On the one hand, it’s a bad idea to walk into a restaurant like Shibumi Ramenya with a head cold. You’re not going to be able to taste the full range of flavors or grasp the balance of ingredients in the carefully prepared dishes. On the other hand, it just might cure you.
The new venture by notorious Santa Fe restaurateur Eric Stapleman—who, depending on your tribal alliance, is either the most warm-hearted, generous host in town or the freakiest, most evil bastard to ever walk the earth—is a deftly appointed, minimal noodle bar. It’s the kind of place where you feel compelled to wipe up your own crumbs lest you spoil the pervasive atmosphere of total precision.
First, the ground rules: Like Stapleman’s flagship, Trattoria Nostrani, Shibumi Ramenya is “scent free.” If Stapleman catches a whiff of eau de toilette or patchouli or what-have-you, he will kick you straight out, kindly if possible, but violently if necessary. Also, you may leave your credit cards and checkbook at home; cash is the only currency that holds sway here.
But never mind. Many times when one dines out, there is a sense of paying for convenience rather than quality, even in popular, expensive restaurants. I mean, if you have the time and a modicum of talent, a home-cooked meal is always better, right? Well, no—not so with chef Harris Brazina's fare.
Let’s start with the essentially mandatory spicy pork gyoza ($8.50)—it’s a dish you’re going to have unless you can excuse yourself on religious grounds. Riding a monofilament line between a seared, brown crispness and a luscious, tongue-able flexibility, these are little wedges of ecstatic and mysterious revelation. I say mysterious because I dissected one completely—splayed it out like a biological specimen and sampled each of its individual parts—and, uniformly, each component tasted like dirty dishwater. But taken as a whole, each full bite was majestic. Putting the thing in your mouth is a stimulus plan you can believe in: crispy, soft, tangy, tender, elusive, equal parts nutritious and cunnilingus.
Then there are the otsumami, starters if you will, each served cold. I had a shiro shimeji ($7), a blend of bunapi, oyster and shiitake mushrooms in a vinegary broth that brought out the best in a glass of Yuki No Bosha (Cabin in the Snow) sake, properly overfilled by the excellent waitstaff as a signifier of welcomeness and generosity. I also sampled the gobo ($8), a small bowl of burdock root and carrot. Burdock root is so medicinally revered that there is just no way it should taste good. But, in this case, it was the apex of clean, discerning flavor and shameless man-on-tuber love, especially with a little help from the dry chile seasoning that haunts every noodle bar worth its, well, dry chile seasoning.
There are four ramens to choose from as the final course. I opted for a tonkatsu pork ($14).
If, like me, you are a gaijin barbarian, your first thought will be to wonder where the hell the salt is. This will be tempered by helpings of the aforementioned chile seasoning and the sesame chile sauce the staff is sure to offer you. But, as the song goes, free your mind and the zest will follow. After you find the wedge of daikon radish adrift in the broth, everything will change. If you ask, the staff will tell you the radish was blanched and delicately boiled, but the truth is it was seduced. It was stroked and primed and rubbed to the edge of climax and then dropped in your ramen just at the breaking point. When you bite into it, all bets are off. The juices flow across and through your mouth and saturate your cheeks, and you gasp that little, familiar but too-rare gasp that opens every pore and defines the term “erogenous zone.”
Only time will tell if my cold was actually cured. But I’ll tell you this: I walked out feeling a hell of a lot better than when I walked in.
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