webwide noodling

ramen california: advancing the art, one bowl at a time

thumbnail imagethumbnail imagethumbnail image thumbnail imagethumbnail imagethumbnail image

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.

thumbnail imagethumbnail imagethumbnail image

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.

thumbnail imagethumbnail imagethumbnail imagethumbnail imagethumbnail imagethumbnail image

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?

thumbnail imagethumbnail imagethumbnail image

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.

thumbnail imagethumbnail imagethumbnail imagethumbnail imagethumbnail imagethumbnail imagethumbnail imagethumbnail imagethumbnail image

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
Torrance, CA 90505
(310) 530-2749

11:30 - 2:30p
5:30 - 10p
closed mondays

27

Comments

Ohh, interesting! This is worth checking out.

Although ... I have nothing against going wild with food or “fusion” or non-tonkotsu ramen, but I’m not a big fan of white chicken meat, which I think is what I see in those pictures. Maybe they’ll have a Texas ramen with BBQ briskets ... Mmm.

Posted by burumun on 06/10 at 06:04 PM

actually the chicken was all dark meat, and it was great. grilled with a nice fragrant charcoal flavor. these guys know what they’re doing.

Posted by rameniac on 06/10 at 06:50 PM

Really? Nakamura himself? The guy that’s famous for that thing he does with the noodles? No way! Sweet!

Are you back in town? Why don’t we meet up there? Hit me up.

Posted by keizo on 06/11 at 07:00 AM

Hi Rameniac,

Great review! smile Thanks for the find. This sounds wonderful and Rameniac’s excited about it… this should be subarashii~! smile

Posted by Exile Kiss on 06/16 at 08:45 AM

Hawtness

Posted by SauceSupreme on 06/16 at 01:21 PM

I…wow…WOW…dammit I wanna check this place out!!! Yeah, I’m a close-minded purist, but…this place sounds so incredibly cool!

Posted by edjusted on 06/16 at 11:19 PM

He may be friends with Ferran Adrià, but he clearly received much of his inspiration from Michel Bras.

I went there today for lunch (and ran into some of the Asa folks - don’t worry guys, you’re still my favorite ramen-ya in LA! - but no sign of Nakamura-san).  The Reggiano Cheese Tofu Ramen really is everything you said it was.  Strange, but very delicious; cheesy, garlicky, with a nice bounty of barely-cooked vegetables, and surprisingly good noodles.  And only $1.50 for a generous portion of perfectly-cooked chicken.  I’m going with some friends tomorrow night to sample more from the menu.  I’ve got a hankerin’ to try the Heirloom Tomato Ramen next.

It can be difficult to break from preconceived notions caused by (over-)familiarity with traditional forms, but there’s no denying Ramen California’s brilliance.

BTW, shouldn’t it be Masala, not Marsala?  Marsala is an Italian wine.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 06/16 at 11:46 PM

I went there for lunch today with co-workers, one of them is from Japan and even he liked it. As I am a fan of Tonkotsu ramen and have sticked to it wherever I eat ramen, I wanted to try a good Tori ramen (chicken ramen) and I found a good one : California Ramen. I ordered the grilled chicken ramen and it was fabulous, definitely would come back to try the other stuff such as the cheesy one, the tomato one and the masala curry one. The soup base (chicken flavour) is excellent, the noodle is soft and a little bit watery (I don’t know how to describe it, looks oily but it’s actually wet). From my Japanese friend, I heard that chef Shigetoshi Nakamura, the ramen chef at this place, is well known in Japan.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 06/17 at 01:52 PM

I am so happy I found your site and this particular post. What a wonderful find. I cannot wait to try this place.

Posted by Pink Foodie on 06/18 at 02:07 PM

I can’t wait to try, really. I’m ready to think outside the box!!

Posted by e*starLA on 07/11 at 10:53 AM

whoa whoa, that is too wild.  it doesn’t look as flavorful as say, the traditional hakata stuff, but i guess if you say it’s that good… then it probably is.  it looks like something that came out of napa valley with all those vegetables and herbs. i gotta give that chef props though for breaking away from tradition

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 07/22 at 04:20 PM

I ended up going to Ramen California this weekend.  I do believe it’s the best I’ve ever had (relative to a fresh/quality perspective vs. a traditional/meaty one).  It reminded me of my father’s penchant for soups with absolutely fresh ingredients.  Get the signature dish, the “Californian” ramen bowl, and ask to add grilled chicken.  I talked to a server gal for a while and that is the way to go.  She said it currently has 32 different fresh vegetables in it, and every morning they parse out quantities into separate containers so that you’re sure to get the proper amounts, and I guess each vegetable is cooked (marinated?) slightly differently.

The experience is a vegetable extravaganza; a beautiful mystery, trying to identify components/tastes.  The stock is chicken based, not pork, so the dish is not really directly comparable to traditional pork/soy based ramen-ya (nor to a misu based).  The noodles are thin – petite.  It is a truly unique dish in my experience (even having lived in Tokyo for a couple years) and sure to be “the new thing” in Los Angeles (and possibly trend setting to the nation, a la what Father’s Office was to burgers, or Nobu was to sushi even further back).  I was told by the gal that the owner (Shigetoshi “Sean” Nakamura) is one of the top 4 ramen chefs in Japan, and came here to create something new (and presumably to get wealthy and famous, like Nobu).  In any case, it’s a must try – and worthy of the accolades that are sure to come its way.

The decor, service, and settings were 100% legit as well (most beautiful bowls I’ve seen – even while in Japan – and the sipping spoons are totally unique/huge, and actually usable vs. the normal lame Chinese dumpling ones) although from what I saw you’re more likely to get a blonde Torrance soccer mom talking to her brood rather than a timid Asian college couple talking intimately and giggling (e.g. Hakata Ramen Shinsengumi).  I’m fine with that.

Father’s Office is the only “direct” comparison I can make.  Profound quality of product/service, and an almost visionary idea by “taking it to the next level” – completely genre busting (...as all the competitors scurry and try to compose themselves).

As I was eating I was reminded of the movie Ramen Girl (2008), and Tampopo (1986).  It’s the kind of place/service/food you want a relationship with.  As such, I’m crestfallen they are not closer to my home of Santa Monica.

THANK YOU rameniac for being the maven you are, and providing me the tip online to try this place!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 08/10 at 03:57 PM

I’ve been wanting to go, and after reading your post, I can’t get there fast enough!  Thank you for being the relentless ramen fanatic that you are.  And thank you for this exceptionally informative and enticing post.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 08/17 at 10:58 PM

Great review as always! My wife’s Japanese friends have been singing the praises of this place, with many going for repeat visits. Their impression is as you said—forget traditional ramen, and you’ll truly appreciate the place. I need to make my way down there as it right in my neighborhood. Thanks again.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 08/26 at 11:23 PM

My comments are biased because I’m a meat eater. I find the chicken broth very plain, the noodle is ok. The unfortunate thing for California ramen is that I enjoyed the appetizers that I ordered much more than the ramen. I ordered the tomatoes and also the mozzarella cheese appetizers.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 09/11 at 02:37 PM

I went there today and Nakamura-san happened to be there. They introduced a new Ramen called Niposhi Ramen (Fish broth with chicken broth and CHASHU PORK) on Saturday. They also introduced two Banmen dishes, Chicken and Chashu Pork. The Banmen is the ramen noodles with a soy-based sauce mixed in (similar to Soba). They don’t use any broth on the Banmen dishes.

I had the Niposhi Ramen and it was very good. You can definitely taste the fish broth. I still ended up finishing the meal with a small Heirloom Tomato ramen (which is my favorite with the new Creamy Mushroom Ramen a close 2nd)

He also mentioned that they are introducing new rice dishes next week and that they are also working on some deserts (sorbets and some pastries, but NOT mochi). I think I may have to make another trip next week to try some of the rice dishes.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 11/09 at 03:37 AM

I really really really want to check this place out. Why are all the best ramen shops always out in Torrance?

AWESOME review.

Posted by pinguino on 11/14 at 07:01 PM

Went there yesterday with friends. I got reggiano cheese tofu ramen and my friends got chashu ramen and Californian ramen. All the ramen there are chinken broth and it is not too heavy and good and all that but man, those veges on my ramen…..
It is real fusion ramen. if you expect regular ramen, dont go. I personally did not like it but one of my friend loved her californian ramen. she said it’s healthy or something….
I don’t want healthy ramen! I want good tasting ramen!!
so in conclusion, I missed mama ramen which was in the same mall

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 11/26 at 10:40 PM

This place is bad with a capital B.  Very mediocre ramen and god awful small dishes that were not even prepared properly.  This is precisely the sort of third rate restaurant that keeps popping up in l.a. catering to “foodies” with dreams of being Johnathan Gold but no sense of taste and no clue what they’re eating.

PS Tokyo Bay is a toxic sludge, not exactly the sort of thing you want your meal to remind you of.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 12/27 at 09:24 PM

For a while they had a special mushroom Ramen that was - to die for. One of the best soups I’ve ever had - and no, it’s not traditional ramen.
We used to fantasize about it and go and get it at least once a week. Sadly they took it off the menu. We asked for it again and again and rumor is that they may bring it back, at a slightly higher price - apparently it took extra prep time and cost more.
I’d surely pay a premium to have this AMAZING soup again!
Has anyone had it?
If you loved it, call them and ask if they’re serving it. Maybe we can start a movement!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/25 at 06:20 PM
Page 1 of 1 pages

Add Comments

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.
members area
rss feed
  • rss
advertisements