Ramen is one of those dishes that evokes obsessive tendencies with its fans. As seen in the Japanese cult classic film Tampopo, you don't just love ramen -- you are fanatically in love with ramen. And while there's plenty of ramen to go around in the Bay Area, Ramen Shop may be the first venture that will inspire ramen mania in the East Bay. After months of planning, Chez Panisse alumni Sam White, Jerry Jaksich and Rayneil De Guzman officially opened the doors of their new restaurant in Rockridge tonight.
With its plate glass windows shrouded in brown paper, Ramen Shop still seemed to be operating in soft launch mode. Perhaps they wanted to remain somewhat incognito to keep the crowds at a minimum, although by 5 o'clock we were told there was already an hour and a half wait for a table.
We didn't mind waiting in the roomy lounge, which was furnished with old schooldesks and fixtures reminiscent of dimly lit ramen shops in Japan.
But luckily our wait time was cut in half as several large groups cleared out within 45 minutes, and I and my two dinner companions were able to snag three seats at the beautiful long wooden counter -- crafted from Oregon Douglas fir -- that faced the kitchen.
Apparently the magic at Ramen Shop happens in threes, just like the trio of owners. Each course -- appetizers, ramen and dessert -- listed only three items, so we decided to be decadent diners and order the entire menu. We began with a plate of pickled vegetables that included an assortment of foraged wild matsutake mushrooms, broccoli stems, carrots and watermelon radishes ($5). This starter was followed by a delicious little gems lettuce and grapefruit salad tossed with green goddess dressing and brightened by hints of fish sauce, mint and cilantro ($10). The wild nettle fried rice with Monterey Bay squid and chili paste ($9) was my personal favorite with its mildly spicy and savory flavors.
Onto the signature dish: the ramen, which arrived in deep, handmade ceramic bowls. The evening specials featured a vegetarian miso ramen with matsusake mushrooms, Mendocino nori, salt-cured egg, sesame and green garlic ($13); Meyer lemon ramen with salt-cured egg, spit-roasted chashu and mizuna ($15); Tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen with soy-marinated egg, spit-roasted chashu, shungiku and black garlic oil ($16).
The chefs' Californian sensibility was most evident with the Meyer lemon ramen. Despite its unusual citrusy notes, I found the broth to be too understated in its flavors -- especially in comparison to the other ramen dishes. The Tonkotsu's soup was smoky and truly imparted the salty, rich taste of pork, while the miso ramen's broth was densely packed with complex flavors. There was definitely much care and preparation in the noodles -- due to the tutelage the chefs received overseas -- which were perfectly light and springy. The eggs and vegetable garnishes were fine accompaniments, although we were admittedly disappointed by the serving of only one slice of the pork with the non-vegetarian ramen.
Dessert was a trio of ice cream sandwiches, all were $5 each and presented with a side of Meyer lemon gelée: black sesame ice cream with a brown sugar cookie; amarena cherry ice cream with a chocolate cookie; pineapple lime ice cream with a vanilla cookie. The pineapple confection was far too sweet and piña colada-esque for our taste, but the other two were among the highlights of our meal.
As we finished up our dinner, we noticed the lounge had filled up to capacity with patrons eagerly waiting for an empty table. I'm sure Ramen Shop's locally-sourced, seasonally-driven take on these beloved noodles will become a neighborhood staple, just like the perennially popular Zachary's Pizza located right across the street. Maybe even some South Bay folks will travel northward to see how it compares to their own nearby favorites.