Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Peep at Kirimachi's New Tori Paitan Ramen

When you're an obsessive ramen chef whose ramen has already made the grade but feel compelled to move it forward, there are couple of ways you can go. You can throw in some dorm hacks and see if it floats anybody's boat, or you can hit the books.  Leonardi Gondoputro, whose Kirimachi Ramen made 7x7SF's pick list of the top 7 bowls of ramen in San Francisco in its first couple of months of existence, takes the latter course. Last fall, he went to Japan for some informal ramen study with practitioners  and returned with a recipe for kuro (blackened garlic) ramen. At the beginning of March of this year he returned to Japan (bringing wife Febry Arnold along for moral support and shopping) for a week-long  ramen school (who knew?). Back in SF he hit the ground running and not only reworked all his broths, but introduced another new item, Tori paitan (milky chicken broth) ramen, which I stopped by to test drive.

Tori paitan is not your wimpy chicken miso broth. It's a rich, golden tonkotsu-like broth but made by long, slow simmering of chicken bones and chicken parts instead of pork bones.  ("Ramen Dreams" chef Keizo Shimamoto says "tori paitan" just means "boiling the dickens out of chickens" in a recent Asia Society blog post.) I'm not a big fan of tonkotsu ramen broth; the fatty unctuousness is often  more than I want to handle. Tori paitan broth, however, at least from the ladle of chef Leo, is a bit lighter, and the unctuousness is a better "look" for chicken than for pork (think of fighting a cold with "Jewish penicillin" and the comfort it brings). It was good enough that I slurped it all down.  The chashu (yes, you I-only-eat-chicken folks, the protein is sill pork) was, as usual, meltingly tender, the soft-boiled egg cooked just right, and the noodles springy and toothsome.  Kirimachi will make a ramen lover of me yet.

Chef Leo also mentioned that he had reformulated his tonkotsu broth and now is serving a "Tokyo-style" tonkotsu ramen (something I didn't know existed).  It'll provide a good excuse for me to return soon and satisfy my curiosity.

Chef Shimamoto, in the above-cited article, said that tori paitan is the house specialty at Totto Ramen in New York, which he rates as the best ramen joint in the U.S. Personally, I can't imagine eating tori paitan ramen in July in New York, but San Francisco has no real seasonal constraints. Just remind yourself that "Kirimachi" means "Fog City" in Japanese and dive into a bowl.

Where slurped: Kirimachi, 450 Broadway, Fog City USA

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Slurp du Jour: Tsukemen at Waraku Ramen Dining

Waraku Ramen Dining recently opened in the Post St. space that formerly held Bushi-Tei. It's the latest venture of Eiichi Mochizuki, the hyperactive chef who brought us Hime, Men Oh Tokushima Ramen, and a half dozen Shabuway franchises from here to Los Angeles.  I'm not OG rameniac enough to rush to every new ramen-ya opening, but Waraku sucked me in with its promise of tsukemen, the "dry" ramen that's said to be the rage in Tokyo these days. It's a rarity hereabouts, so far, though I did enjoy a tasty version at Kirimachi Ramen.

Tsukemen feaures cold or room temperature noodles and toppings alongside a hot broth for dipping. (Some versions serve some of the toppings already in the broth.) Waraku's version features fat (by ramen standards) noodles, a couple of slices of chashu, half a soft-cooked egg and the usual ramen topping suspects.  The "dipping sauce" comes in a bowl large enough for a serving of conventional ramen. In fact, as the picture above shows, what's served at Waraku resembles a complete deconstructed bowl of ramen.  So what's the point of it all?  I've asked myself the same question and came up with the following answers, so far:
  1. It allows noodle geeks like me the luxury of alternately tasting the noodles "naked" and dipped in the broth;
  2. Dipping allows for a more intense bath than would be tolerable for noodles to soak in for an extended period of time; 
  3. It ensures the noodles will (if cooked properly) remain optimally chewy, rather than getting too soft in the bowl as you work your way to the bottom, which becomes the case if you don't gulp down your (conventional) ramen fast enough.
In general, tsukemen seems to be pitched to the ramen eater who looks to the noodles more than the broth for satisfaction. That would be me, see. But how did Waraku's tsukemen work for me?  I found the noodles to be the best part, robust and pleasantly chewy. For that, credit goes to the noodle maker (whoever that may be) as well as to the person that didn't overcook them. The chashu was lean and tender, but lacking in flavor, as it it had been steamed rather than roasted.  The soft-boiled egg was a little overcooked, and didn't reveal any of the promised smokiness. The broth/dipping sauce was something of a disappointment. As described on Waraku's menu, it is a "tonkotsu and fish based dipping sauce." To me it seemed an overly salty tonkotsu broth.  Although inoffensive, I would have expected something sharper and more complex and exciting for dipping, as was Kirimachi's tsukemen dipping sauce on my visit there; in contrast, what was served by Waraku as a dipping sauce seemed, in quantity and character, something intended for slurping once the noodles were gone.  It was, however, too salty and fatty for that purpose.

My search for well-rounded tsukemen will continue. Ramen-yas, bring it on!

Where slurped: Waraku Ramen Dining, 1638 Post St., San Francisco