The ramen craze isn't new to Chicago—and while plenty of talented chefs have put forth interesting and inventive versions in recent years, none so far has achieved a bowl quite so good as that of Santouka, the local outpost of the Japanese chain that anchors the food court in Arlington Heights' Mitsuwa Marketplace. There are plenty of reasons for that, but a crucial one is that none of these aspiring noodle slingers is a specialist. Each offers one or more varieties, but each also pads his menu (and margin) with sushi or a variety of other dishes that surely strain his resources, distract his vision, and prevent the realization of a truly transcendent bowl.
That dynamic is about to change in the coming year, when Brendan Sodikoff opens a ramen bar in the West Loop. Contrary to earlier reports, the tiny, subterranean spot—name to be determined—will offer ramen and drinks, and that's it. The man faced with the daunting task of creating the recipes for Sodikoff's ramen is Jeff Pikus, the Alinea vet who works on development for Sodikoff's celebrated restaurant group (Maude's Liquor Bar, Bavette's Bar and Boeuf, the Doughnut Vault, Gilt Bar, and Au Cheval).
Pikus, whose low broadcaster's voice is at odds with his slight frame, is a chef who's rarely satisfied with himself. "Some people, when their boss signs off on it, they say, 'Yeah, sure. It's good. It's done. Move on to the next thing.' But I have a hard time doing that. I like to stick with it. Can I make it better? What if I change this aspect? How does that affect it? And then you just keep going, over and over and over. Over the course of time, you end up with every possible iteration that you could possibly think of, and I guess that's when you're done. Maybe."
I'd recently heard through a friend of a friend—a Japanese friend, for what it's worth—of a karaoke bar in Mount Prospect that supposedly makes better ramen than Santouka. I checked with a Japanese friend of my own who concurred, and Pikus and I set out for the suburbs to scope it out and talk ramen.
Karaoke House Nina, set in the southern end of a large strip mall, with a partially lit neon sign, doesn't look like it's capable of producing a bowl of instant rice, let alone a great bowl of ramen. It doesn't open until 8 PM, and if you wander in that early on a Saturday night it might still be empty, the bar lined with "reserved" cards and short-skirted young waitresses asking how you heard about it. But Nina serves a mostly Japanese expat clientele, and it offers a full menu of alcohol-friendly foods like takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and gyoza, in addition to three varieties of "authentic ramen"—pork-based tonkotsu, soy-based shoyu, and a tonkotsu-shoyu blend. We order one of each and get down to business.
The Sodikoff group's inspiration to open a ramen bar started with a visit to the perpetually packed, highly focused Totto Ramen in Manhattan, where Sodikoff, Pikus, and fellow chef Jason Vaughan "watched the chefs do their thing, and we all really enjoyed it, and said, 'All right, let's do something like this sometime.'" Prior to that Pikus had little exposure to ramen, mostly just the instant variety he ate in college. But he soon had a first-class education, initially in Chicago's milieu—including Santouka—and then, in January, during an intensive ten-day ramen tour of Tokyo and Kyoto, guided by the expatriate ramen blogger Brian MacDuckston of Ramen Adventures.
"I tried not to do more than two a day," Pikus says. "Just because I would fucking die. But there were a couple days when I did more than that." The group tried to get an overview of the major styles of ramen, but what Pikus quickly discovered when he got home and got to work is that there aren't really any strict guidelines in terms of how one finishes the broth. "And there aren't a ton of resources that are available about it, at least in our language. Doing development, you always look for certain trends or consistencies. Like, 'OK, well, I've seen that before, let's try to do a different version, or maybe tweak it a little bit to come up with a different result,' and there was just no reference point whatsoever."
On the other hand, there are a few hard rules to go by in terms of base production, especially in the case of tonkotsu stock; you want to boil pork bones long and hard to extract and emulsify as much fat, marrow, and collagen as possible, creating the rich, creamy broth that typifies the style. "If you were at the Culinary Institute of America and you made your stock the way tonkotsu broth is made, you would not do very well," Pikus says.
In Japan, tonkotsu broth is often heart-stoppingly fatty and pours like cream. Stock made strictly with pork bones can also create barnyard aromas that are appreciated in Japan, though Pikus isn't sure how they'd go over here. He's found he can make a good tonkotsu that doesn't smell like pig with a combination of chicken bones and pork, but he's not even sure the new place will serve tonkotsu—which would be odd coming from the restaurant group responsible for the pinguid indulgences of Au Cheval. Sodikoff, he says, doesn't care for it as much as the clearer, cleaner varieties.
Pikus's ramen research is about 75 percent complete, though there are still plenty of other decisions to be made, such as how to tackle the vexing question of tare, or the finishing seasoning, and whether to make noodles in-house or outsource them.
We have plenty of time to discuss these finer points and more, because our ramen is taking a very long time to emerge from Nina's kitchen. This has us worried. "I've timed it," Pikus says. "It doesn't take more than two minutes. We're kinda basing our entire model around that it only takes two minutes, because there aren't very many seats."
When our bowls finally arrive, Pikus peers into his. "That looks about right," he says. The broth is milky and rich with fat, though there's no discernible difference between my tonkotsu and his tonkotsu-shoyu. It isn't as lip-sticky with collagen as Santouka's. But, though thinner than many of the bowls Pikus encountered in Japan, it has more body to it than Santouka's. "I think it's pretty good," he says. But "the noodles are a little bit thinner than I like, personally."
Perhaps the biggest conundrum Pikus now faces is whether to more faithfully reproduce the ramen he encountered in Japan, or to make it closer to this very good but not terribly challenging bowl.
"I guess I don't know what people's perceptions are when it comes to ramen, or what their expectations are, or how much they've been exposed to it. If the ramen that we make is inspired by or based around some of the experiences that we had eating ramen in Tokyo, are people here going to appreciate it if they haven't had the same experiences?
"Maybe this is what people expect," he says. But "I like food to sorta push boundaries a little bit."