One of Japan’s greatest cult culinary stars is a native New Yorker. Now he’s bringing his ramen skills back to NYC.
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Long Island native Ivan Orkin moved to Japan 10 years ago and opened 12-seat ramen shop Ivan Ramen in a small town on the outskirts of Tokyo. Despite his American heritage and limited formal training in ramen making (he took a six-day course), Orkin gained a cult following for his nuanced broths and perfectly textured noodles. Now he’s coming home and gearing up to open an Ivan Ramen downtown in the spring. Until then, follow his recommendations for New York’s best Japanese eating and drinking.
What led you down the path of ramen making? Why did ramen, in particular, speak to you?
Opening a ramen shop was my attempt at marrying my love of Japan and my love of food. By opening a shop where I served something that the Japanese hold very dear, I put myself in a situation where I was able to immerse myself completely in Japanese culture. And I got to cook at the same time. I was in heaven.
Why have you decided to open shop in NYC?
In Tokyo there are lots of options for ramen. When you come to the states the options are still sparse, but I think that’s going to change. Part of the excitement for me in getting ready to open a shop in New York is that I want to be a part of the dialogue. I want to be a part of bringing great ramen to New York. I think the more styles and varieties that people try, the more educated they will become, and the more demanding they will be.
What are your favorite places to go for Japanese food in NYC? Neta is a sushi restaurant that was opened by two Masa alums. It’s a little edgy, and they present a lot of new ideas, but the flavors are all spot on and clean-tasting. Get the omakase. (61 West Eighth Street, 212.505.2610)
Takashi is Korean-style BBQ through a Japanese lens. The style is called yakiniku: yaki means to grill and niku means meat. Takashi is an upscale version with an offal twist. The dish that’s really great is the Asian-Cajun andouillette: 100 percent Kobe beef stuffed into a large intestine, which they grill in front of you slowly. Another dish they serve that’s really nice is a slice of raw beef with a big pile of uni on top. (456 Hudson Street, 212.414.2929)
In Tokyo you ride up a tiny elevator to the third or fourth floor of a building and then, all of a sudden, there’s this bustling, totally hip sake bar. Sakagura is fun for that same reason—it’s hidden. It’s located in the basement of a nondescript office building on a desolate street in Midtown. You walk down the steps, and you’re in this spacious, cool izakaya. They have all these giant bottles of sake that they pull off the shelf and pour for you. I used to go to Sakagura 20 years ago, when it opened. It’s legendary. (211 East 43rd Street, 212.953.7253)
Yopparai is a very interesting little sake bar. The name means “to be drunk.” The owner is extremely passionate about sake, and they have a wide variety, over 50 kinds. (151 Rivington Street,1st floor, 212.777.7253)
A friend of mine who imports sake to NYC is in the process of opening a restaurant on the Lower East Side called SakaMai. He wants to demystify sake and show that it can be paired with all different kinds of foods. It’s something to look forward to; I might even be doing some pop-ups over there when they get rolling, hopefully in December. (157 Ludlow Street, no phone)
Kyo Ya does a solid kaiseki (a seasonal, multicourse tasting). They got a stellar review in the Times recently. You can order à la carte or do the tasting. (94 East 7th Street, 212.982.4140)
Ootoya is an inexpensive diner chain in Japan that serves comfort food. They opened their first NYC outlet on 18th Street, where they do all different styles of Japanese food. (8 West 18th Street, 212.255.0018)
There’s a bunch of new ramen shops in NYC, but I think Totto ramen is the one that feels most like Tokyo. It’s a narrow, cramped little place. It has a counter with people cooking in front of you. They make a pretty solid bowl. (366 West 52nd Street,212.582.0052)
Chuko is a fairly new ramen place in Brooklyn that’s run by two American guys. I think their shoyu ramen is good. It’s a nice neighborhood place with a great vibe. (552 Vanderbilt Avenue, 718.576.6701)