Monday, April 15, 2013

Chef's Tasting | Yuji Ramen Test Kitchen

Back in January, Chef Yuji Haraguchi launched his very own Kickstarter campaign that would, if backers pledged enough to meet the financial goal, bring the "first-ever ramen omakase tastings in the U.S. at a new pop-up location from mid-March through mid-May in Manhattan's East Village" through his Yuji Ramen enterprise. Having tried the awesomeness of Yuji Ramen at Smorgasburg for the first time this past fall, I knew this venture would be nothing short of amazing, if it came to fruition. As a result, I immediately pledged an amount for a tier that promised an Omakase Date Night for two to attend one of the five-course ramen omakase seatings with priority choice of date and time (on a first come, first served basis of course) before the opportunity would be released to the general public.

The Kickstarter campaign was open to pledges through the end of February, where Chef Haraguchi not only met his $3,000 start-up goal, but did so four-fold, raising nearly $13,000! I was so excited to know that Marcus and I would be attending one of his ramen omakase dinners sometime this spring, which took place this past Friday. {1} The pop-up restaurant, entitled Yuji Ramen Test Kitchen, found its two-month home at the second level of the Whole Foods Market located on Houston and Bowery, near the East Village.

01 - signage
{2,4} The Yuji Ramen Test Kitchen is open daily from 11 AM to 6 or 9 PM, depending on the day, available for take out and sit-down. The omakase seatings are only available in the evenings, and  the last I heard, have been sold out through its last run date in mid-May. {3} The daily shoyu ramen at Yuji Ramen Test Kitchen is an original development by the team at Yuji Ramen just for Whole Foods Market. The Test Kitchen sources its bones from the Whole Foods Market Bowery butcher counter for the ramen broth that is made fresh daily. As the bones are based on availability of what the butcher counter has, the broth will change accordingly, as the kitchen works to "promote sustainability and a respectful relationship for its food supply." {5} The ramen found at Yuji is also unique -- it makes a new style of ramen called mazemen, which is ramen without broth. Ramen, instead, is served with tare (i.e., sauce), flavored oil, and a variety of toppings.

Chef Haraguchi, founder of Yuji Ramen, has over six years of experience working in seafood supply. In the earlier days of Yuji Ramen, Chef Haraguchi "strived to import the highest quality seafood from Japan to the East Coast." However, over time, he "soon fell in love with the many possibilities of locally sourcing American seafood." He and his team have spent the last year developing over thirty new preparations of ramen here in New York City, beginning with Yuji Ramen's temporary home at the Kinfolk Studios space in Williamsburg as well as the weekly outpost at Smorgasburg and finally resulting in the carefully curated, every-dynamic menu at the Yuji Ramen Test Kitchen. In addition to this, Chef Haraguchi created mazemen in order to move away from the traditional style of ramen you would typically find in noodle shops of Japan. His mazemen has a deliberate lack of fat and salt, so that the focus on quality ingredients is very important and can clearly show its true flavors without being overcompensated with salt and overdressed in oily fats. He has always believed that a meal should start off heavy and finish light -- as if the "main course" should come first with the typical first courses (i.e., smaller in portion) coming later.

01a - DSC_1056
As we sat at the counter, we were presented with these mysterious dinner cards, tersely summarizing the focal ingredient of each course, and not revealing much else.

02 - tsukemono
The pre-omakase dish was the tsukemono -- pickled market vegetables sourced from Whole Foods Market and served in a thin wooden boat. Sharp yet refreshingly vinegary, these vegetables packed a nice punch on the palate, preparing us for the savory courses ahead.

03 - salmon
The first course was salmon, which was cured with lemon and sansho pepper, served over mazemen noodles with cheese (a Camembert  sauce), lemon zest, shiso, shredded nori, and pieces of crispy salmon skin. Essentially a more delicate, Japanese take on a "bagel with cream cheese and lox," this course was beautifully done, as the salmon was the right balance of savory and silky interplaying with the cream cheese which had a lighter consistency more like crème fraîche. The aspects which made it truly Japanese was the shredded nori and the well-browned bits of salmon skin which added an interesting textural contrast and smoky flavor to it all. The ramen noodles were thick and al dente, allowing it to handle and hold all of those toppings nicely. Loved this!

04 - squid
Next was the squid ramen -- a squid bolognese sauce and nori bread crumbs served over squid ink shell ramen. Chef Haraguchi was inspired to make this dish while making sausage, as it is typically found in Italian bolognese -- his twist on it would be to make a seafood bolognese. Within the bolognese sauce was some ramen broth that was made using lots of squid to get an intensely concentrated flavor of squid throughout. Just as he did with the first course, Chef Haraguchi created an Italian-influenced ramen dish here with shell-shaped pasta like an orecchiette (but taking it up a notch and making it from squid ink), a thick "meat" (in this case, seafood, and flavored with sesame) sauce like spicy bolognese, and breadcrumbs (instead of garlic and herbs, they are of nori origin). This course was certainly was our top favorite of the evening, as it had really bold flavors (you could really taste the squid thoroughout) had the warmness that I love about ramen (though without being completely traditional), and had perfect crunch with each bite.

05 - uni
The third course was uni served with blood orange, tare, shredded nori, and shiso over whole wheat ramen raviolo. Here, Chef Haraguchi was inspired by Shanghai-nese xiao long bao (i.e., soup-filled dumplings) and filled these ramen ravioli with miso broth and liquid uni. The uni was luscious and buttery and tasted great with the tare, while the orange added some sweet-and-tartness to the salt and brine heavy ingredients. The raviolo shell tasted a little hard for my liking, but I think that was to be able to strongly hold in the hot contents of the broth and uni without leakage. I really enjoyed the flavors in this course.

06 - oyster
The following course was oyster, which began with two separate components: {1} slightly chilled oysters from Long Island, charred bacon, cubed cucumbers, and a gelatin broth concentrated with essence of oyster and {2} hot ramen noodles. {3} Chef Haraguchi asked us to pour the contents of the clear bowl (oysters and bacon) into the bowl of hot noodles and {4} stir until the jellied broth fully dilutes into a slightly darkened broth. The resulting ramen course became a room-temperature dish, meaty with oysters and chunks of bacon. We got to taste the silky brine of the oysters with the thick, slightly fatty cross slices of bacon in a refreshing broth mixed in with cucumber. You would think that mixing a delicate bivalve like the oyster with the heavier bits of bacon would be an odd combination, but surprisingly enough, it is a delightful combination. Plus, I slurped up every last drop of the broth.

07a - mussel
For the last course, Chef Haraguchi started to torch a bunch of mussel shells.

07b - mussel
{1} He then placed them into individually-sized French presses with a hot, concentrated broth, as to really steep in the smoky flavor from the dark, pearly shells, along with shaved bonito and a mussel-duck broth. {2} As the broth steeped in the French press, we were given a hot bowl of ramen (sourced from Sun Noodle Company in New Jersey) with mussels, scallions, shredded nori, Japanese chili powder, and a dash of soy sauce.

Once the broth was done steeping, we were told to pour the broth directly over our dressed noodles.

The resulting ramen course swam in the most fragrant broth, deeply concentrated with the smoky flavor from the mussel shells and the dark and flavorful intensity from the duck bones. The mussels were the perfect temperature (served at room temperature, but well heated with the steeped broth. Just in Chef Haraguchi's approach to the progression of a multi-course meal, this was a very light and delicate ending to the heavier, more savory first courses we had.

Findings: It is so wonderful to finally see the brilliant culinary approaches curated by Chef Yuji Haraguchi in action at the much anticipated opening of the Yuji Ramen Test Kitchen. The creative potential with Japanese ramen is executed here in the most interesting ways and in the most unlikely techniques. Drawing inspiration from other international cuisines and applying those traditional ingredients and compositions to the world of Japanese ramen and noodles, Chef Haraguchi provides an enlightening experience at his counter omakase seatings. Not only are the courses colorful, each and every aspect of a given dish is deliberate and explained in the most poetic gastronomy I've had the pleasure of witnessing.

I am so incredibly thrilled for the team at Yuji Ramen and the success they've garnered in the short span of a year -- I can only imagine that this is only the beginning for them. I can't wait for the next iteration of mazemen and delicious twists on Japanese ramen here at the Yuji Ramen Test Kitchen. Rumor has it that it'll extend its time at Whole Foods Market through the summer, which means Marcus and I will be back for more as soon as possible. So if you're curious about how something as simple as ramen noodles can really surprise and haunt you, you'll definitely find it at the Yuji Ramen Test Kitchen.

Price point: $120 donation to Yuji Ramen's Kickstarter campaign in exchange for an Omakase Date Night at Yuji Ramen Test Kitchen; $40 per person for the general public via KitchIt.

--April 12, 2013

Yuji Ramen Test Kitchen
Whole Foods Market Bowery
95 East Houston Street
New York, NY 10002
omakase seatings available through May 12, check KitchIt for updates for upcoming omakase seatings

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