Meijin Ramen and Dessert Bar
Our ethnic junky adventurers, usually a six-some, were down to four Thursday night but even that didn’t seem to fit the frantic scene at Meijin Ramen and Dessert Bar, though they’d promised a table by phone. I stood there pasted against the wall, glaring at ostensibly deprived Upper East Siders pouring into Koji Miyamoto’s soup kitchen as if they owned the place. Okay. I guess they do.
The hostess tries to seat us in the adjoining bar at a high top table with metal stools that don’t quite fit or accommodate cranky knees. But finally some early-dining locals with strollers vacate and there we are, settled at a couple of two-tops pushed together, on backless wooden stools. Backless, unpadded, normally I’d rant. But I’m not complaining. The knees are happy and I especially like the fat baskets tucked under each stool. I roll up my jacket and stow it with my handbag.
I’m not sure why no one ordered the peach sparkling sake Jello shot. But by the time I get my first sip of the tall $12 Lychee Mojito (shiso instead of mint), I’m relaxed enough to look around. The rustic country entrance, the baskets hanging over fixtures above, the exposed kitchen and paddles lining the wall with the names of dishes in Japanese, the serving crew in their t-shirts: “Don’t Think! Slurrrrrp!!!.” B+ for effort. It’s a little Disneyland, but not too.
I am not a ramen-hound. I liked my spicy tonkotsu pork soup at Jin Ramen , a small, no-reservation Michelin bib winner in Harlem. I’d asked for corn, tofu and two slices of char siu pork as $1 add-ins. My porridge was the best at our table, but I was never tempted to go back. I loved the ramen at Ippudo but not the tedious “no reservations” wait, and almost fainted with joy a few years ago in a Tokyo fast food ramen joint. Still, I am more likely to be lusting for hot and sour soup at Shun Lee or the lush harira at Boulud Sud or whatever seasonal soup is on the menu at Bâtard.
My friend Belle, a regular here, is our guru tonight. She comes by when it’s quiet at lunch and there’s a $10 special of ramen and a tempura dish. We must order the chef’s smoky chili beef broth ramen, she says. We divide it into four bowls. With its nest of slippery thin noodles, bean sprouts, arugula, garlic chips, hot chili oil and the creamy beef broth, it’s more compelling than the pork rib ginger special of the evening. As a ramen amateur, I had no idea that beef ramen is rarely offered, till I googled around a bit. Miyamoto cooks 60 pounds of beef bones for 13 hours every day for this personal ramen tweak.
But the truth is, I would come back to Meijin just for the fried chicken, $8 on the Sea & Farm Small Plates list. It’s juicy inside a delicious crust, with spicy mayo to dip it in and sansho salt to drag it through. A lemon squirt is optional. Three or four of these izakaya offerings — $4 to $12 but mostly less — could be dinner for me. Why didn’t we try the soft shell crab tempura? Or the spicy pepper chicken wings?
The tuna “tar tar” is a must, too. Cubes of raw tuna in a ponzu glaze are layered on wonton chips and surrounded by not-quite-enough chili oil in chive aioli. Asian shrimp toast with green onion is sautéed, topped with a crispy wonton skin. A honeyed jalapeno sauce comes alongside.
But then we’re here for ramen. If I were in charge, I would suggest we each order a ramen or a Japanese-style curry, but Belle insists two big mixing bowls of soup will be more than enough. And it is. She portions it out with tangles of noodles into small bowls – filled twice.
No need to move into the dessert bar for sweets. We debate creamy vanilla custard au caramel with a brownie or the Japanese Hoji-tea crème brûlée before deciding on yuzu cheesecake with almond crumble, a green apple crisp and a small scoop of raspberry sorbet. It seems to be taking forever and I suggest we just leave without dessert.
“No, we can’t leave,” Belle cries. Just then our server approaches with the cake, a birthday candle flaming on top. “Happy Birthday Rich” is written in chocolate on the plate. She joins in a chorus of our salute to Rich, who makes a wish and wipes up the chocolate “Happy” with his finger. It’s a New York moment that reminds you your friends are your family.
Add in two Absolut martinis, three glasses of white wine and three cocktails. It works out to $60 for each, tip included.
1574 Second Avenue between 81st and 82nd streets. 212 327 2800 Lunch from noon to 3 pm. Dinner 5 to 10:30 pm.