NoNoo Ramen: A resounding ‘yes’
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • January 16, 2012 @ 11:13am
Drop all your preconceived notions about ramen noodles, because NoNoo Ramen Bar’s offering is infinitely better than the store-bought packets you housed late-nights in college. The noodles are thicker, the broth isn’t watery and there’s real meat in the new Elmwood Avenue restaurant’s featured dish.
“You can tell the difference [in the noodles] by the way your mouth feels while eating,” NoNoo Ramen’s owner/head chef Chris Van Every, who opened the restaurant Jan. 6, explained. “[Store-bought ramen] is dehydrated and fried into bricks, then cut into squares. Our ramen is made fresh and not messed with—the noodles are traditionally Japanese: wheat-based with water and Kansui, a Japanese mineral water.”
Upon entering NoNoo Ramen on a Thursday night, there was a noticeable buzz inside. Whether it’s the close quarters—the restaurant seats only 24—the bright lighting, the communal eating space or the very visible kitchen, Van Every’s restaurant offers a cozy, intimate setting.
“Our [restaurant] is intentionally brighter,” the owner said. “I want people to have conversations; I want people to see each other; I want [customers] to know where their food is coming from.”
Scanning the dinner menu, which differs slightly from the take-out options, I wanted to sample a Kozara, or small plate, before diving head-first into the ramen (possibly literally, since I was well-aware that my chopstick skills with noodles are sub-par to humiliating). Because I’m a sucker for gyoza—one of the few traditional Chinese/Japanese dishes I ate regularly growing up—I looked no further.
Although the gyoza was pan-fried, it still maintained some of the chewy texture of the wrap, and the pork/vegetable combination inside was pleasantly spicy. A small amount of soy sauce sat between the gyoza and the plate, and consequently, there really wasn’t need for any additional sauce. I added a little chili pepper oil, just because I have a weird affinity for pepper flakes.
Next was a small sample of okonomiyaki, a Japanese savory pancake filled with corn, cabbage, ginger and scallion, topped with okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, shrimp and nori, the menu relays. Van Every commented as he handed me the dish: “Anything with that much mayo and brown sauce has to be great.” It’s a rather atypical mix of flavors, and “savory” really is the best way to describe the dish. The mayo drizzled across the top was the pinnacle of the flavor, in my opinion, and the soft pancake was balanced by the crunchy ingredients intertwined.
“I think 10 people have ordered [the okonomiyaki] in the last two days,” Van Every mentioned. “It’s encouraging that these [unfamiliar] options are being received really well.” (Note: the portion size is larger in the $10 small plate than what is pictured).
There are three different ramen options on the dinner menu, but I opted for the more basic miso ramen, a bowl that included an egg, roast pork, kamaboku and greens for $11. Enticed by the menu option of adding poached eggs, I asked for the protein-rich complement that thickens the broth and coats the noodles in yolk.
The broth takes roughly 18 hours to create, Van Every noted. Flavored with kurobuta pork, the highest-quality of Berkshire pork, which comes from a black pig, the broth is thicker and heartier because of the marrow/connective tissue laden parts of the pig. Who knew?
The beauty of NoNoo Ramen is that each ramen dish is customizable, and Van Every encourages his customers to experiment with different flavors. The chef/owner prefers that each patron sample the ramen first without adding anything, but then to augment the dish with one or more of the following choices placed on each table:
—An egg: this thickens the broth and adds an element of protein to the dish. Plus, Van Every loves eggs.
—Kim chi: the spicy-yet-healthy condiment isn’t overpowering, and it’s not served as a paste.
—Chili pepper oil: My personal choice, this adds major firepower to the broth. Add with caution, and start with just a bit.
—Ginger garlic sauce: A zestier alternative than the previous two, but it will definitely enliven the dish.
—Soy vinegar sauce: You’ve heard of umami, right? That’s the value in this option, I believe.
My favorite part of the bowl? The pork. It was tender, fatty and had me wishing that there were twice as many slices in the dish. Apparently black pigs don’t grow on trees, however.
The presentation at NoNoo Ramen is clean and classy, and much of the influence stems from Van Every’s schooling in French cuisine. “You eat with your eyes before your mouth,” he said. “I’ll never just throw food on a plate—there are several things I think about first. For example, ‘will the customer be able to eat this with chopsticks?’”
Van Every became a familiar name in the local restaurant industry as a sushi chef at both Osaka and Tsunami under Mike Andrzejewski, current owner of Seabar and Cantina Loco, and widely viewed as the city’s top chef. When asked about his former mentor, Van Every had nothing but high praise.
“I’ve worked with over one thousand chefs,” Van Every said, “but no one thinks about food more than Mike does. He works 60 hours a week on one leg, and he still wants more. I admire his love of food, and he’s shown the importance of a good work ethic.”
Through NoNoo Ramen, the former sushi chef has invigorated a local food scene that has, in many ways, become stale.
“I’m sick of the mold in Buffalo,” he said. “I’m sick of chicken parmesan and caesar salad. I want to introduce something new.”