Much of the credit (or blame) for the country's current ramen obsession can be laid at the door of New York's Momofuku Noodle Bar. David Chang's first restaurant—which was less famous for ramen than other things—opened in 2004, and its runaway success, along with that of his subsequent restaurants, inspired chefs across the land to add nontraditional twists to formerly humble pan-Asian dishes. Recently the New York food press has given the trend an execrable name—"Asian hipster cuisine."
Hang me if I ever repeat that phrase, but for better or worse Chicago has experienced more than its share of this phenomenon from the likes of Urban Belly, the ill-fated Chizakaya, Yusho, Slurping Turtle, etc. And there's more on the way.
Many of these places have tried their hands at ramen, the utilitarian Japanese noodle soup that inspires as much passion as barbecue, pizza, or any other iconic dish that instills in eaters an unshakable belief in right and wrong. But despite some noble efforts, none has come close to besting the simple porky goodness of the fat-slicked tonkotsu ramen at the Japanese chain Santouka in the Mitsuwa food court in Arlington Heights.
The latest effort comes from Se Je "Sunny" Yim, a former chef at Swissotel who's established his own noodle bar in a Wicker Park storefront that once housed a hapkido school, but now blasts 90s hip-hop and screens vintage cartoons on the walls. Yim, like Chang, is Korean, and the similarities between his first restaurant and the first two in the Chang empire are readily apparent at first sight of the open kitchen and blond birchwood walls. But that's also true of the menu, on which both ramen and another Chang signature—Peking duck-style steamed buns, or bao—get top billing.
First, let's look at the ramen. Yim states that the broth employed in three of the bowls is born of an 18-hour pork bone simmer, and it is an impressive alchemy. In his tonkotsu-style bowl—with roast pork loin, tree ear mushrooms, and a creamy boiled egg—the broth has a milky, almost nutty aspect, like a dark roux, and it carries plenty of body with it. It's lip-smackingly thick and rich, and if Yim had left well enough alone he'd really have something there. But in all four of his soups the preponderance of seasoning—particularly black pepper and salt—not only masks the bowls' best qualities, but also tires out the tongue well before one hits the bottom of the bowl.
In the tonkotsu, dubbed "the Oiimen," the heat is compounded by a slick of spicy oil drizzled on the surface of the broth. In Yim's riff on a brick-red Mexican pozole, swimming with radish and cilantro, it's the jalapeños that tilt the balance. And in the mussel-laden seafood variety, the dashi-and-miso-deepened broth is also liberally laced with chile. Even the vegetarian offering, crowded with a salad bar's worth of greens, peppers, mushrooms, and thick batons of tofu, comes with an aggressive spice profile that causes the mind to leap from Thai boat noodles to Vietnamese pho to a Sichuanese hot pot. I have no problem with aggressive spicing—I often crave it. I just wish Yim left one milder option for those occasions when someone might want to finish a bowl without breaking a sweat.
His real achievement is the noodles, which, unlike those of any other ramen slingers in town, are made in-house every day with both traditional alkaline salts and egg whites. There's no tensile spring in them like the curly noodle every college freshman is familiar with, but they're long and textured and offer a likable amount of resistance to the tooth that stands up equally well to the saturating effects of the broth.
The buns, which run $8 to $9 for a pair, are spongy white-bread tacos of sweet balsamic-glazed portobellos, sliced duck breast, and pork belly, the last of which is Chang's most recognized signature, something he appropriated almost directly from Chinese street food. Nothing wrong with that. Yim's duck variety is particularly good, the soft squishy buns given texture from crunchy raisin-jalapeño chutney and wasabi microgreens, which don't come from the actual wasabi plant but have a nice peppery kick nonetheless.
The balance of the menu features mostly uninspiring Euro-Asian appetizers that, but for a few exceptions, should be avoided: sweet, garlic-and-almond-crusted chicken wings taste bitterly overfried; fall-off-the-bone grilled pork ribs are buried in fried onions and garlic and slathered with melted mozzarella; shrimp dressed in a shiso pesto are mealy and over the hill; battered, deep-fried mushroom-avocado mutations are an ill-advised state fair snack. For dessert, a phoned-in scattering of poached pears in whipped cream with January strawberries and a coffee cup of hardened creme brulee topped with a scattering of bitter, spherified espresso "caviar" aren't much better, but a couple of sleepers on the appetizer list shouldn't be missed. Though Oiistar is pronounced similarly to "oyster," the name actually refers to the Korean word for "cucumber," and a seemingly innocuous cucumber salad scattered with arugula, Parmesan, and crushed almonds marries the hemispheres in a way the other dishes don't. But perhaps the most fascinating thing on the menu is what Yim calls "French kimchi soup." It's really a fanciful budae jigae, or "army base stew," a post-Korean War culinary integration that was a result of hungry Koreans incorporating processed junk like Spam, hot dogs, and American cheese gleaned from GIs into kimchi stew. It might seem silly to order this in a ramen joint but it's really good, a crusty layer of gooey provolone protecting a steaming, spicy swamp of powerful kimchi and meaty slices of andouille sausage, served with a couple of garlicky dinner rolls on the side.
In this Yim has superficially and fundamentally recharacterized one of the most humble Korean dishes around in a way that isn't forced or imitative. The success of Momofuku Noodle Bar and Ssam Bar was the result of David Chang bumbling around until he hit on inspirations just like that. Here's hoping Oiistar strikes its own path instead of following Chang's.