It started out as fast and filling food for impoverished students. Now ramen is a huge commodity and restaurants are ladling it out all over New York City, often with haute cuisine pretensions and prices to match.
So what’s the big deal about a bowl of broth with noodles? Well, how about if the guy at the stove is a Food Network superstar?
More to the point for those who labor at United Nation headquarters, what if he’s simmering pots of ramen 10 minutes away, right in Murray Hill?
And if you can forgive the crowds, it’s very good. The menu is disciplined, focused on excellent ramen and only a handful of other dishes. Prices are reasonable, the service is impeccable, and the surroundings are stylish yet comfortable.
Momosan is Morimoto’s nickname. He says his staff started calling him that when they found his real name to be “too much of a mouthful.” In a way, that’s a metaphor for the restaurant itself — casual but the real thing.
There are just four noodle dishes on the lunch menu, including three ramens: the tonkotsu stars an unctuous braised pork belly. Tokyo chicken is built around steamed chicken. And tantan is steeped in a spicy pork and coconut curry broth. The ramens come in two sizes: small ($10) — actually pretty ample — and large ($12 to $14). The nonramen dish, tsukemen ($14), is like tonkotsu, except that its noodles are served cold and on the side.
The tonkotsu broth is mellow and deeply flavored with long-simmered pork. Swimming with the noodles are small slices of braised pork belly, a soft, soy-sauce-marinated egg, bits of scallion and a rich mix of spices and other little Japanese treats. It’s the richest ramen broth I have ever tasted.
The Tokyo chicken ramen is less interesting; get it only if you can’t abide pork (but then, you probably shouldn’t be coming to this restaurant in the first place). The tantan curry broth is a real treat, serving up both heat and profound aromas; it has just enough noodles to fill the bowl without overwhelming the other elements.
If you want to further embellish your noodles, extra toppings ($1 to $4 each) include braised bamboo shoots, toasted nori (seaweed), a second soft egg or an extra measure of braised pork belly or chicken.
For starters, there are five small plates ($4-$12), including pork and chive gyoza (dumplings) bursting with juice; kakuni bao (a sliver of braised pork belly on a steamed bun with a spicy mayo sauce); zuke maguro, an artfully composed plate centering on raw marinated tuna; and chashu salad, a surprisingly delicate dish built on bite-sized chunks of pork belly.
If you only want a snack, try one of the three modest rice bowls; they come topped with raw tuna, mustard greens or — no surprise! — more braised pork belly. But the best deal is the “lunch set” ($16), teaming one of the rice bowls with a small ramen and a side dish of pickled cabbage.
Perhaps you’ve been to a ramen restaurant, in which case you have heard that the whole idea is to scarf down your ramen while it is still scalding hot and to make a lot of noise while doing it. Loud slurping is a virtue.
Here’s how Chef Morimoto lays out the protocol on the menu: “In Japan, people try to eat noodles quickly, before they become ‘NOBIRU,’ the condition where noodles absorb soup and get soggy. Together, Momosan Ramen and Sun Noodle have developed a special type of noodle that is more resistant to becoming NOBIRU. The special noodles hold their texture in our rich and savory broth, allowing you to enjoy your ramen longer! But still, I recommend that you slurp your ramen fast, while at its best!”
In keeping with new restaurants striving to be hot, Momosan does not accept reservations, seating would-be slurpers on a first-come, first-served basis. But the staff does a good job of updating the list and finding those next in line. While you will most likely encounter a small mob outside the door, the wait is typically not too bad as the servers are deft and people do as they’re told, slurping fast. Seating can be close but the atmosphere is friendly and the noise level is tolerable.
While we sipped delicious green tea with a smoky toasted sesame undercurrent, the restaurant takes pride in its sake menu, offering 20 choices, including six house-branded versions, served by the glass, carafe or bottle. These start at $8 a glass, and the drinks menu offers helpful hints on how to order. There are also seven draft or bottled beers and a small wine list — just two reds and two whites — served by the glass or bottle. Wines are $9 to $14 per glass and beers start at $7.
Momosan is open Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. It is open on Sundays from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. It is located at 342 Lexington Avenue between 39th and 40th Streets, (646) 201-5529
Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.