I have eaten enough ethnic food to know that getting caught up in the idea of “authenticity” is a trap. Is there only one true hamburger or apple pie? Of course not, and their variety is often what brings us back for more. As co-owner Chris Russo pointed out when he first spoke to Seven Days about opening his new Burlington restaurant, Ramen, every region of Japan has its own unique spins on the dish. Basically, as long as you’re not adding water to a Styrofoam cup labeled “Nissin,” or drawing a thousand customers with the aberration that is Ramen Burger (something that actually happened in California last weekend), there is no “wrong” way to make ramen.
So I’ll review the food at Ramen on its own merits. Russo and co-owner Kazutoshi Maeda certainly have the culinary credentials to make it a success. They’re the team behind Burlington’s San Sai Japanese Restaurant, which serves the only superlative sushi in northern Vermont. Their previous restaurant, New York City’s Tsuki, drew raves from the New York Times and New York Magazine. But it’s new Vermonter, Brian Jung, a member of the team back in NY, who conceived Ramen and is running the kitchen.
Over a pair of visits, Jung’s cuisine showed rapid improvement, but in his small kitchen he hasn’t yet hit the heights of the best big-city ramen shops. Though the combinations are delicious, there’s still room to perfect each of the many individual ingredients in each serving of the soup. Ramen’s fare may not compare to the best bowls I’ve had in New York or LA, but that won’t stop me from becoming a regular in Vermont.
The simplicity of the room on the ground floor of Main Street’s Vermont House might give some diners pause. Long tables and benches seem to suggest the possibility of a communal dining experience, slaying bottles of sake with new friends. For some, though, the layout could just as easily conjure images of forced family picnics with strangers. While the austerity of walls adorned with just a few large Japanese paintings works for San Sai, Ramen feels somehow unfinished.
One major change to the space, which most recently held Esperanto and Souza’s Brazilian Steakhouse, is a sizable improvement: It finally has a bathroom. No more holding your bladder while you wait for a server to get you the key to the WC in the hall.
Ramen’s printed menu is concise, with a few appetizers and salads, three types of ramen (soy, miso and pork, each for $12) and a back page devoted entirely to sake. On my first visit, our server told us three other varieties of soup were available — curry, warm vegetarian broth and cold vegan ramens. The options would change slightly on my second visit, evidence of continued experimentation. According to Russo, a new, larger menu should be printed by the time you read this.
I decided to take advantage of the new additions, but first I needed some soba. Since San Sai opened in 2011, its soba salad has been a highli ght for me. The most recent iteration of the dish includes tender sashimi mixed with the greens, noodles and spicy-mustard-kissed dressing. The less expensive, $9 version at Ramen has all the delightful complexity of the salad at the more luxe restaurant, sans fish.
But if I’m eating a cold noodle dish at Ramen, it’s more likely to be the vegan ramen entrée. The bowl held a rainbow of fresh produce. Thick-cut scallions and slivers of avocado and cucumber made a green triangle amid a shower of corn, all layered over tomatoes and bean sprouts. Bright-red pickled ginger made up for the color missing from the habit-forming marinated mushrooms.
Digging under the layer of veggies, I caught my first glimpse of the restaurant’s eponymous noodles. Before Ramen opened, Russo told me that, while the stocks would all be homemade from local animals and boiled for nine to 12 hours, he’d purchase the noodles frozen. That is, until he and Jung can afford the costly machine that will enable the team to make them from scratch.
The noodles that Jung buys are uncommonly hearty, with a texture more like that of meaty udon than the wiggly ramen at most restaurants. They reminded me of the noodles at my favorite chanko spot in New York — heavy enough to suggest something sumo wrestler E. Honda from the Street Fighter video games would eat to improve his “form.”
Despite the noodles’ thickness, the sweet, gingery sauce in the veggie bowl clung to them admirably. A blob of brownish mustard smeared on the lip of the bowl wasn’t as spicy as our server warned me but contributed a light burn and hint of vinegar.
As is typical of Japanese curry, there wasn’t much heat in the curry ramen, either — just enough to leave a sensuous tingle on my lips when I was done. The broth was somewhere between a stew and a soup, with chunks of carrot and potato bobbing in its dark, viscous depths. Some shreds of cabbage and a square of nori were all that stood in for more traditional ramen toppings, but this clearly wasn’t a traditional ramen. While I was in a serious state of “like,” the presence of only one thin slice of fatty cha siu pork prevented me from calling it love.
When I returned to Ramen for lunch a week or so later, the orientation of the long tables had changed. Some had been moved to face the windows directly — a smart move, as it seems to signal to potential diners that there is indeed a restaurant in there. While I had seen only one other family at the previous week’s dinner, now business was steady. Perhaps word of mouth had gotten around.
Or maybe everyone was there for a new special — wagyu beef sliders with meat from Springfield’s Spring-Rock Farm. The $9 plate of three mini burgers is the kind of forward-thinking fusion I thought I’d only ever find in LA. The steamed buns, soft and pliable as moist human skin, were flavored perfectly, with the teasing hint of sweetness only Japanese bread can bring.
Inside, pepper flakes speckled the beef patties for a surprising burn, relieved by a slick of mayo and dazzlingly fresh tomato and greens. A side of gingery pickles made the collection of flavors truly ichiban. The scallion-flecked gyoza seemed reserved by comparison, but shouldn’t be overlooked. From lesser chefs, the juicy, architecturally folded dumplings would be a top attraction.
In the short time between my visits, the ramens had vastly improved — not a complete surprise, given the restaurant’s history. Russo helped Jung open Ramen quickly and with little ceremony even as he worked on a third eatery, the still-upcoming Bento on College Street. “There will be some shaky ground. There will be a period of learning,” Russo told me of what he considered Ramen’s soft opening in late July.
Ramen’s tonkotsu broth (not to be confused with panko-fried tonkatsu) was milky with pork marrow. Basically, it was the embodiment of what Serious Eats managing editor J. Kenji López-Alt calls “an intensely porky, opaque pale broth with a sticky-lipped intensity and the rich, buttery texture of light cream.” Tonkotsu may evoke dairy, but it’s actually pure, life-giving collagen — call it “meat cream.”
A floppy grin of fish cake, half a hard-boiled egg, buttery corn, ginger, scallions and a square of nori topped the pork broth, just as they should. But instead of the more traditional slice of rolled belly, a pile of delicious shoulder meat gave the soup something extra. I guess mine wasn’t the only western palate disappointed by the single, adipose slice of pork I’d found on the previous visit.
The toppings were the same on the miso ramen (there’s also a shoyu, or soy, version), but the broth was creamy with a mixture of misos. The bean paste lent a slosh of sweetness to the broth that placed the dish just before dessert on the sugar continuum — closer to “can’t stop eating” than “save this for after dinner.” A few shakes of S&B brand’s nanami togarashi enhanced the sweet/savory combination, with a generous ratio of orange peel in the spicy pepper shaker.
I never did have room for mochi ice cream after my ramen carbo-loads. But I didn’t miss it. I’d already been on a gustatory journey worthy of Tampopo.
Ramen, 131 Main Street, Burlington, 497-1600.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Bowled Over"