ramen california: advancing the art, one bowl at a time
It had to happen sooner or later. Given the growing popularity of ramen, it was only a matter of time before someone messed with the formula. That’s not to say there ever truly was a formula when it comes to the humble “Chinese noodle,” as ramen is known in Japan. From Hokkaido to Kyushu, Los Angeles to London, the diaspora of our beloved bowl is an ever-changing carousel of soups, toppings, thick and thin men, and the individualized artistry of dedicated chefs. And yet, few places will ever go as far as Ramen California, which - and you read it here first - may well shape up to be the most groundbreaking new restaurant, not just ramen shop, in America today.
But first, a bit of deprogramming is in order. As someone who compulsively obssesses over the nuances of authentic ramen styles, it must be said in order to truly appreciate Ramen California, I’ve had to rethink everything I ever knew, and consequently everything I’ve ever espoused, about what makes a bowl of the stuff worth its slurp.
For despite the innocuous name (the chef is an avowed minimalist), Ramen California is a landmark operation by any measure, and is to the cuisine as Radiohead’s O.K. Computer was to pre-millenial modern rock. Love it or loathe it, once you get your head around it, you’ll never look at a bowl of noodles in quite the same way.
What, then is it? Put simply, Ramen California is noodling deconstructed, sucked through the turbine of molecular gastronomy and resynthesized as the art of the visionary Shigetoshi “Sean” Nakamura.
The name may mean little in the States, but his bona-fides in Japan are huge. At 32, Nakamura is the youngest of that nation’s “Four Ramen Devas” —literally, the gods of the cuisine. He was the noodle consultant for The Ramen Girl. He’s written books on the zen of dashi and stood toe-to-toe in competition with “Ramen King” Shigemi Kawahara of Ippudo. He pals around with Ferran Adrià (yes, that one) and has garnered wide acclaim for his restaurants in Tokyo and Kanagawa, which center around the concept of essence, noodling redone as a multi-course, European-influenced tasting menu.
If all of this reads a little bit like a press release, I’m not getting paid for the endorsement. In the past five days, I’ve eaten at Ramen California three times. Twice the chef was out raiding the local farmers’ markets and criss-crossing growers from Santa Barbara to Palm Springs. The one evening I had a chance to speak with him, he asked if I could score him some liquid nitrogen, then proceeded to detail the proper age of a chicken for cooking (did he say 150 days?) and how long a particular tomato should spend on the vine. Apparently, he even drives the farmers crazy.
You see, Ramen California is Nakamura’s overseas gastrolab, an experimental staging ground from which this vaunted Japanese chef aims to perfect an entirely new style of noodling, one hewn from the fruit of the world’s seventh-richest-yet-bankrupt nation: California ramen.
“One day, I want people in Japan to think of this as California-style ramen.” Love or hate the results, what Nobu did for sushi, Sean might well do for the slurpy stuff.
“Why California?” I asked him.
“Because here is where new things come from,” he replied.
I was tipped off to Ramen California by a dutiful site reader (Thanks, Phil!). Armed with little more than an email about a “fusion” ramen shop, I was admittedly skeptical at first. The restaurant had only been operational for a couple of weeks. As of this writing, it’s still in a soft-open phase, although I suspect Nakamura will continue right on tweaking the menu past the official opening in about a week and a half as of this writing. When I sat down to lunch last week, the “preview menu” touted but a few spare bowls of ramen. Sides were available only at dinner.
That day, I ordered the restaurant’s namesake, the “Californian,” which promised “more than 20 garden fresh vegetables in natural chicken broth.” Now many a tonkotsu lover might well recoil at the existence of such a thing, and I’d be lying if I said the healthy concept didn’t immediately recall Wagamama UK, which I um, can’t exactly endorse.
I’d also be lying if I said that I wasn’t a bit underwhelmed at first. Yes, the vegetables were properly crisp and fresh, and the grilled chicken - the “chashu” so to speak - was fragrant with the delicate aroma of carbon. Most surprisingly, the thin yellow noodles were spot on, with a proper chew that could only have come from kansui (or so I had thought). Maybe they’d been imported (more on that later). Strangely however, the whole assemblage was sitting in a ramen soup that tasted like simple chicken stock.
The chef clearly knew what he was doing, yet I had the sense he might have been holding back. Apparently he had brought a katsuo bonito-shaving machine with him to the United States, but had elected not to use it. Well, the menu was a work-in-progress, I told myself. Perhaps he was trying to adjust his fare for a mythical “American” palate?
It wasn’t until I paid a repeat visit during dinner and tried some of the side dishes that my perceptions were wholly upended. A remarkable cheese tofu appetizer - fresh, pungent and lithe - bore the consistency of yogurt. Smoked oysters sang of the hearth and the sea. A delicate whitefish carpaccio was served with salts that spanned the globe.
Emboldened, I ordered the “Reggiano Cheese Tofu Ramen,” and angels sang when the cheese promptly oozed into the chicken stock, creating an umami-rich paitan with the creamy texture of tonkotsu and a flavor somewhere between the Mediterranean and Tokyo Bay.
From that moment on, I simply got it. Nakamura’s preparations shown in a whole new light. The local vegetables were more precise in their delicate crunch than I’d previously noticed. The potatoes and beets (and I typically hate beets) invoked the soil from which they were pulled. Starbucks-style portions of small, medium, and large ramen were introduced to the menu, and by the time I returned (yet again), diners could well craft their own “tasting course” of noodle samplers complete with wine pairings as suggested by the staff. It was off to the races when I ordered three minis: the “Heirloom Tomato,” the cheese, and the “Marsala Curry Ramen.” All were positively righteous in their own way; the tomatoes sparkled, the curry punctured the senses, and a reprise of the cheese tour-de-force confirmed my suspicions; it hadn’t been a mirage at all.
I asked the chef about the noodles. He mentioned a specific grade of semolina, typically used in pasta, to firm up his strands, and even the previously incongruous chicken soup began to win me over with its simple, austere charm. Ramen in Japan has over the years, become all-too synonymous with “hiding the natural flavor of the ingredients,” he explained. “I want to make things simple again.”
It’s true that a bowl of ramen is normally assessed by its complexity of flavor and overwhelming profundity of taste. Measuring that has been this website’s stock in trade; it’s what keeps rameniacs going. Nakamura’s California experiment on the other hand, is a deliberate attempt to break free of the confines of a conformist Japanese mindset, the product of ramen royalty in self-imposed exile. Were the fare handled by less skilled hands, I might have dismissed the place outright as either gimmicky or a cynical stab at prestige. But instead Ramen California is world-class artistry - meticulous and daring, the most thrilling new restaurant in town noodle-related or otherwise. Its impact on the landscape could be huge.
“Eating should be educational, it should exist not just to feed, but to teach children.” Sign me up for classes; getting schooled never tasted so good.
|nakamura's deceptively simple chicken soup might seem a bit austere at first to the jaded ramen slurper, yet it bursts to life in new and visionary ways when melded with reggiano cheese or marsala curry. plus those on a pork-free diet will love it.||9|
|ramen california's noodles are a breed apart from anything found outside of japan. an engineered cross between pasta and ramen, they're thin, firm and chewy in all the right ways. the only caveat, according to the chef, is that you have to eat them relatively quickly.||8|
|grilled chicken "chashu" with the smoky flavor of charcoal and farm-fresh organic california vegetables cooked to perfection might not be what you're used to, but they're peerless and expertly done.||10|
|nakamura's bona-fides are most immediately apparent in the side dishes, some of which have been drawn from his japanese essence tasting menu. the cheese tofu is positively sublime. even a simple side salad is a perfect balance of delicate texture and dressing.||10|
|housed in the old chabuya torrance space, nakamura's aesthetic is minimalism. the old floor was ripped out, the decorations removed. it's all rather spartan, but the focus after all, is on the food.||5|
|expect seasonal menu changes and wild new inventions from time to time. i can't wait to see what he does with the liquid nitrogen. actually, i'm kind of scared to find out.||10|
24231 Crenshaw Blvd, #C
11:30 - 2:30p