There are those who love ramen, and those who are obsessive. Count us firmly in the first category. We won’t cross town, wait in line for hours or pore over websites just to slurp at some particularly popular noodle shop. But if we hear word of anything especially good and unusual, then we want to know all about it.
Which was why, a couple of weekends back, you would have found us on a slow train, heading toward a modest suburban shopping street on Tokyo’s southwestern fringe. Our destination: Ivan Ramen Plus, a noodle counter quite unlike any other in (or outside) the city. The reason: Ivan Orkin, New York-born chef and ramen-maker extraordinaire, has just launched a hot new recipe.
That’s hot as in tongue-tingling. The official name on the menu is Spicy Chili Hiyashi Mazemen. What that means in practice is a mound of fine noodles served chilled in a fiery tomato-based sauce containing plenty of ground peanuts, topped with chunks of chicken breast and long slivers of cucumber, then garnished with finely chopped negi scallions and a twist of lemon.
The idea, as Orkin explains it, was to create a new take on hiyashi-chūka, those chilled ramen-style noodles that are a long-established summertime standby here in Japan. He wanted to give them a bit of Southeast Asian flavor, hence the peanuts. The tomato sauce, though, is derived from an Italian recipe, cooked down from fresh tomatoes and chopped onions.
“But the real inspiration for it,” he says, “was from Mexico. I dry-roast the chilies and blend them up, as if I were making a mole-style sauce. And then I mix in a little of my ago-dashi fish broth to give it a local flavor.”
Talk about multiculturalism: Chinese noodles, Italian pasta sauce, Mexican mole and Indonesian ground peanuts, all wrapped up in a package that is still undeniably Japanese. But that is only what we have come to expect from Orkin.
And that’s the whole reason he set up Ivan Ramen Plus. It is not just a bigger, brighter, sleeker version of his first restaurant, the humble one-counter shop he opened five years ago in Roka-Koen, a sleepy station on the Keio Line west from Shinjuku. Orkin sees this venture as an outlet for his experimentation. He’s a ramen alchemist, always working on new recipes — and this is where he can showcase them.
Everything is prepared in-house, from the soup to the chāshū pork, seasonings and condiments. So too are the actual noodles, which are made in four different gauges, ranging in thickness from delicate to hearty. Orkin’s slogan has always been “Slow food fast,” meaning he uses quality ingredients and no chemical additives or flavor enhancers.
From the outset, the menu at Ivan Ramen Plus has been unconventional. Whereas most ramen broth is cooked down from pork and/or chicken bones, the specialty here is ago-dashi, a seafood-based stock made from dried flying fish (ago), shellfish and squid. He blends in a bit of cheese and tomato to give it the richness and “mouth-feel” you expect of a ramen soup. But the flavor is lighter and more delicate, closer to the dashi used in traditional Japanese cuisine.
That does not mean Orkin’s recipes fail to deliver on flavor. Take his Vegetable Soymilk Tsukemen: There is nothing restrained about the abundant garlic flavor that permeates the hot soy-milk dip accompanying the chilled tsukemen noodles.
And then there is the Cheese Mazemen. The noodles are flat, with plenty of texture — perfect for holding the soup, which is almost as thick as pasta sauce. It has melted mozzarella and Hokkaido white cheese at the bottom, then Edam and Parmesan sprinkled on top, to give a killer one-two punch. Layered on that are succulent slices of chāshū and shreds of blanched onion. With a poached egg — an optional (but highly recommended) extra — to lend extra creaminess to the mix, it all adds up to a champion heavyweight ramen indeed.
But at this time of year, we prefer simpler, lighter fare. The Ume-Shio Hiyashi Ramen, one of Orkin’s seasonal specials, is perfect. The cold noodles are served in a chilled shio (salt-based) broth, topped with slices of chāshū, menma bamboo shoots and fine-cut negi, with a piece of umeboshi, those distinctive pickled plums that perk up the taste buds and which are credited with great power to overcome the lethargy of summer.
On its own this seems close to mainstream Japanese. But adding a slice of roasted tomato (another optional extra) takes it into totally unfamiliar territory. We found the sweet tartness of the tomato — slowly cooked in the oven, and one of Orkin’s trademark garnishes since he started business — in combination with the sour-salty umeboshi gave our appetite a turbo boost.
But for us, it’s those spicy noodles that really make Ivan Ramen Plus worth the journey. That piquant red sauce packs enough heat to satisfy all but the most gung-ho of chili freaks. Despite the lingering burn on your palate, you’ll want to finish off all that juice. Orkin has that covered: You’ll be offered a small scoop of rice, just enough to mop up every last drop.
The bad news, though, is that only 15 servings of these noodles are prepared each day: Get there too late and you will be totally out of luck. What’s more, they will only be on the menu till the end of this month. The good news, though, is that Orkin undoubtedly has some other specials up his sleeve, waiting to take their place.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at foodfile.typepad.com/blog.