I recently headed over to Ichiran for the first time and I have to say that it was something new and completely different in Japanese dining. It has a great location very close to the N/R train at 49th and Broadway and it is getting to be so popular that they had to set up stanchions outside that are there 24/7! When I saw the stanchions for the first time I thought, “Gee, this must be the Studio 54 of noodle restaurants!” When I got inside I saw plenty of photos or celebs who have dined there since opening a few months ago, but other than that, Ichiran is a very casual and unpretentious place!
The first thing you will notice when you get inside are the boxes of paper menus (both regular and vegetarian) where you check off how you want your noodles plus sign up for the Ichiran Loyalty Program. The staff actually encourage customers to fill out their menu requests while still waiting on line inside the foyer area before being seated. You could wait to fill them out when you sit down, though. Ichiran really just serves their own homemade and highly acclaimed Classic Tonkotsu Ramen in Dashi Broth with just over a dozen choices of add-ins including pork, scallions, boiled eggs, minced garlic, mushrooms and more but there are a few special items that you can either eat on their own or put into your big bowl of noodles with broth. Just FYI, there is a special separate menu for vegetarians.
The seating arrangement inside the restaurant is probably the most unique in any type of NYC eatery. There are no tables, only long wooden counters with dividers that might remind you of confession booths (especially if you were raised Roman Catholic), LOL! Each diner faces a screen that rolls up when a waitstaff person needs to ask a question or serve a dish. You can move the dividers if you want to chat with your friends or close them if you are like me and are possibly the world’s messiest noodle eater! I loved that I could be a total slob and slurp to my heart’s content without anyone seeing it! I also assume many people love the divided closed just because they enjoy being alone and shut off from the world while digging into their delicious Ichiran ramen. It is a taste sensation that you really want to concentrate on!
I am very impressed that you can be very specific on how you want your bowl of ramen in terms of in terms of firmness of noodles, spice level, thickness of broth, saltiness, amount of minced garlic desired and more. You basically get to use a range of 0 to 4 on on each of those. Speaking of spiciness, Ichiran has their own mysterious homemade spicy sauce simply called the 30-ingredient Ichiran Original Spicy Red Sauce that is a best kept recipe and appears in the center of each bowl! I can attest to the fact that one of the ingredients is cayenne pepper because it is pretty darn spicy (but delicious)! By the way, I just mentioned that went customizing your ramen, you can pick levels of saltiness, noodle texture and more on a scale of 0 to 4 but when it comes to spice level you can go into “out of this world” hotness with a level of 11 to 20!
￼I love that the ramen is served in large square ceramic bowls with lids that really keeps everything super hot. I want to note that if you are a mega ramen lover and your broth runs out of ramen before you are done, you can order noodle-only refills for only $2.90 to $3.90 per portion. I probably can eat a couple of bowls of plain noodles in a sitting (they are actually quite good without any toppings)!
Most guests do not notice that there are sides you can order that you can through into your soup bowl with the noodles or eat alone. I wanted to try the Premium Yakibuta which is a smoky yet sweet marinated pork cut in thick slices and topped with sliced scallions. It is kind of like a less saucy teriyaki treatment and the slices of prom are delicious and tender. It is well worth the $9.90 and the portion is big enough with you and a friend to share. You can cut the meat with your chopsticks (it’s THAT tender) although I know that you are really supposed to be picking the whole slice up and bite off pieces.
I also got a side of Kikurage mushrooms, which has a pleasant chewy texture and is very lightly seasoned. I ate mine on their own but most people add them to ramen because they absorb the flavors of the ramen and broth. These mushrooms have amazing health benefits and I like the way they are sliced up almost in a fettuccine style.
There is only one dessert at Ichiran and it is Matcha Pudding, something I have never eaten before. I was dying to try it and both my foodie pal Gail of www.worleygig.com and yours truly were “over the moon.” It is actually in two layers, the top being light green and the bottom being dark green with a flavor not unlike green tea ice cream. On the top are tiny firm berry gel cubes that are just the correct degree of sweetness. This is also a very pretty dessert served in a brown ceramic cup.
I love the way you feel like you are eating in the center of Tokyo in an authentic “quick ramen” lunch place. The prices at Ichiran are great, too–a bowl of ramen, a beverage and a matcha pudding will run you $20 to $30. Ichiran is a no tipping establishment, by the way (and the first one that I have ever encountered in The Big Apple).
I will definitely go back to Ichiran. They make ramen noodles an art form and the entire place is run like clockwork. The food is very even and I like the way you really get to pick the way you want your noodles and broth so succinctly. There are so many unique things about Ichiran that are not food related from the unusual wooden booth seating that faces the kitchen area (a straw blind is down when you are actually eating) to the fact that you have to push a special button on your countertop to get your dessert (it makes a light go on in the kitchen so they know to bring out your dessert). You can even buy a box of their ramen to take home when you are paying your bill at the front counter by the exit door.
I think this would be a fun spot to take friends from out of town or take a family with small kids because they will go nuts for the screen going up and down. Kids would also be excited to press the button for their matcha pudding to come out (see it in the photo above). Ichiran is doing a brisk business at both their Manhattan locations as well as their Brooklyn shop, so I suggest coming in between 2:30 PM and 5 PM when things quiet down a bit. Friends who have gone for lunch have reported 45 to 60 minute waits as Ichiran does not take reservations. For more information on this uniquely fun place, go to www.ichiranusa.com.
(All photos by Anne Raso except for “noodle pull” photo by Gail Worley.)