Totto Ramen. It's finally here.
Ever since I first went to Yakitori Totto, I've considered Ryuchi Munekata the undisputed God of New York City Japanese food. Today, I sat in his presence, and took my fill of rambrosia.
Totto and its east side sister Torys have received celebrity endorsements from some of New York's heaviest culinary hitters: Eric Ripert, chef of 3-michelin-star Le Bernardin, Thomas Keller and Danny Meyer, Keller the chef of 3-michelin-star French Laundry in cali and 3-michelin-star Per Se in New York, and Meyer the might behind 1-star The Modern, Gramercy Tavern, and the lovable Shake Shack, and (former) resident badass chef turned celebrity travel host Anthony Bourdain. The people making some of the best food in New York and sampling some of the best food in the world like Munekata's restaurants.
Totto Ramen is an odd location. Between an ancient thrift shop that sells all manner of what for all the world appears to be trash and a typical chinese owned Sushi shop, you descend into Ramen Totto's stylish interior and sit at a stool that barely makes it back above grade. The shop is tiny, with no more than 2 tables (only one was active tonight) for 2, with a bar seating 10-12; you'll know it by the tastefully modern black sign and, if tonight was any indication, the huge crowd of Japanese people waiting to get inside.
Its interior exudes charm. There's space enough for only two to work behind the counter, with one prep counter about two men wide, a small sink that doubles as a place to keep the bean sprout basket, and most importantly two absolutely ridiculously large sauce vats that come up to the chest but sit on burners down by the shins. The dark motif continues, with attractive dark walls and dark ceilings putting focus on the wooden counter, stainless steel prep area, and your bowl of the best ramen you are likely to eat in your life.
Lets get this out of the way. Ippudo, the other great ramen place in New York, is Serious. They do extra noodles the Right Way. They serve you a gourmet bowl with exceptionally good pork belly, perfectly cooked noodles, and my absolute favorite style of ramen broth, tonkotsu (pork bone). In some way, Totto Ramen exceeds this. Totto Ramen serves the ramen that I know; it marries the atmosphere and the ingredients of the ramen you would get when you plop down between some anime nerd and a salary man at a shop in Tokyo (or Fukuoka, as the case may be) and that gourmet love of ingredients.
One difference between the bowls is the pork element. They are both superior to the dry slice of pork roll that demands to be consumed with a generous helping of miso broth that you'd get at your standard ramen place in New York (or even Japan). Totto Ramen's thin slices of berkshire pork are in a completely different league, playing a completely different sport: slowly cooked in the broth (which I'll get to) and then torched to rend some of its ample and delicious fat content, they are simply heavenly. The significant helping of pork belly in a Shiromaru bowl from Ippudo seems like a gold plated cell phone in comparison, an application of pure beauty and decadence that feels out of context.
The noodles (different in the different bowls) are impossible to improve upon. The absolute perfect texture, with the right amount of bite and absolutely no mushiness, they stand up to the broth for the lifetime of the soup, even as you drink your beer and wipe the sweat from your brow. At one point, one of the preparers announces that two chicken broth ramen's are needed. His sidekick grabs a metal pot, reaches deep into one of the large broth pots, pulls out a potfull and fills two bowls. He then grabs one of the 6 individual ramen baskets out of the water and pulls it over to the station to drip.
The head chef quickly pulls out a large pair of wooden cooking chopsticks and dips it into the starchy, boiling ramen water, then puts them up to his mouth. Silently and efficiently, he grabs a slice of lime and squeezes it into the pasta water, samples, and repeats. This is the level of thought, care, and expertise that goes into your bowl.
And finally, the broth. Oh the broth. I saw someone in the restaurant for the last few weeks, presumably cleaning it up and preparing for the opening. Now I know that they were actually beginning the preparation for the broth. It'd be a challenge to find chicken broth as thick and rich with flavor (and umami) as theirs, and I urge anyone's first Totto Ramen bowl to be with the Chicken broth (no spicy oil; it'l distract from the broth). Somehow, the broth manages to be thicker and richer than the tonkotsu broth at Ippudo (which is already pretty fantastic). Sticking out of the broth that is a spoon large enough to power a small water going vessel.
If there's one weakness to the bowl, it's that outside of these main components (noodles, broth, & pork) there is not much else going on. A helping of sliced scallions, some sea weed, and what I think was grilled garlic or dried onions (I completely lost interest in anything but the broth and noodles soon after delivery) is all you'll get. It's just as well to leave out the fish cakes which, even in Japan, have a cheap feel to them. I've yet to try the miso broth, and miso is a most delicate art, so I can't comment on that yet.
The service was of course fantastic, which is to be expected from a place run by Japanese in general. Since it's so small, and it's almost impossible to escape a personal relationship with the chefs behind the counter, the neglect that you can sometimes feel at Munekata's larger restaurants probably won't develop there. They can probably get by on 1 waiter for the place, although they seemed to have more on opening night with two staff inside and at least one guy outside just taking names for the waiting list. The one guy working the bar poured Cecilia an entire glass of Sake, proclaiming that he was in a celebratory mood since it was opening night.
My three great loves of Japanese fast food are Yakitori, Curry, and Ramen. 10 years ago, only two of these were covered in midtown, by the venerable, charming, but declining Sapporo on 49th street. Someday, if Curry Totto opens, Munekata would have completed the holy trinity of Japanese afer-work joints in midtown. One can dream.