photo credit: Noah Devereaux
One restaurant. Two names. During the day, this tiny 12-seat house of chopstick heaven is home to Okonomi, in which they serve a traditional Japanese set meal called “Ichiju Sansai.” At night, the space gets taken over by Yuji Ramen, one of the best, most unique noodle joints that exists in this fine city filled with ramen. Before we get into why you need to eat here immediately and explain the best plan of attack, let’s get into some of the backstory, because that part is important.
Chef Yuji Haraguchi had never worked in a professional kitchen before he was hired as a prep cook at Roberta’s a few years back by Tara Norvell, his eventual business partner. Yuji wound up cooking ramen for staff meal a lot, and every time he did it, people were blown away. Turns out, Yuji WAS A FREAK IN THE KITCHEN. Yuji and Tara decided to pop up with his unique brothless ramen, otherwise known as mazemen, at Smorgasburg on the regular. Yuji became the toast of Smorg, which then led to a permanent pop-up space on the second-floor food court of the Whole Foods on Bowery. Yuji Ramen served Yuji’s brothless ramen creations all day, and then at night, he offered a one-of-a kind, 16-seat, impossible to get into tasting menu. We went. It was silly. The hype was full throttle, and it was all warranted.
When you have sufficiently generated this kind of buzz and then open your first ever brick-and-mortar location, which is what Okonomi is, you’d think it’d be a food media frenzy, right? Well, that hasn’t exactly been the case. It’s been kind of quiet, which is surprising to us. We’re here today to make sure Okonomi/Yuji Ramen gets on your hit list immediately, because it’s one of the most exciting restaurants in NYC.
For breakfast and lunch at Okonomi, they take you straight to Tokyo, serving the supremely delicious, traditional “Ichiju Sansai” meal, which consists of a rice bowl, a miso soup, a piece of cooked fish, and three small sides. It’s light, it’s healthy, and it’s very affordable, coming in at $12 per person. After lunch, they proceed to throw all the leftover fish and excess bones into big pots to start cooking that night’s ramen broth. Yuji Ramen is open Sunday-Thursday evenings, while on Friday and Saturday nights, they do a new version of the tasting menu for which they became famous - to get a seat, you need to book a month out. Considering there are only 12 seats, you will likely have to wait regardless of when you come, but they move quickly, and The Blind Barber is right next door, so you can go and get a coffee during the day, or a beer at night, until your table is ready.
Come for lunch, come back for dinner, and if you want to get real crazy, do the weekend tasting menu. Ramen, most certainly, is not dead.
Ichiju Sansai Breakfast/Lunch
A miso soup, a brown rice bowl (which you should add both an egg and some uni to), a piece of fish, three sides, and tea - that’s what this traditional Japanese breakfast meal is made of. The fish changes daily, and you get three choices. On our last visit, it was bluefish, bluefish collar, and mackerel, all oily, light fish with lots of miso-enhanced flavor. The sides consist of a miso egg cube, pickled veggies, and spinach in tofu sauce.
There are always a couple raw fish specials that serve as appetizers on the breakfast/lunch menu, and also on the dinner menu as a full-on sampler. You want to order whatever they’re selling, especially if it’s the sheepshead sashimi, which, when dipped in their spicy yuzu dipping sauce, is a massive winner.
Bacon & Egg Mazemen
This is the dish that started everything for Yuji. It’s their calling card, a brothless noodle dish with thick chunks of bacon, an egg, crispy bonito flakes, and purple kale. It’s like the ramen version of carbonara, and it’s fcking glorious.
Squid Tantan Mazemen
We’ve been dreaming about this warm bowl of stuff since devouring it a couple weeks ago. Octopus is chopped up into a bolognese with kale and tomatoes. Ramen imitating pasta. Another brothless wonder.
Daily Shoyu Ramen
Rotating daily, their shoyu ramen is not to be missed. Sure, most of the attention is on the mazemen, but the ramen is equally as delicious.
Whoa. This is intense. If you don’t like a fishy flavor, move on. However, if you enjoy taking the sea in your mouth, then you’re going to love this fish-filled bowl of ramen. The base is a creamy monkfish liver broth, which is where that potency comes from. It has a nice, subtle smokiness to it, thanks to torched squid in the mix. Don’t be scared.
Not to be left out, their soba is solid, too. It’s not as exciting or flavor-packed, but if you want something on the lighter side, go with these buckwheat noodles.
We haven’t been to the “new” one here at Okonomi, but having been to the others and knowing what goes on, there’s no doubt in our minds that it’d be worth the time and money investment. Yuji and Tara use Japanese noodles in ways you’ve never seen before, like creating octopus-filled ravioli or a salmon and cheese mazemen. Do it.