“First observe the whole bowl, appreciate its gestalt, savor the aromas/ Jewels of fat glistening on the surface/ Shinachiku roots shining./ Seaweed slowly sinking. Spring onions floating. Concentrate on the three pork slices…They play the key role, but stay modestly hidden…”
So go the famous words from the most notable of ramen film, Tampopo, as the ramen master explains to his young apprentice his method of admiring the ramen before diving in for consumption.
For years, to me ramen equated to late night college sustenance on a pocket change budget. A salt soused broth, chewy with vestiges of peas and carrots, but laden with a belly filling portion of freeze fried noodles, the soup in a cup is arguably the humblest of humble food. The instant noodles, a creation of Momofuku Ando, were a lifesaver to war ravaged Japan, and Ando-San eventually became a national hero for his contribution.
Of course time has passed, and the appreciation for specialization, creativity, and regionality in Japan have created a new history for ramen noodles, with a breadth which includes everything from on-the-go hot ramen vending machines to artisanal ramen-ya - dining bars with secret broths, hand made noodles, and wickedly loyal followings; bowls of craft which represent much more than noodle soup.
Just as Chef Boyardee is not Scarpetta spaghetti, there is a difference in items bearing the same name. With such elevation there is often an objection of price, difficult for many to look past when discussing foods of peasant origins, but when a chef takes such a dish, and invests his passion and technique, using top-tier ingredients, I believe both comfort and enrapture can be attained.
There are of course varying levels of effort between the simplest of microwave preparation and ultimate artisanship, and when it comes to ramen in Atlanta, most restaurants opt for canned broths, MSG-laced powdered stock enhancers, generic store bought noodles, or a combination thereof. For especially when it comes to tonkotsu ramen, the time investment for an authentic broth is obscene – one must rapidly boil pork and chicken bones for a period of 24 to 36 hours until the fat has emulsified and the thickness and flavor is appropriate. Most restaurants simply don’t have the time, resources, or wherewithal to put that much effort in to one dish of many on a menu.
This is why what Guy Wong and Mihoko Obunai are doing at Miso Izakaya for lunch is so attention worthy – two types of ramen, four days a week, $11 a bowl – the first real in-town loved and cared for ramen-ya experience. I met with Guy earlier this week to discuss their new lunch service, which begins at 11:30AM Tuesday through Friday.
For the lunch service, Miso Izakaya has been closed off with a curtain, to further enhance the small ramen-ya experience, with roughly 16 seats between one table and main bar.
The menu is simply a business card, with only two offerings – Shoyu (soy sauce rich dashi/chicken broth), or Tonkotsu (PORK FAT emulsified).
There are two types of noodles, a curly noodle for the shoyu and a lighter flat noodle for the tonktosu; Guy says the fatty texture of the liquid sticks better to the latter. Both are custom made at New York City’s Ramen Lab, which is part of Sun Noodle Company, who also make ramen noodles for Momofuku, Ivan Ramen (located in Tokyo, though recently seen at the BATON pop-up), and pretty much every ramen player in NYC.
Long time friends, Guy and Mihoko traveled to Ramen Lab to design their noodles for this venture, though they returned this week (during the Villians pop up) to spend some time tweaking the recipe. Among other things, Guy tells me they were unhappy with the way the noodles held up in the hot bowl of broth, losing their texture and color after a period of time.
At least one day before serving a batch of ramen, Guy begins preparing the tonkotsu broth in a pot which is probably four feet tall, using a mixture of Gum Creek Farms pork bones (No skin, and the pork knuckles add great color, I’m told) and Heritage Farms chickens - very quality product. At the time that I visited, the broth below had been boiling for about 24 hours, and had reduced by half. Guy made a point to show me the residue on the side of the pot, which he pointed out was as clean and blond as the bubbling cauldron of broth. When using commercial pork, he says the residue is darker and scummier.
The broth can take anywhere from 24 to 36 hours, depending on the level of fat content and texture that you want. Miso aims for a medium level of gluttony, desiring a noticeably rich broth, but one which won’t send folks to sleep at their desk when they return to work. He checks for level of doneness using a refractometer, which measures the Brix, a measure of sugar. Using a small plunger, Guy injected the refractometer with some broth and let me peer inside – the measuring line lit up to about an eight, though their goal is between nine to ten Brix – just a few hours longer to go on this one.
Below you see the pile of thin slices of slow cooked Gum Creek pork belly, slow cooked marinated egg, and sweet corn, along with various broths ready for service.
At service the tonkotsu broth is filled with chewy noodles (only cooked two minutes), garnished with half an egg, sweet corn, pickled ginger, wood ear mushroom, and scallions. Finally, the surface is hit with a few squeezes of anchovy garlic oil.
For the Shoyu they want a more country style, so they top this one with bamboo shoots and spinach, using a different garlic sofrito oil, as the dashi/chicken broth already has a seaweed/fish flavor, hence no need for the anchovy used on the tonkotsu.
Of course, I sampled some ramen. Though Guy told me the tonkotsu wasn’t overly rich, when it appeared I could see a translucent skin of shimmering collagen, which I could pick up with my chopsticks for just a moment or two before it dissolved back to the pool of blond colored broth, steaming below dots of anchovy oil. The egg, bright yellow, was of medium doneness, more so than the evening ramen of Miso Izakaya past. And let me mention – if you tried this dish months ago before it was removed from the dinner menu, this is an entirely different ramen than before. My dining companion even said it is much improved from the opening just over a week ago. Guy has been playing with the broth (“always”), and as mentioned the noodles should change soon too. I think this is a wise decision, as the noodles did lose their initial snap after a while and began coloring and flavoring the outrageous broth, which I thought had a pure, wonderful flavor, and oh so fatty with just the right texture. This ain’t no powder; I had to wet wipe my face after this meal.
Guy and Mihoko’s wet wipe tonkotsu ramen. That’s what I’ll call it. Now only if Mihoko would bring back Repast’s killer macrobiotic plate, I could bring my vegetarian wife along.
Ramen available for lunch only, Tuesday-Friday from 11:30AM until it runs out (which is like 90 minutes these days), or until Guy falls over from these brutal 17 hour work days.