For the eighth straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by Locavore, the newest restaurant at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2014."
For many in America, ramen is almost exclusively college dorm food, something quick and easy to make when the times are desperate and the money (or perhaps just the initiative) is low.
Just a quick perusal through the comments section of last December’s news brief introducing the underground ramen shop Red Light Ramen makes that clear, with complaints about $10 for simply a bowl of noodles and paying for essentially packet food. For chef Justin Carlisle – the man behind Red Light Ramen, housed at his restaurant Ardent on Friday and Saturday nights from 11:30 p.m. until about 1 a.m. – negative reaction to ramen doesn’t completely surprise him.
"When you’re younger, you think ramen always comes out a packet, which it doesn’t," Carlisle said. "If people think of ramen as out of a packet, then all of America should look at our steakhouses as the Hungry Man dinners in the freezer section. It’s the same philosophy and the same time."
It’s a fitting analogy, as both TV dinners and instant ramen exploded in popularity during World War II, with food, time and other resources declining in both American and Japanese culture.
Recently, however, ramen’s reputation has begun to lose its college dorm stink in American culture. Gourmet ramen shops are a common sighting in big market cities, and now Milwaukee has picked up on the reclamation of ramen with more and more restaurants serving up the dish and adding it to their menus. Red Light Ramen opened up just last December, while Tochi in Shorewood revamped itself this past January from Anaba Tea Room into an Asian fusion restaurant with multiple ramen options on the menu.
"We had done ramen nights when we were Anaba Tea Room," said Tochi executive chef Gregg Des Rosier. "It took over just two years to really develop the ramens that we came up with."
Together, the new ramen renaissance is helping to dismiss many of the myths about the noodle dish. Even simply the meaning of "what is ramen," according to Des Rosier, is misunderstood.
"They say it’s a noodle, which it’s not; it’s a dish," Des Rosier explained. "Ramen is not a noodle. The noodle that’s used in ramen is a Chinese noodle called lo mein, and the Japanese took that noodle from the Chinese and wanted to make it their own."
"There’s also a misconception that if I make a flavored broth, and I put any types of noodles in it, then that’s ramen," Carlisle said. "It’s not. You don’t put fettuccine in a pork broth and call it ramen. There’s a structure behind it on the style of stocks there are, the broths there are, the certain type of noodles and the way the noodles are made."
There are actually four main categories of ramen: shio, tonkotsu, shoyu and, the most recently created, miso. Within those four main categories as well, according to DesRosier, there are countless additional variations based on particular regions. That’s actually what drove the chef to make a Wisconsin ramen for the menu, featuring a miso mustard broth and topped with brat sausage, caramelized onion, spicy pickle relish and dehydrated sauerkraut.
"That’s our tribute to the fact that ramen is very specifically regional in Japan itself," Des Rosier said. "That was our tribute to what is Wisconsin, how can we put Wisconsin in a bowl. It’s a ramen that we worked really, really hard on."
The attention paid to the ramen broth is not exclusive to Tochi's Wisconsin ramen. Making a broth is a long process – certainly one longer than the typical ramen packet – one that hopefully results in a rich flavor and clear, pure stock. Des Rosier noted that some Japanese places have 300-year-old starters for their broths constantly boiling.
Tonkotsu, which Tochi serves once a week, can take about a day. The other two ramen types Tochi serves, shoyu and miso, take less time, which helps the restaurant keep up with the daily demand. In the case of Red Light Ramen, Carlisle’s southern Japanese style tonkotsu pork and chicken broth – the only emulsified fat broth – takes about two or three days.
"We’ll start that on Tuesday so it’s done by Thursday, then it’ll sit overnight, marinate the flavors and be served on Friday," Carlisle said. "Unlike making regular stock, like chicken stock, how you have to skim the fat off, this is on a rolling boil non-stop. It’s a non-stop boil from start to finish."
The ramen broth and cooked noodles then come topped. Red Light Ramen’s dish comes with pork, scallions and mushrooms – with additional items like soy egg, pickled wasabi greens, bamboo shoots and nori available. Meanwhile, Tochi’s eight ramen items come with a variety of different toppings, each particular to the dish's flavors.
"It’s about balance," Des Rosier said. "All Asian cooking is about balance."
As both Tochi and Red Light Ramen enter their second years of ramen-fueled existence, Carlisle and Des Rosier have seen people come to learn and accept ramen as a true restaurant item.
"You look over in the last three to five years, America is just catching on to the ramen craze," Carlisle said. "It’s odd, but we’re usually pretty far behind. I think there are definitely people that are now understanding it."
"Everything changed with the Food Network, to be honest with you," Des Rosier said. "There wasn’t a great demand for it because there wasn’t a great awareness or even knowledge of these dishes. Now, I think it’s in everyone’s lexicon."
The customers aren’t the only ones satisfied.
"For me personally, making the ramen was going against almost everything I learned in the culinary world," Carlisle said. "You’re supposed to skim. You’re supposed to take your time. Now, we’re building flavors and emulsifying and boiling. We’re going against rules, but it just makes me happy. The rich broth, the noodles, the flavor profiles and the depth of flavor … it’s an experience I relive every time I eat a bowl."
"I was trained French, and now I’m going to do this for the rest of my career," Des Rosier said. "I can live another 40 years and still not master this, and that’s always a great thing for a chef."
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.