salmon maki, very fresh and yummy.

Rai Rai Ken, 214 East 10th Street, NYC

On our way to eat at Momofuku one afternoon, we passed Rai Rai Ken, the restaurant that turned us away a few days before. My daughter thought I was crazy but I insisted on eating there even though we'd be eating at Momokufu in half an hour.

Rai Rai Ken's new menu includes the belly pork bun (USD7.50), probably a clone of Momofuku's famous pork buns. Momokufu is just round the corner next street up. Rai Rai Ken's pork buns were okay but I've eaten better in China.

I made a mistake of ordering a shio ramen. Ramen comes in three stocks, the miso/bean paste stock which is cloudy and rich, the shoyu/soy sauce stock which is medium in body and the shio/salt stock which is clear and light. This tasted like instant noodles, the dry instant form of ramen.

We didn't make reservations for Momofuku because I hate to plan my holidays around restaurant reservations and also, I knew that the chance of getting a reservation within a week would be like winning the lottery. I didn't have much access to the Internet, except when we were at Starbucks (a strange thing about the US--Starbucks is on every block. I can't imagine anyone in Melbourne wanting to drink Stabucks coffee), so I thought the Momofuku Noodle Bar, which is the first Momofuku restaurant, would be the best out of the 4 locations in NYC. While writing this post, I read that Momofuku Ssam Bar has been listed as one of the world's 50 best restuarants in the last three years and the very expensive Momofuku Ko has two Michelin stars. Ah well.

I knew that to get a table for dinner without reservations would be impossible but since the restaurant opens at 5:30 pm, I might be lucky since the dinner crowd usually goes in after 8 pm. We took a walk around the area and saw people lining up for Artichoke Pizza. A couple of people stood outside eating inch-thick pizzas, a slice as big as a dinner plate. I was about to go into the restaurant when my daughter warned me "Go ahead if you want to eat it, but. I. am. not. eating." She looked serious and there was no way I could eat more than two bites of the pizza after having just eaten at Rai Rai Ken and eating again in half an hour at Momofuku.

Not eating a slice of Artichoke Pizza is one of my regrets.

Momofuku Noodle Bar, 171 1st Ave, between 10th and 11th Streets, East Village.

We rushed over to Momofuku Noodle Bar at 5 pm and were the third to stand in line. This photo was taken about 5:20 pm, and the line was growing longer. The restaurant is so popular that they don't even have a sign. It turned out that we had passed it by several days before that.

The door opened exactly at 5:30 pm and the crowd filed in quickly, like there was free food inside. We asked to sit at the kitchen bar from where we saw the chefs cooked and plated up the dishes. The kitchen was long and narrow and super busy. I wouldn't survive two days working under that stress. Service was very good, very friendly and casual but the music was loud and the seats, whether at the bar or at the tables, were just stools. Not a place to bring your date, first or last. The menu too was very limited, about 20 items in all and the prices were twice as much at regular Japanese restaurants.

For USD18, this appetizer of raw tilefish, each only the size of my forefinger, was pretty ridiculous but hey, it's Momofuku, I thought, even though I was wondering if it was just me who was having doubts about the food. The fish was fresh but the portion was too small to really leave a memorable impression.

Grilled octopus tentacles appetizer with citrus dressing. I don't know, but all this modern fusion touch doesn't impress me. It was okay, but it wasn't something I'd crave for.

The item that Momofuku is famous for, pork belly buns. The pork belly was very tender and very fatty but surprisingly didn't taste greasy at all.  Either because the hoisin sauce was salty and flavorful so the belly pork was cooked without much flavor, or the pork was cooked without much seasoning because the flavor was to come from the hoisin sauce, I found the hoisin sauce a cheap spread for the sandwich. I prefer the versions I ate in China, where the belly pork braised in soy sauces and spices was good enough to not need  hoisin or any other sauce on the bun. Still, this was delicious. But it was not cheap, USD9 for a pair of tiny sandwiches.

Sure, I tasted the smoky flavor that came from bacon in the stock and the shredded pork was unusual in ramen but this was NOT one of the better ramen I've tasted anywhere. Somehow it just wasn't good enough to make me want to eat it all. My daughter outright refused to eat her share after two mouthfuls and said the best ramen ever ever is the one she ate in LA. I think the restaurant was called Daikokuya. At USD16, this bowl of ramen was a joke. By then, I was feeling rather stupid. My daughter said that the ramen at Sapporo East, which is diagonally across from Momofuku Noodle Bar, was tons better. I agreed, feeling stupid again.

I watched the chef/cook scoop some black crumbly stuff onto a plate and asked what it was. "Chocolate cake," he said. Oh. Nice way to use a failed cake. The dessert was placed in front of the guy sitting next to my daughter. As I got off my seat towards the door, I thought: good luck with that USD18 crumbled chocolate cake. I smiled as I left, happy that I've saved USD18 because the waiter had made a mistake and didn't bring me my order of Momofuku's famous appetizer dish, pig tails. Would I go to Momofuku Noodle Bar again? Are you kidding? I went to check it out and I left very sure that there are lots of places in NYC where I can get a much better meal.


malaymui said...

you went to a different momofuku. The one that I went to (Ssam Bar) has a better food I guess. I like their duck over rice though.

Linda Ong said...

My favorite ramen restaurant is Ippudo. Love their Akamaru Ramen and their pork bun is very good. I tried Momofuku and Rai Rai Ken, not impressed with both. Another good one is Santouka in NJ.

FiSh. ohFISHiee said...

the latter belly pork bun looks better and i cant find it here in malaysian japanese restaurant..

Latest: Largest Pizza in Town

ck said...

Love love love your infatuation of NYC. Are you going to write about the SF bay area? Now you know why I am moving back to NYC :-))

Terri @ A Daily Obsession said...

malaymui: yes, went to the wrong one:( some of these rated restaurants are just a waste of time n $.

linda: oh yes, i read about ippudo and santouka. lucky u! u know what i didn't do enough in ny? i didn't shop enough! i thought 2 days at the end was good enough but shopping really takes a lot of time. now i'm searching online for all thsoe things i wanted to buy...

fish: tt's right, i hvn't eaten these buns anywhere in msia. make your own? i did, once, but it was too much work to cook the belly pork just for eating with buns.btw, i have a good bun recipe, under 'chinese baos'.

ck: haha i nvr thought tt i['d love nyc, but i do:) nyc city is like hk. you don't need a car if you live in manhattan n you just walk out and there's all those shops n things to see:)) yes i'll come to the bay area soon.

rogermht said...

Nowadays professional restaurant ratings are probably as good as credit ratings of financial institutions.

Could be the start of Great Food Crisis v2?

Michelle Chin said...

There's also the milk bar and the ssam bar. my foodie friends reported good experiences at the milk bar.

i went to neither. :D

tofugirl said...

I am not a fan of Momofuku in general; I just don't think it lives up to the hype. I did eat at Momofuku Ko a couple of years ago, and while it was a really interesting experience, I don't feel compelled to go back. Interesting doesn't always equal delicious! And man, I do not understand the obsession everyone has with Crack Pie. It makes my teeth hurt, it's so sweet. I often wonder if people sort of talk themselves into liking something because they think they are supposed to....

ChopSuey said...

I, too, had a very disappointing experience at Momo Noodles, so much so, that I was embarrassed to have brought a foodie friend with me for the poor experience, and after eating there, Ssam Bar (where I had the overpriced pork bun and thought, wow, chinatown is cheaper and tastier than this) and gave up on all the Momo hype.

the lunch guy said...

my only comment about all of these foofy Japanese places is ... Chinatown, Chinatown, Chinatown ... when i doubt, go to Chinatown!

Nate @ House of Annie said...

Sometimes I go to a famous restaurant and wonder what all the fuss was about.

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