Last weekend I went to New York for the James Beard Awards -- an annual bacchanal that begins with a Friday awards banquet for winners in Books, Broadcast and Journalism and culminates with a gala ceremony for winners in the chef and restaurateur categories on Monday. After the three-hour-plus awards show, guests pour out into a Lincoln Center lobby for tastes and sips prepared by some of the nation's best chefs.
The weekend brings together chefs and food writers from all over the country, and most hit the ground running. Many hit their first restaurant on the way in from the airport, and don't put down their forks until they blearily board their planes home on the Tuesday morning following the gala and its all-night after-parties. Usually it's a matter of securing those impossible dinner and lunch reservations at the season's trendsetting spots ( Betony and Carbone among the anointed this year), and then larding the day with burgers, tacos, ramen, lobster rolls and whatever else gets rave reviews in the big city.
I started the weekend out feeling so smug in my decision to not go ham. As my Twitter feed lit up with New York food pictures, I checked into my hotel, grabbed a bag of dried fruit and nuts, and went for a long walk in Central Park. When people asked, "Where are you eating?" (the question on everyone's lips), I demurred. "Nowhere special, just hanging out with friends and family..."
Yeah, it didn't last.
I went from dinner to an after-dinner my first night in town, where I managed to turn a large table of people onto the joys of shiokara -- a Japanese specialty of raw squid marinated in its own fermented innards. Soon I was on the all-day dining schedule, cutting out of three-course lunches to go on between-meal crawls with iron-stomached cohorts.
It ended up being, among other things, a long weekend of ramen exploration. Just a few blocks from my hotel was Hide-Chan , a well reviewed ramen-ya that seemed like just the ticket for a quick meal before a late-night party filled with lots of little cheffy tidbits.
As is often the case in Japan, you can specify the firmness of the noodle as well as the intensity of the broth. The house style here is Kyushu's famous tonkatsu, a rich pork bone broth that turns creamy with all the fat and collagen extracted during a long cooking process. I've found some versions so rich they're kind of queasy-making. But the moderately rich broth here is terrific -- lingering comfort in every slurp, particularly when punched up with mellow, toasty black garlic oil and hot chile. It was my immediate new benchmark, and the ramen quest was on.
The next day, after a kind of meh sit-down lunch, I talked a friend into walking across town to try New York's most talked-about ramen at Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop . Its owner is Ivan Orkin, an American famous for the unusually intense flavors of his Tokyo ramen shops, who has recently opened two New York restaurants and authored a cookbook. In other words, he's the one bona fide ramen celebrity.
The Slurp Shop is the older and more casual of the two restaurants, set in a kind of groovy gourmet food court called Chelsea West Market. The shoyu ramen tasted to me just a little like soy sauce that was added too early to a stir fry and scorched in the pan. Didn't love it.
Better was the much-loved roasted garlic mazeman ramen -- a creamy broth with a zing-pow-wow garlic punch. This style popularized by Orkin involves a whole lot less broth, so it's more like eating pasta with a runny sauce than soup noodles.
On our way back toward Times Square, we happened to walk past Totto Ramen. We didn't know anything about it, but it smelled good. We later learned the house specializes in paitan -- a pale but rich and creamy broth made with chicken bones. You can get it with either pork belly or chicken breast as well as a dollop of the house chile sauce, which it prickly with white pepper in addition to red pepper.
The version with chicken was like the ultimate chicken soup ever. Anyone's grandmother would have to admit this chicken soup is better than hers. I'm going to have a hard time ever returning to New York without making a Totto Ramen stop.
And then, late one night, I joined two friends who are writing a Korean cookbook at their favorite Manhattan Korean restaurant, Hanjan . Not only did we have a great meal, but we were in luck. After 10 p.m., the kitchen serves its special spicy Korean ramyun -- a version of ramen in a pepper-reddened broth that was the ideal last bite after a day of monstrous overeating.
See you at the gym...
-- by John Kessler for Atlanta Restaurant Scene