Last fall, a mother-daughter Columbus Day trip to the City began auspiciously with a 5 minute tunnel crossing that lent a feeling of optimism and set the automotive pace for the rest of the day! Who has a stick shift and can remember the last time they drove through the Holland Tunnel in 5th gear? I do remember a crossing in September that took three hours. We had plans to park and then take the subway or walk until we were ready to leave but traffic was so light that I decided at Astor Place to keep driving. We only hit one red light between there and the Museum of the City of New York at 103rd Street! Then we parked at a meter a few blocks away!
I had selected this museum because it is one of only a few open on Monday and I have been intrigued by their exhibitions advertised on NPR. It turned out to be a great choice. We explored “Legacy, “ an great show of beautiful Joel Meyerowitz photos of “wilderness in New York City Parks.” And truly these are wild and beautiful spots throughout the five boroughs. Incredible. From there we went upstairs to see an exhibition about the history of the seaport area that was well-done and then back down for the headline show. I even started Christmas shopping in the gift shop.
Back to the car and downtown for a much-anticipated Ramen noodle lunch. Momofuko is closed on Monday and I had planned to try Ippudo but they had a 45 minute wait and the crowd was a bit too trendy looking for us anyway. By now it was 1 pm and Nora was starving and cranky as a result and starting to whine and be difficult. I had another noodle back-up several blocks east on 10th Street and it was perfect. Rai Rai Ken is the tiniest sliver of a restaurant with three stools and a small counter in the window and one long narrow counter along the side that seats twelve. All of the cooking takes place behind the counter and the food is simple, cheap and comes quickly. We shared a bowl of Miso Ramen Soup with noodles, bean sprouts, cabbage, crispy garlic slices, scallions and shredded chicken. The broth was heavenly with the perfect amount of heat and spice for the cold fall day (and the draft from the open door) and fortunately for me, Nora occupied herself with the noodles and I devoured almost everything else. We both left satisfied.
Since that fateful bowl of noodles with Nora I had been trying to get back to the city for another go. The planets aligned courtesy of the annual NJ Teacher’s Convention and a comp day from work. This time Thibault was my lunch date. Again, there was no traffic at the tunnel and we parked neatly in a spot on Perry Street in the West Village just as the Monday & Thursday a.m. street cleaner was pulling out – a beautiful thing! Thibault’s game plan for the day involved roaming the East Village and Soho. That was all fine with me as long as we got the noodles. I even chose them over the Kandinsky show which honestly, I now regret. We started the day by spontaneously meeting Elizabeth, who was able to pause briefly in her pre-wedding insanity for a cup of coffee on Jane Street. As we left for Ippudo, she warned us to be prepared to wait for a table but insisted that it would be well worth it. So off we went, fueled with her vivid and highly detailed descriptions of the delights that awaited us. After a brisk walk across town we arrived. At first I was concerned that they were closed. No one was outside and no one was inside at the bar. We walked in and were seated immediately. Harmonic convergence!
The hostess led us to the dining space in the back where we were greeted with a loud chorus of shouts from the line of cooks in the open kitchen, the first indication that this would be a meal and an experience. We soon learned that each and every diner was met with the same boisterous enthusiasm. We were seated at a large communal table for twelve that filled and emptied twice while we were there. I tend to shy away from these in general for the same reason that I don’t like B&B’s (and the reason that my husband loves them) and dread airplane travel. I am fine with brief, polite pleasantries but hate lengthy superficial small talk with strangers. I am more of an in-depth person. I needn’t have worried since these were New Yorkers and they were there for the food.
We ordered an iced green tea for Thibault and a glass of cold sake for me and had the Hirata Buns to start things off. These were simply heavenly. The bread was almost bizarrely light in the hand when picked up, and held a small amount of shredded pork moistened with a savory slightly, spicy sauce and a crunch of ice berg lettuce. I ate my bun in the slowest, smallest bites to make it last.
For lunch, Thibault had the Hakata Classic Ramen, “the original tonkotsu soup noodles,” served with slices of Berkshire pork, kikurage (seaweed), red pickled ginger, menma (bamboo shoots), hard-boiled egg, and sprinkled generously with sesame seeds and scallions. I tried the Yokohama Ramen, a new dish with many of the same ingredients with the addition of nori (seaweed), cabbage, and fried garlic and without the egg and sesame seeds. Thibault’s broth was mild and miso-based. Mine was very rich and intensely pork-based and, had I realized, I surely would not have ordered it. I’m just not that into pork. But both were excellent and pure pleasure, and we drained our bowls. We left Ippudo warm and content, but while after lunch at Rai Rai Ken my thoughts returned endlessly to noodles, I find that now my thoughts turn more frequently to pork buns. They just blew me away.
Late this winter, Dad and I spent a cold morning wandering through Chelsea galleries looking at art and working up good appetites. Still thinking about ramen and pork buns, I nonchalantly suggested we have some noodles at a place I wanted to try. We grabbed a cab and headed across town to Momofuko, the third stop in my noodle quest. I don’t think Dad minded. The food was unusual and excellent and so was the people-watching! We celebrated the day in NYC with glasses of sake (who knew how much there is to learn about sake?) and started lunch with a shared order of Sautéed Tuscan Kale served in an amazing, almost sweet, pork broth with slivers of fennel and pickled crosnes. Crosnes!! Also known as Chinese artichokes, they are crunchy, and a member of the mint family. They taste like Jerusalem artichokes and look like grubs. The last time I saw them was at a farmer’s market in France. Anyway, this little appetizer dish was a great start to lunch. Dad picked up a pair of chopsticks and dove in like a pro! The kale was followed by Steamed Pork Buns – soft, white mitts gently cradling sauced, glistening slabs of unctuous fatty pork with thin slices of fresh pickled cucumbers. Yummy.
We both selected the Ginger Scallion Noodles for our main course. They came in bowls with lots of pickled shitake mushrooms and cucumbers, scallions, herbs and seaweed. I had assumed that all of the noodle dishes were “ramen” but in fact only one of the three offerings came with the fragrant broth I was anticipating, and it was being enjoyed by the people next to us. It was all good though, as the ginger noodles were delicious and thoroughly enjoyed by us both. We ended the meal with a tiny (by American standards) cup of banana bread soft serve ice cream!
I have since returned twice more to Momofuko, and it is my favorite of the three for its inventiveness and the fabulous quality of the locally-sourced ingredients.
Rai Rai Ken: 214 East 10th Street, NYC between 1st & 2nd Avenue
Ippudo: 65 4th Avenue, NYC (212) 388-0088 www.ippudo.com
Momofuko Noodle Bar: 171 First Avenue, NYC http://www.momofuku.com/noodle/default.asp