First Slurp: Ramen-san


Over the past couple years, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises has been on a roll, churning out eclectic concepts fine tuned to a tee. From the Three Dots and a Dash tiki temple to Cali-centric Summer House Santa Monica, Lettuce continues to solidify itself as Chicago's premiere restaurant group with a penchant for hospitality and penache. The roller coaster keeps chugging right along with the opening of Ramen-san, a diminutive noodle spot carved out of the original Paris Club space. After weeks and weeks spent traversing authentic noodle shops in Japan, R.J. and Jerrod Melman and chef Doug Psaltis have concocted a heady and legit taste of Asia in the heart of River North. 


The Space

Although wide windows open up onto Hubbard Street in the nexus of bustling River North, Ramen-san still feels worlds away from Chicago. The sleek eatery is an transportive slice of Japan, bedecked with polished wood tables, a concise and energetic bar, and table settings outfitted with soy sauce, sesame grinders, and other ramen supplements. It's still as cool and stylish as anything in River North, but with the distinct feel of a noodle emporium you might stumble upon while exploring Tokyo's winding roadways. And to think that this space used to be a part of Paris Club is quite impressive. Service is dexterous and friendly, skilled at making suggestions based on desired spice levels and portion guidelines. 

The Food

As the name suggests, Ramen-san is all about the ramen. Considering the comprehensive research and exploration that went into building the restaurant concept, Ramen-san raises expectations pretty high. Fortunately, those expectations are met by achieving excellence each and every step of the way. First, it starts with the all-important broth, featured in three different styles on the menu. Tonkotsu broth is a traditional pork broth, shoyu is a classic clear chicken-based broth with soy sauce, and shiitake is a vegetarian version infused with mushrooms. Next comes the seasonings imbued in said broths, from tare and fermented black garlic to kimchi and spicy miso. Noodles consist of special wavy ramen custom-made for Ramen-san at Sun Noodle. Meats include spiced Berkshire pork belly, panko fried chicken, and smoked brisket sourced from sister spot Bub City. Lastly, the toppings, with items such as molten eggs, wakame seaweed, fried garlic, and toasted spicy chile oil. From here, Ramen-san gets to work composing elaborate bowls containing a myriad of layers, aromas, textures, and flavors. I liked the smoked brisket and black garlic ramen, a sort of pho-like interpretation heaped with succulent threads of meat and a deep, earthy punch of mushroom essence. The spicy miso lives up to its fiery name with a pungent medley of kung pao chiles, cabbage, and ground pork, while the kimchi and fried chicken ramen is a fun dish recalling flavors of American cookouts, with tender chicken and buttered corn. In addition to ramen, Ramen-san also offers excellent mantou buns, spiced chicken wings, and appetizers such as BBQ eel and foie gras sushi, shrimp and pork wontons, and smoked salmon nigiri. 

The Drinks

Like true Japanese ramen haunts, Ramen-san offers a focused and refreshing bevy of beverages behind the bar. Here, the focal point is cocktails, sake, and Japanese beers. A fun addition to the menu is the sake bomb section, with three different options for festive drinking. Having never had a sake bomb before, I was a little unprepared for the ensuing mess, but it was fun (and tasty) nonetheless. For those who don't know, sake bombs are hefty mugs of beer served with a shot of sake. The shot is meant to be positioned on chopsticks atop the mug of beer, at which point guests pound their fists on the table to move the chopsticks and allow the sake to splash down into the beer. I got the kimchi version, which was sort of like a Japanese Bloody Mary. Make sure and move anything valuable away from the beverage, lest it get splashed. 

- Matt Kirouac