Thursday, February 16, 2012 / 11:49 AM
Several years ago I was having dinner with my friend David Koon at a steakhouse in New Jersey, an oddly wonderful place attached to a historic hotel in Convent Station which is as famous for its dining room in an old train car as it was for its over the top prime cuts of beef and seafood. We were discussing a trip David was planning, a cook’s tour of sorts, to recharge after years laboring in the kitchen of Masaharu Morimoto’s restaurant in New York. The goal was to spend months traveling and eating around the Pacific rim, eventually landing in Japan to eat ramen until the money ran out and it was time to return to the States.
Time and the cratering of our economy got in the way and after his trip Dave found himself back at Morimoto’s as sous chef under executive chef Jamison Blankenship and alongside James Sato. It was there, in an Iron Chef’s kitchen, that the three plotted and waited for their chance to break out on their own, eventually opening the 40 seat Chuko (CHOO-koe)- “second hand” in Japanese - a few blocks off of Atlantic Avenue in Brookyln, in a resurgent neighborhood and the shadow of the future home of the Nets. The story of planning and practicing for their own place was one that anyone attempting a start-up in the stolen moments between the work that pays the bills and the life that said work finances could understand.
It was with this in mind as I sat at the end of Chuko’s bar recently, flanked by David, who later that night informed me it was his first time eating in his own place as a customer. Conversation was punctuated by visits from Jamison between tickets and a steady stream of izakaya style bites leading up to bowls of ramen. While it was a victory lap for two friends enjoying an evening in the proverbial Wayback Machine, it was also a communion of sorts for me, as I slowly savored a place - and more importantly - a dish that is all but missing from St. Louis.
As I drank in the surroundings between sips of milky, slightly sweet sake I could not help but think that I was sitting in the middle of a blueprint for how to bring ramen to St. Louis. It was all here if anyone cared to take notes. The look? Unassuming and earthy, brick and beadboard contrasting with strips of stainless steel framing a view into the kitchen. The scene? There is no reason to think that this location - and the people eating there - could not be found in Soulard, South City, Benton Park (hello, isn’t Niche moving to Clayton in a few months?) or the Central West End. The menu? Restrained, yet suggesting a kitchen that has hit its stride and is starting to push the envelope to the point that I’m fairly certain would melt the minds of even the most entitled Midwestern foodie - no disrespect or East Coast envy intended - but not inaccessible by any stretch of the imagination. What kind of eats am I talking about? Well...
Crispy brussels and peanuts in fish sauce, textures linked by the distinct crunch of roasted outer leaves and salty shelled nuts make for a perfect bar snack. A house made chili garlic sauce - hitting notes sweet, smoky, and spicy at the same time - is a welcome addition to pretty much everything on the menu, but is particularly adept at catching a ride atop plump pork gyoza. Straight off the streets of Taiwan there are salt and pepper chicken wings, plucked from a brine of vinegar and miso, dredged in a thin batter and fried. (Move over fried chicken, if I’m headed on a float trip picnic, this is the bird I’m bringing.) However, if I was forced to pick one dish to start it would be a heaping bowl of tempura fried kale, spiked with miso, adorned with golden raisins and crisp strips of fried sweet potato that is part salad, part street food, and part sorcery. It is a dish I’m still thinking about, weeks after my visit.
Just a few of the aforementioned dishes, shared with friends over a drink would make for a satisfying meal. However, folks are lining up a Chuko for the ramen, which shines as the menu headliner, starting with a variety of broths ranging from light - miso and vegetarian - to soy, and finally pork bone. Each example is a labor of love (literally), requiring hours upon hours of preparation to create a flavor so deep and complex that it stands apart from the ingredients floating within it like a completely separate dish, or perhaps several different dishes. But it is not. Instead it is the sturdy foundation that a bowl of ramen builds upon. By the third spoonful it's easy to imagine falling face-first into the bowl and sinking so deep into its murky depths you realize you may never resurface, and if you do, you’ll risk a wicked case of the bends. But what a way to go.
Noodles are vastly different than the store-bought ramen we are all used to - even choice packages from Nong Shim or Myojo - that are flash-fried and curled into bricks before packaging. Instead Chuko’s alkaline noodles are sourced within the tri-state area and aged a bit to become slightly stale before cooking. The result is not the broken strands of loopy noodles you might remember from meals in your dorm room, but long chewy strands of noodles that emerge from the broth like a fishing line being pulled from the ocean, leaving you to wonder when the end will emerge. (Don’t worry, just keep slurping, everyone else is in the same...well...boat.)
More than anywhere else on the menu, Koon and Blankenship’s pedigree shows with ramen toppings, which are well prepared and beautifully presented; delicate leaves from brussels, sections of spinach-like Chinese mustard green, and earthy, julienned mushroom. Sous-vide eggs are available upon request, to thicken the dish like one would when eating sukiyaki. Halves of six-minute eggs are a treat as well, floating in broth like the cartoon eyes of a Maneki Neko, a harbinger of luck to all that find them in their bowl. When available, the duo dishes up ramen highlighting their house made kim chi, a must-get if you see it on the board behind the bar. However, the kicker ingredient in Chuko's ramen is near and dear to the dining public in St. Louis, given our proximity to top quality examples of the product - thick sections of roasted Berkshire pork, rich with sweet swaths of fat that cuts though broth and noodle and is gone all to quickly.
Chuko, I will be back; that is, unless you want to just meet me in St. Louis.
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