22 February 2012

Boston Goes Berserk for a Bowl of Noodles: Thoughts on the Recent Ramen Craze

Boston has been buzzing lately about ramen, thanks to a couple of chefs from famed modern Japanese restaurant O Ya who recently decided to start a pop-up called Guchi's Midnight Ramen. Their bright idea? Serve a beautiful bowl of ramen late at night every couple of weeks to a small group of aficionados, using the idle kitchens and dining rooms of friendly local restaurants. The concept took off, so much so that its first event open to the general public sold out online in literally 30 seconds. In the wake of this frenzy, Ken Oringer's Uni Sashimi Bar announced it would start serving late-night ramen on Thursday through Saturday, and Myers + Chang started serving ramen at lunchtime.

In the runup to Guchi's premier event (by invitation only, held for friends and media types at Bondir), its second night (the fast-sellout one, held at Sportello), and afterward, the local food press had a field day. Would-be attendees who got shut out of the Sportello event vented their frustration at length on Chowhound. The Boston Globe ran a follow-up story today, and their reporter interviewed me at length for it. As my comments didn't end up in the story, I'm running them here.


PEGGY HERNANDEZ, BOSTON GLOBE REPORTER: The area has restaurants which serve ramen, including Sapporo, Myers & Chang, Blue Ginger, but, looking at Chowhound, blogs, etc. it seems many believe Boston is in need of "real ramen". You say on Chowhound: "Bostonians are dying for good ramen: it's clearly a hole in the scene." What isn't real about what's been out there? Why do Bostonians want it so much? Is it a Momofuku thing?

MC Slim JB: I think it's fair to say that the core of regular Boston Chowhounds is a bit worldlier, better traveled, more adventurous than many online amateur reviewers. They’re also value-conscious (which is not the same thing as cheap), and suspicious of media hype. When I say there's a hole in the scene, I'm speaking to that audience, which I think is pining for what is essentially high-quality Japanese fast food at a low price point without much concern for ambiance. Think Tampopo (the movie) more than Momofuku. They’re not hostile to Joanne Chang doing a $12 bowl of ramen, but I think the craving is less for upmarket interpretations, more for a traditional ramen experience.

PH: I ask that because, wow, there is so much excitement/hype on social media about Guchi’s Midnight Ramen. What was behind that? The upscale chefs? Also, is interest still strong after so many people were unable to get tickets to the second GMR at Sportello?

MC: I think the GMR folks did a great marketing job there, starting with their invite-only, press-oriented debut event at Bondir, which netted them a lot of food blog and lifestyle magazine coverage. With clever use of Facebook and Twitter, they skillfully built buzz and demand. The O Ya pedigree didn’t hurt, but I think the excitement was pure food-nerd curiosity combined with the mystique and fun of doing an event at midnight in a pop-up setting. And Chowhounds aren’t above I-got-there-first bragging rights, though few would publicly cop to it.

There will definitely be some backlash, folks who will stay miffed that they got shut out of an unexpectedly tiny event. GMR might do the events more frequently, or do them at larger scale, but that strikes me as unlikely given that this is a labor of love, a side project for already-busy chefs. I think the way to address the issue is simply to be more upfront about the number of seats to be made available to the general public. Then prospective diners can better gauge whether it’s worth the effort to hawk a Twitter feed for hours waiting for the ticket-buying starting gun. *

* N.B. Based on an announcement today for Guchi's next event, it appears they have opted to take this exact advice, not only specifying the total number of available tickets, but also announcing exactly when the tickets will go on sale well ahead of time.

PH: I think you're correct, that GMR is a "quixotic" effort. Do you think GMR and Uni are creating a new kind of energy around a particular food? These two efforts certainly attract younger crowds.

MC: I think in the case of Uni, you’ve got Ken Oringer’s hard-earned reputation for delivering quality dining experiences across a spectrum of cuisines, as well as curiosity about the Clio/Uni physical makeover and growing awareness of Todd Maul’s superb cocktail program. And the cost is sure to be in reach for more diners than Uni’s traditional menu, which ranks among the most expensive in town. 

By contrast, GMR doesn’t have comparable brand loyalty yet, so they will have to work harder to avoid the perception of being another overhyped shallow-foodie trend with the durability of a mayfly. But I think that anything that gets a conversation and some excitement going about an underserved cuisine is a good thing. And getting something delicious in the wee hours remains a tough task in Boston, so there’s big pent-up demand there, too. It’s just a little odd that something so inherently humble in its original form has created such a frenzy here. I imagine it would be like diners in Tokyo suddenly going crazy over diner-style American pancakes and sitting down to eat them in a swank venue at $30 a throw. (Okay, that probably has already happened in Japan.)

PH: Any comment on the price points ($25 for pork bun, ramen and cookie at GMR; $8 for pork bun, $10 for ramen, $3 for dessert at Uni)?

MC: Yeah, that’s not exactly your subway-station bowl of ramen, is it? Then again, there’s a reasonable expectation that the chefs involved are going to be doing a luxury version, with loving attention to broths, tares, and noodles. Me, I want a range of ramen options, in the same way I sometimes want a Craigie burger, sometimes a Gallows burger, sometimes a Flat Patties burger.

There’s nothing wrong with chefs taking a humble street food and elevating it with gourmet ingredients and technique, a topic I expounded on at length here. But I think it’s easier to appreciate the gourmet version when you’ve experienced a great iteration of the truck-stop version first. So by all means, let a thousand bowls of ramen bloom, including ones with slices of pork from Kagoshima Kurobuta that lived their lives reclining on unicorn-down pillows. But please, let’s include a fabulous $8 one in there somewhere, too.