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Ivan Ramen: Artisan ramen with NY accent

by Robbie Swinnerton

“Eat ramen here.” It’s the kind of illuminated sign you might expect to see outside a restaurant in central London or New York. To find it over the door of a one-counter noodle joint on an old-fashioned shopping arcade in the western suburbs of Tokyo is, however, little short of bizarre.

No run-of-the-mill eatery in Japan would advertise its presence in English like this. But that’s exactly the point: Ivan Ramen is far from ordinary. People come — many from far afield — because the noodles are superior and the recipes innovative. And, yes, because this is the only ramen shop in the country that is owned and operated by a foreigner.

It’s a great story, and one that certainly bears retelling. Ivan Orkin, an ambitious, energetic New York chef who’s trained at America’s top culinary institute and worked at some of the best restaurants in the city, gives it all up to come to Japan. Why? Because he loves ramen.

Eventually, after five years of preparation, developing his own recipes from scratch, he opens the noodle shop of his dreams. The scale is modest and the location obscure, but word soon gets out. The media are quick to discover him, first the vernacular press, then international news features, and now regular TV appearances.

Inevitably, the main focus is on Orkin himself, as a foreigner who is making a name for himself in an arena that is quintessentially Japanese. In the midst of all this attention, it’s easy to lose sight of the real accomplishment: the ramen tastes great.

Order the simplest item on the menu, a basic ¥800 bowl of steaming hot noodles. Whether you choose shio (salt) or shoyu (soy sauce), all the essential elements are in place. The soup is rich without being heavy. The noodles are smooth and well textured. The toppings are simple but just right: a slice of succulent chashu pork; some slivers of menma (bamboo shoot); and a garnish of fine-chopped negi leek.

This is classic ramen, with no fancy foreign flourishes. The flavors are subtle, betraying the lightness of touch you’d expect of a trained chef. If you prefer orthodox, old-school flavors — thick, heavy, full-fat, with plenty of artificial taste enhancers — then you will leave disappointed. Those who enjoy food with finesse will be more than impressed.

Just as popular at this time of year is the tsukemen, noodles served with a separate dip rather than in a hot soup. The two basic flavors are the same — shio or shoyu — but the dip flavors are more concentrated and the noodles have greater texture.

Whether ordering soup noodles or tsukemen, it’s worth the outlay for a few extra toppings. Don’t fail to try the hanjuku tamago (¥100 extra), an egg boiled until the white is firm but the golden-orange yolk is still melting-soft. Another ¥100 will gain you extra slices of that delectably juicy chashu pork. Or go the whole hog with the top-of-the-line “Everything Ramen” (¥1,100).

It’s all prepared in-house. The basic soup is chicken-based, made not with the standard Japanese tori-gara (chicken bones) but with whole chickens, simmered down much as if for bouillon or Jewish chicken soup. Blended with a seafood dashi broth, the end product is lip-smacking good.

Orkin is just as proud of his noodles as he is of his soup and toppings, emblazoning the outside of his shop and the T-shirts that he and his crew wear with the characters jikasei-men (“homemade noodles”). Prepared in his second-floor workshop above the restaurant, they are made to a range of thicknesses, using a variety of different flours to vary the taste, texture and appearance.

Like any chef, Orkin likes to experiment. The results show up in his original “limited edition” recipes.

Earlier this summer, we dropped in to try his nori-tori soba, a chilled noodle dish evoking buckwheat soba but prepared with ramen ingredients. The fine wholewheat noodles were topped with slices of lightly poached chicken breast and a heaping layer of light green wasabina, an aromatic plant of the mustard family given a light garlic dressing. The chilled dashi-based dip was loaded up with crisp aonori seaweed. It was an outstanding combination.

Equally original is the Ivan Ramen version of that contemporary ramen-shop summertime classic, hiyashi-chuka. The standard version served throughout Japan features chilled noodles topped with slivers of egg, ham and cucumber. Orkin’s take is entirely different.

Instead of the usual egg noodles, he has developed the first ever (to our knowledge) ramen made with rye flour. These thick, well-textured noodles are topped with generous cuts of grilled chashu pork, slices of fresh tomato, julienne cucumbers, salad greens and homemade pickled green beans. And in place of the regular vinegared dressing, Orkin blends the soup base for his shio ramen with some homemade umezu (plum vinegar) and chili oil. The result is rich, slightly salty, gently tart, totally refreshing.

You will not taste anything like this anywhere else in Japan. But it will only be available until the end of the hot weather or whenever he runs out of umezu dressing. However he’s already working on some of his wintertime specials — and they promise to be even more radical.

How about B.L.T? Yes, you read that right. Orkin says that a bacon- lettuce-tomato combi is in development right now. And so is a patent Mexican “taco-rice” ramen, with ground meat, black beans and jalapeno peppers. These are the creative synapse-bursts of imagination of a rare ramen artisan. The mind of an entire ramen-loving nation is set to be boggled.

Ramen is a bit like the jazz Orkin likes to play on the sound system in his shop. As long as the basic fundamentals are solid, then you can take off on any riff you choose. As he says, it really is the only area of Japanese cuisine where a New Yorker could come in and add his improvisations.