If all goes as planned, Kenshiro Uki of the L.A.- and New Jerseybased manufacturer Sun Noodle will soon open a version of his wildly successful Ramen Lab with chef Shigetoshi "Shige" Nakamura, at 70 Kenmare Street this February. Plans for the tiny Nolita space include fourteen counter seats and an open kitchen, which means a much shorter commute for the throngs of ramen fiends who wanted in on the perpetually sold-out series, which was held in a nondescript industrial park across the Hudson. "Rather than ask people to come to Teterboro," explains Uki, "we had this opportunity to make it more accessible, and increase the kinds of ways people think about ramen. We see it as an education-driven place." If any of this brings to mind images of wizened old ramen lecturers and treatises on the elasticity of gluten, you should probably read on.
Uki says that if all goes to plan, Ramen Lab will offer the "flight," which consists of five bowls demonstrative of different styles, once a week. The courses progress from a lighter style of broth to more complex version, and each will be paired will craft beer or sake. In an effort to cover the multitude of varieties found in Japan, which are typically pegged to region and climate, Ramen Lab will serve a special flavor or type each month. There may be a Sapporo-leaning miso-style soup for the coldest, windy days of February, for example, and a cool plate of tsukemen served with dashi-inflected sauce in July. And because Sun Noodle is the official supplier of Keizo Shimato's ramen burger "buns," maybe don't discount an appearance of sliders down the road Shige's been known to dabble. The rest of the time, chef Shigetoshi "Shige" Nakamura will debut new styles he's been working on, and also serve the shoyu soup for which he's known in Japan and L.A. ramen circles.
"People tend to think of very thick, pork-based tonkatsu, but Shige is known for a very classic version of shoyu," says Uki, adding that David Chang, whose Momofuku restaurants do business with Sun Noodle, is an admirer. "He says 'It's like jazz,'" says Uki. "It's not very sexy, but it's very good.'"
Though he may not be as recognized in New York, Nakamura is a bona fide ramen legend in Japan. To get some sense of the scope, consider that, back home, the chef opened his first ramen-ya at the age of 22, which is almost unheard-of. And within three years he was regarded by the country's fussiest experts as the top ramen chef, an actual honor he held for three more years. He's revered by his peer Ivan Orkin, who's now cooking uptown in New York, and also by Ippudo founder Shigemi Kawahara, who once said Nakamura was leading Japan's second generation of great ramen chefs. (This means that Uki and Nakamura are routinely recognized while waiting to get into Ippudo, where they're plucked from the line and given a grand tour it happened twice.)
"Ramen comes down to five things," says Uki. "Always: stock, tare, noodles, oils, and toppings." Along with that, he says, come countless flavors and texture profiles, particularly with the noodles, which can come in many different shapes, and, thanks to the kansui, the alkaline component, flavors. It all amounts to possibilities. "We want people to ask us questions," Uki says. "Why is this noodle thicker? Why is this one aged for three days? That's what we want to do here. Education-driven, maybe, but fun."