REVIEW: Worshipping at the Shrine of Tonkotsu Ramen

Image: Ichiran

From nearly the moment you enter the seven-month-old Times Square branch of the Japan-based ramen chain Ichiran, you sense that this is going to be unlike any other restaurant experience you’ve had. First, you and your companions are escorted not to a table but to no-frills, bare-boned individual stalls that look a little like present-day voting booths. These, the restaurant’s website explains, are “Ramen Focus Booths,” and they are designed, in theory, “to allow you to focus on the flavors of your bowl with minimal distractions,” including “conversations with other customers.” (I say “in theory” because most customers tend to lean back in their seats and chatter away.)

Ramen Focus Booths (Image: Ichiran)

A second difference becomes evident when you peruse the menu and find that only one dish is offered — two if you count dessert.

That one dish is tonkotsu ramen, a staple that the chain’s founder, Manabu Yoshitomi, has striven to elevate to an art form. To a large extent, he has succeeded.

There are no waiters per se. You order by checking off your preferences on a paper menu in front of you, then pressing a call button. A window at the back of your cubicle opens, your selections are verified orally, the paper is whisked away, and the window closes.

In a twinkling it reopens, and you are presented with a powerfully fragrant bowl of steaming soup in which the various players — thin slices of succulent and tender chashu pork, chopped raw scallions, a dollop of a tangy togarashi pepper-based red sauce, and the noodles — are arranged with almost Cobb salad-like precision. You mix in any extras you have ordered (possibilities include slivered wood ear mushrooms, a parboiled egg, and pungent black vinegar) and eat.

Ichiran’s ramen (Image: Ichiran’)

The keystone of any tonkotsu ramen is the broth — a distillate of slow-cooked pork bones and aromatics — and this one earns high marks. It is rich and satisfying with a hint of smokiness. The noodles are on a par with the best you will find hereabouts: tender strands of pasta that have been cooked with uncommon accuracy.

If I have one quibble with Ichiran’s ramen add-ins it is the parboiled egg, which in the best versions are cooked to precise point where the yolk has set but is still oozy and molten. Here the egg arrives at room temperature, still in the shell. By the time it has been warmed by the hot broth, it verges on hard-boiled.

The lone dessert is a matcha pudding, a shimmering custard with a green tea base that arrives under a mantle of melted brown sugar. It is the perfect light finish.

Among the alcoholic beverages is an Asahi super dry draft beer that is refreshingly tart under its creamy head.

There is a play-at-home version of Ichiran’s ramen on sale for $29 that includes three servings of individually packed noodles, soup concentrate, and more of that pepper sauce that so livened your ramen.

The price for ramen begin at $18.90. Matcha pudding is $8.90.

Ichiran is open daily for lunch and dinner.

Ichiran,152 W. 49th Street, 646-964-4294.

See also…

What Are Ramen ‘Dining Booths’ and Are You Game to Try Them?