ivan ramen: ivan the great
I am… the classic procrastinator. When I first made my way to Ivan Ramen, Ivan Orkin, the proprietor and chef, informed me that he was a reader of my site. “I’ve been expecting you,” he said, and let’s just say he’s been “expecting” this post for oh, a good long while. Not that I didn’t enjoy his famed gyoukai double-broth shio ramen, but sometimes, you put a review on deep freeze because you know it would be a difficult task to do the subject justice. And frankly, that’s exactly what happened.
How then, to explain this force of nature — the incredible, transformative tale of an American who bucked the odds to become one of Tokyo’s most celebrated ramen chefs? My keyboard falls silent from an inability to find an adequate superlative. Ivan the Terrible (terrible as in awesome). Ivan the Great. That’s it. Yes. Ivan is great.
A trained chef with a pedigree in haute cuisine, Orkin, a native of Long Island, New York, fell in love with the noshy noodle — like many Westerners — after watching Juzo Itami’s irreverent Tampopo back in 1985. He moved to Japan and taught English for a while, married a Japanese woman and then returned to Manhattan, embarking on a culinary career that included stops at Mesa Grill, under the tutelage of Bobby Flay, and at famed French restaurant Lutèce.
Tragically, Orkin’s wife fell ill and passed away, along with his unborn second child.1 In a triumph over tremendous adversity, he eventually returned to Japan and remarried, settling in Tokyo in 2003. Ivan opened his namesake shop a few years thereafter; it garnered fair acclaim from the Japanese ramen cognoscenti as well as a good helping of notoriety by locals surprised that a gaikokujin, or “foreigner,” would even attempt to open a ramen shop. A low-key joint in the quiet Setagaya neigborhood of Minamikarasuyama, Ivan Ramen sits straight west of Shinjuku’s pulsing skyscrapers, and as of 2009 it’s become the unlikely toast of the town, complete with its own signature instant noodle and this thoroughly American chef who makes the rounds on TV; he’s even published a book, in Japanese.
Ivan’s shio ramen is exemplary. All chewy, toothsome noodles in a rather virtuosic gyoukai double-soup broth, it’s definitely what the cool kids are up to. The soup is a chicken-centric stock blended with a fine wafu dashi; a generous powdering of dried fish hangs suspended in the nuanced liquid like a colloidial constellation of umami. Ivan’s handmade noodles (rare even by Japan standards, as most shops order from distributors), are threaded from a mixture of three kinds of flour, and exhibit a delicate springiness unusual for ramen. Texture-wise, the thin strands lean slightly towards fine-milled soba, and there’s a succulence to the chewiness that is not merely pleasant, but is also both light and airy and weighty at the same time. The toppings, though subdued in contrast to the broth and the groundbreaking noodles, would hold their own in any top-tier ramen shop in Japan.
Orkin’s decidedly Western, health conscious approach to what is nominally considered fast food stands in stark contrast to the philosophy espoused by your average Japanese “if-you-like-it-put-some-extra-back-fat-into-it” ramen chef. He uses vegetable oil instead of lard; I could hardly have tasted the difference, and would gladly eat his ramen all the time, guilt-free.
In short, I came away thoroughly surprised and impressed by both the meal and the man, and the success of Ivan Ramen in Japan owes at least as much to the expertise of the chef as it does to the happenstance of his skin color and his nationality. Japan has more than its fair load of expats mucking about, and gaijin are often worshipped and resented by the native populace for whatever they get up to. In my humble opinion, a large number of foreigners are rather undeserving as celebrities in Japan, take your average AAA baseball player who becomes a star in the Nippon leagues, or um, Dave Spector, whose fame, as far as I can tell, stems from little more than an ability to speak Japanese and well, be Caucasian.
And so admittedly, I was skeptical at first, all set to dismiss the efforts of this native New Yorker with the fine dining pedigree going toe-to-toe in the hallowed realm of grizzled old Japanese ramen chefs, some of whom have kept vats of secret soup base unwashed and unchanged since the post-war era. Perhaps there are some things that should be kept sacred or traditionally, authentically “Japanese,” whatever that means. That’s a debate for another day. Ramen, in the skillful hands of Ivan the Great, simply isn’t one of them, and the world is a better place for it.
1 from the wall street journal
|ivan's shio ramen soup is a virtuosic gyoukai creation, a double-broth blend of traditional wafu fish flavor and a vibrant salt and chicken-bone stock. it's state-of-the-art in the best way, and more than holds its own on the tokyo ramen scene.||10|
|if the soup is spectacular, it's ivan's noodles that are truly otherworldly, delicate, yet firm strands made from three different flours, they have a fantastic, milled texture that suggest buckwheat soba noodles, yet fill you up as only ramen can.||10|
|the buttery chashu, locally sourced green onions and bamboo shoots, and hanjuku tamago half-boiled eggs are fine, if a bit muted under the fireworks of ivan's triple-flour noodles and double-broth soup. perhaps there's headroom for improvement? if so, it's decidedly not by much.||9|
|didn't try the sides, but ivan ramen boasts an extensive menu that includes hard-to-find dishes like mazemen (soupless noodles mixed in abura oil) and rice bowls with assorted toppings. i'll be back to try them all.||NA|
|ivan ramen has a spartan vibe; situated on a corner in a low-key suburban neighborhood, it is all veneer and minimalist decor at a simple, L-shaped counter. yet it's just right for the neighborhood and the clientele, and thank goodness he doesn't use fluorescent lights.||7|
|an american guy overcomes adversity and goes to japan, where he opens a successful ramen shop and becomes something of a celebrity in the ultra-competitive food industry. need i say more?||10|