Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz
Although a few drinks and desserts are also available, the textbook tonkotsu is the lifeblood of Ichiran and treated as such. The same can’t confidently be said for Tsurutontan and its udon, although you can find heaps of the starring noodle at the first U.S. branch of the three-decades-old Japanese chain. (Tsurutontan takes over the famed former Union Square Cafe space and trades white tablecloths and still-life paintings for stretches of cobalt banquettes and wall treatments that echo the curves of coiling udon.) The plump, slippery udon noodles—kneaded and stretched in-house with Japanese white wheat flour, salt and water—make up about half of the picture menu and are available thick or thin in cold noodle dishes, curries, brothless bowls and more common soups.
A chilled twirl of mentaiko caviar udon ($17) is dressed in a milky, slightly spicy cod-roe sauce, with salty little beads of brine clinging to each noodle. It’s a clean, refreshing countercheck to heartier, heavier bowls like the shaggy, sweet-sauced sukiyaki udon ($19), which bobs with crags of beef, a mess of vegetables and a runny onsen egg; or a curry deluxe ($24), which glazes frizzled wands of shrimp tempura and crunchy pork katsu cutlet with a thick, savory curry sauce.
Like its Japanese siblings, the Manhattan outpost isn’t shy about crowning its noodles with all sorts of luxurious add-ins (kobe rib eye, truffle, lobes of uni). But the New York Tsurutontan deviates from the rest of the udon-only chain by offering page upon page of non-noodle dishes: crispy little cones filled with spicy tuna tartare ($12); gonzo uramaki stuffed with tofu skin and sliced beef ($12); and donburi bowls with fanned sashimi slips of Faroe Island salmon ($24).
It’s here that Tsurutontan’s focus goes as wobbly as the noodles it serves. An odd bulb of tofu burrata set in dashi has none of the lushness of the Italian cheese it parodies ($7), and nuggets of fried chicken prove too pallid to stand up to the electric-pink shock of pickly, shibazuke-stained tartar sauce ($12).
Ichiran’s adherence to attentive eating may border on the comical—the low-interaction booths give the feeling that you’re eating in a library—but it’s a concentration that would benefit Tsurutontan. After all, when you have noodles this good, who cares about the rest?