By Suzanne Parker
You know how when all your friends tell you that you have to see this movie, it never turns out to be quite as transformative as they led you to expect? The thing is, if you discovered it on your own you would have loved it?
That’s kind of what happened to us with Mu Ramen. We were heartbroken at having missed its incarnation as an after hours pop-up at a Long Island City bagel café, and were champing at the bit, waiting for the opening of the permanent location. When our big day came, we found a small, beautifully decorated ramen restaurant that serves excellent ramen, but not exactly nirvana.
No other Queens eatery, with the possible exception of M. Wells Steakhouse, has generated the amount of media attention or reverse bridge and tunnel traffic as this petite ramen joint. Part of the reason is its founder’s intriguing back story.
The driving force behind Mu Ramen is Joshua Smookler, a Korean adopted by Jewish American parents and raised on Long Island. He began his hospitality career as a wine director at iconic high end places like Bouley and Per Se. He cut his culinary teeth in Per Se’s kitchen as a volunteer. Somewhere along the way this nice Jewish Korean-American boy became enamored of Japanese food. He honed his craft at Zutto, an izakaya-style Japanese restaurant in Tribeca. Now that he’s perfected his bowl of ramen, he and his wife, Heidi, have become ours in Queens.
Mu Ramen’s hyper-stylish interior sports a mini succulent garden set into the communal table, custom bentwood ceiling embellishments, and a lighting fixture that changes from blue to amber to alert passers-by in the know whether there is seating open. The seating space is staggered in twos, to give some illusion of privacy when seated next to a stranger. Parties of two or four work best, given this arrangement.
The Japanese menu, limited to a small selection of “treats”/appetizers, and bowls of ramen, like the space, shows a meticulous sensibility. Tebasaki gyoza (chicken wing dumplings) is a style of dumplings that originated in Miyazaki prefecture on Kyushu island. It uses chicken wings as wrappers instead of dough. In Japan the wings are stuffed with the usual pork dumpling stuffing. Mr. Snookler stuffs them with foie gras and brioche before he deep fries them and serves with a plum dipping sauce. These luxurious packages could be the food snob’s answer to Buffalo wings.
U. & I. (pun intended) stands for uni (sea urchin) and ikura (salmon roe). The uni reclines on a bubbly bed of roe over rice, shreds of nori and a slice of spicy maguro tuna. A little glob of wasabi offers extra kick as if the dish needed it. A sushi lover’s delight!
Shiraku tempura is another tasty morsel, but not for the squeamish. Picture a light, crunchy coating surrounding a creamily bland interior, served with the appropriate soy-based dipping sauce. For the uninitiated, shiraku is cod milt, a.k.a semen. If you can eat caviar, why not its corollary? We wonder how they harvest it? Oh, yeah, they cut open the fish.
Getting down to business, we attacked two of the four ramens offered: Mu and Spicy Miso. The signature is a beefy oxtail and bone marrow based stock with bits of brisket, half sour pickle, menma (seasoned bamboo), cabbage and scallions over loads of delicate, yet springy slender noodles. Unlike much ramen we’ve eaten, Mr. Smookler doesn’t rely on a heavy dose of sodium to give his soup intense flavor, just umami. There is a selection of extras you can add for a little extra money. We recommend the lightly poached egg. We preferred the pizazz of the spicy miso ramen. Red miso is added to the pork base along with scallion, chopped pork, menma, corn, sesame and chili oil which rests atop curly noodles. The heat of spice nicely complemented the depth of flavor of the broth.
The Bottom Line
If you want a light, expertly prepared Japanese meal in attractive surroundings, Mu Ramen is hard to surpass, but it has downside. Mu Ramen, is to some extent, a victim of its own success. It has thus far been the destination of a foodie stampede, making it hard to secure a table. Once you do, you are not encouraged to linger. In case you’re oblivious to the other diners waiting for a table, the help attempts to remove your plate if you put your chopsticks down for a moment’s rest. Combine that with the hard backless stools, and you know that you’re not there for leisurely dining. But then again, what do you expect? It’s a ramen shop, after all.
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic.
and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
12-09 Jackson Ave.
Long Island City
Price Range: “Treats”: $6—14; Ramen: $15–18
Cuisine: Japanese small plates and ramen
Setting: Tiny, lovely
Service: Friendly but harried by the popularity.
Hours: 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday—Saturday. Closed Sunday. Lunch in planning stage.
Reservations: Call after 3 p.m. for same day reservations for parties of up to four.
Alcohol: Sake, wine, beer
Children: Tolerated. No menu. No boosters or storage space for strollers.
Credit cards: Cash only
Noise level: Acceptable
Handicap accessible: Sort of (seating may be tight for wheelchairs)