Sunday, October 04, 2009

Zuzu Ramen - Ramen Comes to Brooklyn

It took me quite a while to try ZuZu Ramen. And I love ramen, really and truly. There are two things that kept me away all this time. First of all, it's not Japanese. The place is owned by the people who own Sheep Station, an Australian-themed joint a block away. Okay, the head chef is Japanese, but he comes from illustrious French kitchens like Jean Georges. I don't know...I would feel equally strange going to eat sushi at a place owned by an Armenian couple, or to have Doro Wat at an Italian restaurant. It's possible that the food is going to be great, but as long as I'm in NYC, it seems as though there are more more reliable options for authentic food.

The second thing that scared me is the menu. There are four ramen dishes at ZuZu, and two of them are fusion dishes, heavily borrowing from Thai cuisine. That's not a big deal, I guess, as long as there is a traditional ramen dish on the menu, which there is, the "ZuZu Ramen." But what kind of ramen is that, exactly - is this shoyu (soy sauce) ramen or shio (salt) ramen? The menu doesn't say. The whole thing didn't seem kosher to me, so I never went - it's just too easy to hop on the subway and go to any of my favorite Manhattan ramen temples.

BrooklynLady and I finally went to ZuZu Ramen, and I've been back twice since then. But here's the thing - there is literally only one thing on the menu that I will eat there, the house signature "ZuZu Ramen." The curly noodles are perfectly springy, there is deeply flavored broth that I don't think falls neatly into either the shoyu or the shio camp - it may instead be some sort of a paste that is mixed with dashi broth. The toppings are very nice too - lovely bamboo shoots, a single piece of crisp baby bok choy, scallions, a slow-cooked egg that runs happily into the broth, the obligatory sheet of nori (seaweed), and one very long, fatty, and completely satisfying slice of charshu (roast pork). This is a very good bowl of ramen, and the fact that it happens so close to my house is a great thing. There is really only one problem I can think of with this bowl - the price. It costs $14. That's Ippudo pricing, but this is not Ippudo.

The rest of the food is just not so great. The "Tasty Morsels" are not very tasty. Pork buns a la David Chang taste more of smokey char than of sweet-porky-scallion-cucumber harmony, and pork dumplings just aren't porky enough and the wrappers have no flavor and a cardboard-like texture. But these dishes are tame anyway, they're not what gets you in the door. The adventure at ZuZu comes in the form of Green Curry-Miso Ramen and Hot and Sour Ramen with Shrimp. And neither or them work, even when suspending my purist's view of what ramen should be.

We found Green Curry-Miso ramen to be unpalatable, and I love green curry, my favorite of the Thai curries. The broth here is simply overwhelming, though, the noodles and toppings cannot compete with the chili-lemongrass-kafir lime leaf intensity. It's war in a bowl, and it's just no fun. Hot and Sour Ramen is better, the broth more mellow, although it is definitely hot and sour, like Tom Yum soup in a Thai place. The problem here is the toppings - there are lots of small, tasteless, stringy, totally cheap shrimp. Save them, and give me one nice prawn, the way there is one slice of really nice charshu in the ZuZu ramen. There are also some little halved cherry tomatoes and big basil leaves, neither of which elevate the dish.

Sounds like I hate the place, but I don't. I would go there happily, but for ZuZu Ramen only, and as a neighborhood option, not as a first choice for ramen.


Peter Liem said...

Your descriptions make me think of eating ramen in Paris. I have similar sentiments—you can find ramen that is palatable, if not entirely authentic (although thankfully, Green Curry-Miso ramen, which sounds like some unholy and misshapen spawn of the devil, has not arrived here), but the only reason I eat it is because it's the "neighborhood" (i.e. located in France) option, and it's far cheaper than a JAL ticket to Tokyo.

Vinotas said...

Try Menkuitei or Rai Rai Ken, both in Manhattan and fantastic for authentic ramen (and cheap!). Ippudo's OK.

Peter Liem said...

Didn't you read Brooklynguy's post about Manhattan ramen temples? Rai Rai Ken is one of his favorites. I'm sorry to say that I find Menkuitei exceedingly poor. And, if you make allowances for style (i.e. tonkotsu vs. shoyu or shio), I don't see how any NYC ramen house (or I should say NY area, as I include Santoka) is better than Ippudo. But to each his own.

Vinotas said...

Nope, missed that post. The last few times I was at Ippudo it was very average, perhaps a revisit is in order. I just went to Menkuitei today and it was very good, though I do prefer Rai Rai Ken.

Brooklynguy said...

hey my two friends! the world is falling apart at the seams and we, happily, are on the same team, so let patience reign.

michel - don't worry about not reading the ramen temple link, i don't always read the links either. i know peter didn't mean to be snippy, he just gets frustrated as a professional,the way i'm sure you do, when people leave comments on his blog that show that they aren't getting what he's writing. okay, you missed the fact that i wrote all about rai rai ken, but that's alright with me. i'm just glad that you're reading. if you have time to read the links, all the better. if not, that's fine too.

and peter is so typically kind and gentlemanly that it's easy to forgive him on the rare occasion that he gets snippy.

Vinotas said...

BG, I didn't read it as snippy. I have pretty thick skin, in this business you have to or you're dead meat.

No harm, no foul!