Restaurants' hearty ramens are far from college fare

At Matyson , chef Ben Puchowitz (right) and his business partner, Shawn Darragh, with a ramen dish. The two are planning a more noodle-centric eatery, to be called Roundeye Noodle Bar.
At Matyson , chef Ben Puchowitz (right) and his business partner, Shawn Darragh, with a ramen dish. The two are planning a more noodle-centric eatery, to be called Roundeye Noodle Bar. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 23, 2012

Thanks to inventor Momofuku Ando, we know what ramen isn't. Once a humble but hearty soup exported from China to Japan, ramen became lumped into a category of cheap instant-noodle dishes packed with a lab's worth of chemicals.

But just as the American public has rediscovered hamburgers after decades of eating cheap, corrupted versions from the fast-food giants, made-from-scratch ramen is enjoying a new spot on restaurant menus.

Three recent developments stand to elevate ramen's stature further in Philadelphia.

First, Ramen Boy, the city's first restaurant dedicated to ramen, opened this month in Chinatown. [Note: It is due to reopen Thursday, Feb. 23 after a gas-line issue.] Second, business partners Shawn Darragh and chef Ben Puchowitz of Matyson restaurant in Center City held a "pop-up" version of their proposed eatery, Roundeye Noodle Bar, in a bid to attract investors. Third, almost every chef today is cooking with pork belly, which many ramen soups include.

Chefs are creating ramens with aesthetics as well as taste in mind.

There's no fixed formula for the broth (though it's usually pork), the noodles (generally wheat), or the toppings. And sometimes - such as at Tampopo, which offers a humble ramen for $8.50 but only at the University City location - you have to scour a menu for it.

It is front and center at Ramen Boy, on Ninth Street in Chinatown, a bright, narrow storefront where the ramens are $13 and under. The menu includes a vegetarian ramen with soy milk and miso, as well as gyoza (dumplings) and traditional tonkatsu (pork) ramen .

At Doma, on Callowhill Street in Franklintown, the ramen served at lunch is a work of art - a tasty bowl of pork broth, egg noodles, two colorful "fish cakes" (naruto), a tangle of enoki mushrooms, greens, a soft-cooked egg, and two slices of pork belly. At $15, it rivaled the most expensive ramen I found - the pork belly ramen at Morimoto on Chestnut Street.

Morimoto, the glitzy Japanese destination co-owned by the Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, offers two other ramens at lunch - a vegetarian, a chicken noodle, and the pork belly (which is available with pork or soy broth).

Morimoto chef Chris Greway, trained in ramen by Morimoto himself, uses soy-cured eggs, white scallion, pickled turnip, pickled red ginger, garlic-sesame oil, and four generous pieces of pork belly.

Lobster ramen is on the lunch menu at Matyson, where Puchowitz is trying noodle dishes in anticipation of Roundeye. The lobster ramen ($14) features a soft-boiled egg, crispy pork belly, pickled kohlrabi, dried seawood (nori), broccoli, and a lump of lobster atop wheat noodles that Puchowitz sourced to an Asian market in South Philadelphia. Roundeye's pork belly ramen is $10.

Puchowitz and Darragh are inveterate noodle eaters who are planning their noodle restaurant because, Darragh said, "that's what Philly needs."

Apparently, others agree. A block away from Matyson, a ramen joint is being planned for a storefront at 18th and Ludlow Streets.

Here is Ben Puchowitz's recipe for lobster ramen. More recipes/ideas here.

Lobster Ramen

Makes 6 servings

For the broth:

2 sheets dried kombu seaweed

6 quarts water

2 cups dried shiitake mushrooms

10 smoked lobster bodies

1 pound cured pork belly

1/4 pound bacon

1 onion chopped

2 carrots chopped

2 celery stalks chopped

2 pears chopped

1 head garlic

1 4-inch piece ginger,  chopped

1/4 cup low sodium soy sauce

1/4 cup rice wine

For soup assembly

5 quarts hot ramen broth

1 1/2 pounds wheat starch noodles

6 soft boiled eggs

1/2 cup pickled kohlrabi

1 sheet nori chopped

1 pound cooked lobster meat

Reserved pork belly sliced

1 bunch sliced scallion

1. To begin preparing the broth, rinse kombu and add to large stock pot with the water and dried shitakes and bring to a light simmer. Let steep for ten minutes and discard seaweed. Add the rest of the ingredients and let simmer on low for 2 hours. Save the pork belly for soup assembly later.

2. Strain broth through a fine mesh sieve. Season to taste with kosher salt.

3. For soup assembly, cook noodles al dente in salted boiling water for roughly 3 minutes. Crisp up sliced pork belly in a hot pan (1 minute on each side). Separate all ingredients into 6 equal portions and place into bowls. Pour hot broth directly over noodles and serve.

Per serving: 546 calories, 34 grams protein, 90 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, 8 grams fat, 296 milligrams cholesterol, 893 milligrams sodium, 11 grams dietary fiber.

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