Photo by Chris Kessler
The year 2014 just might be that of the noodle. But not penne. And a big fat no to SpaghettiOs. I’m talking about the strings of pasta the Japanese call ramen. However, these strings are a full 180-degree turn from the 50-cent packaged sodium sticks that help sate cash-strapped college students. Let’s take the transformation of Shorewood’s Anaba from tea room to ramen house – named Tochi – as one component of your ramen education.
Historically, ramen may have originated in China, migrating to Japan (some argue) in the early 20th century. The instant stuff wasn’t invented until 1958. You can find online guides that classify the types of broths (by texture and base), noodles, meat and toppings for ramen. Local chef Justin Carlisle makes the traditional tonkotsu ramen (with a rich, milky-colored pork broth) for late-night consumption at Ardent on Farwell Avenue on Friday and Saturday nights.
Tochi’s Gregg Des Rosier, on the other hand, stuck to diaphanous when it comes to broth. Des Rosier – the longtime Anaba chef who led the changeover to Tochi early this year – chose more modern ramen styles in clear, lighter (miso- or soy sauce-based) broths. He’s also doing a brothless “mazemen” ramen. But noodles aren’t all there is to Tochi’s menu. Other additions: Chinese steamed buns ($5.95), Vietnamese cabbage salad ($5.95) and Japanese shishito peppers blistered in fish sauce and pork fat ($5.95), cilantro and chile-glazed catfish ($8.95), and congee (a watery rice dish, $7.95).
In the course of becoming Tochi, the setting changed as well. The interior (lower level of the Garden Room retail shop) feels less like a basement garden tea room and more a warm, Zen-like enclosure with partition screens, soft lighting and seating configurations from two-tops to a long, communal table.
The first weekend the resto served its bowls of Asian hot broth, they “set an all-time record” for food sales, says Des Rosier. In less than three days, he says, they served more than 600 people and went through close to 400 pounds of pork. Proof there is indeed a yen for ramen here. (It doesn’t hurt that ramen is a meal in a bowl for under 12 clams.) The dining room understandably reflects a youthful clientele of noodle slurpers. Chopsticks are the preferred way to eat ramen, which, in my fumbling case, greatly slows the eating process. Although a fork really isn’t much easier.
Three of the starters don’t need utensils at all. The charred edamame ($5.95) – lightly oiled and generously seasoned with yuzu (a citrus fruit) – will keep you licking the salt from your fingers. The wrinkled skins on the blistered shishito peppers absorb the pork fat, sesame oil and fish sauce used to season them. The pork version of the steamed buns – with thick slices of fatty pork belly and coconut curry slaw – is better than the smoked tofu with pickled onions and mushrooms ($5.95). In China, steamed buns are called bao. They’re tricky to make, these pale-white, fluffy buns. Tochi’s buns, on two occasions, were just too dry. Nor were they warm.
In his ramen-scaping, Des Rosier is liberal with the pork belly. The signature Tochi ramen benefits from the thick, well-marbled belly, which gives the miso broth a little depth. Although I like the deviled egg, potent Welsh onion and firm rice noodles, it’s not knocking a ramen-lover’s world. For flavor, the mazemen (softened noodles in a trace of broth) are more appealing – and not because they’re untraditional. Purists might be horrified by the apple, bacon and goat cheese version with chorizo noodles ($8.95). But it could not be called bland.
The best balance of savory flavor may be in the mazemen with sliced Wisconsin grass-fed beef, pickled shiitake mushrooms, and a fried egg, with the crowning touch of a pat of smoked bone marrow butter ($11.95). Like the other ramens, it’s sprinkled with chile threads.
If you’re tempted beyond the noodles to venturing into rice, the catfish – pan-fried and glistening with cilantro chile glaze – is compatibly paired with a starchy scoop of sticky rice. On the other hand, the appeal of gruel-like congee is lost on me. With its slimy texture – and, in this case, dissonant cilantro-lime paste – it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Speaking of which, Tochi offers teas galore, as well as sake and sake cocktails.
At the same time as keeping up with current noodle demand, Des Rosier is thinking of spring changes, like substituting char sui (roasted, barbecued pork) for pork belly and folding in another trendy noodle dish from Japan – tsukemen (aka, dipping noodles).
Tochi (and moreover, Justin Carlisle’s Ardent) will likely inspire other ramen makers – a healthy springboard effect. Time for me to hone those slurping-with-chopsticks skills.