Japanese cuisine is among the most intimidating types of food to an inexperienced vegetarian. Ramen, especially, ranks high among those items that look enticing and comforting and yet, can be quite deceptive to one who does not consider seafood as part of his or her diet. In fact, the wave of authentic ramen restaurants that has overtaken NYC almost caused me to lose hope over one day being able to enjoy a bowl full of steaming noodles with my carnivore friends (until now, Souen noodle has been my refuge). But when Julie of Peek & Eat asked me to meet her at Ippudo, I took it as an opportunity to give ramen another shot.
As it turns out, both Julie and I were pleasantly surprised by our experience. As is typical, the wait was long – though relative to usual, an hour-long wait can be considered brief. We decided to side step the crowded bar at the front of the restaurant and instead, enjoy a cocktail from one of my favorite spots: Angel’s Share. One round later, we were back at Ippudo. As we were seated at the counter, shouts of greeting in Japanese gave us the feeling that we were being welcomed to a party. A friendly waitress approached us promptly. Over continued calls of greeting from the staff, the waitress informed me that the menu was actually pretty friendly towards vegetarians. Not only did they have an off-menu vegetarian ramen (they only started serving this three or four months back), they had several appetizer options like avocado and tofu tartar and noodle salad. Julie forewent her usual choice of a seafood appetizer and instead shared the most highly recommended vegetarian appetizers with me. According to the waitress, “everyone loves” the yamitsuki goma kyuri (cucumber in sesame oil dressing topped with yuzu salt and chili flakes) and the shishito (deep-fried Japanese peppers served with lemon and yuzu salt). We were not disappointed; both were delicious and unlike anything I’ve ever tried before. The cucumber was crisp, refreshing and yet had a slight red-pepper flavor without being spicy. The peppers were also surprising in that they were not at all spicy but still maintained their earthy, peppery flavor. The yuzu salt cut through the coating of light oil and the lemon added a breath of brightness. I can see why the waitress recommended these dishes.
Next came the ramen. A generous helping of noodles was topped with pan-fried tofu, scallions, mushrooms, and seaweed that danced about in a shitake, soy sauce and kombu broth. The ramen was satisfying and flavorful without being overly salty. The broth was a delicately yet rich and deep from the kombu. Though kae-dama, an additional helping of noodles, was available for only $2.00 more, I was completely full and satisfied by my bowl of steamy goodness. This, unfortunately, left no room for dessert. But, glad to be proven wrong about finding great vegetarian ramen, I guess there’s always next time.
65 Fourth Avenue (between 9th and 10th)