New ramen joints
As the winter chill sets in, TONY checks out the latest crop of ramen-ya to bring their steaming, noodle-packed soups to NYC.
Wed Nov 23 2011
Photograph: Lizz Kuehl
Tonkotsu ramen at Chuko
This buzzy Brooklyn spot—reminiscent of a less sceney Momofuku with its natural-wood aesthetic, hipster waitstaff and '90s hip-hop soundtrack—has been packed since it opened this summer. The place has real pedigree: Morimoto vets Jamison Blankenship and David Koon left the Iron Chef's empire in order to bring their high-end training to Japan's deceptively complex soul food.
While traditionalists might balk at the duo's quick shift to ramen (some ramen chefs take years to perfect a single recipe), their intentions are noble: Koon researched the art of ramen-making in Japan, and the two toques have crafted just three compact bowls—built around soy, miso and pork bone broths, respectively—with emphasis on the quality and preparation of each ingredient. They have plenty to show for their efforts: a gorgeous soft egg that spills its yolk into a complex and buttery miso broth; fat, springy noodles bobbing in the comforting, schmaltz-finished soy broth; and a rich yet restrained tonkotsu, less creamy than some, yet vivid with smoky, baconlike porkiness. There's nuance and creativity, too, like bitter mustard greens to cut through the fattiness of the pork, and wisps of shabu-shabu--like duroc pork jowl to ramp it back up.
But ramen is about integration, the sum rather than the parts, and Chuko's bowls fall short of the holistic perfection achieved by the standard-bearers (Ippudo, Hide-Chan) across the river. For each inspired tweak there are small missteps: Poached free-range chicken breast is so soft and moist that it provides no textural contrast and gets lost in the soup; the same can be said of the thinner, straighter noodle varieties that lack the resilience to stand up to the pork and miso broths.
While there's bar space and window counters for solo diners (a beer-and-wine license is pending), Chuko is best enjoyed with a small group of friends who can help you eat your way through the surprise highlight of a meal here: smart, Asian-influenced small plates that stand in for starters and sides. There are addictive crispy brussels sprouts laced with red chilies, fish sauce and rice wine vinegar, and delicious three-bite eggplant sliders, encrusted with panko and dressed with pickled onions, crunchy shredded lettuce and a Thousand Island--like tofu sauce (currently off the menu, but look out for them on the specials board). These bright, balanced snacks round out Chuko's appeal as a worthy neighborhood hang—the spot may not warrant a pilgrimage just yet, but who knows what the kitchen's constant tinkering will bring.
552 Vanderbilt Ave between Bergen and Dean Sts, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn (718-576-6701)
Average bowl of ramen: $12
Eat this: Pork ramen, miso ramen, fried eggplant sliders, crispy brussels sprouts