Leave it to Chez Panisse alums to turn a ramen shop into a farm-to-table experience. The noodles, made on site daily, possess provocative chewiness. Ramen Shop broths, cooked entirely from scratch, conjoin clarity and depth. The pristine garnishes–pork, egg, greens–are radiant with color and flavor. This is ramen at its purest yet most expressive. You won’t suffer a fast-food hangover after these noodles. Slurping a bowl at the Ramen Shop invigorates like a walk in the park–although scoring a seat at the narrow counter can sometimes be an exercise in patience.
True to noodle shop custom, the policy is first come, first served, which means that supplicants with busy lives must arrive very early or very late to avoid a wait. The austere, almost unnoticeable 49-seat restaurant on the ground floor of a newly developed commercial building, opens at 4 p.m. By 4:30 one Wednesday afternoon, the place was almost full. At 5:45, people were waiting. (A San Francisco pal who zips over there after childbirth class in the East Bay, says that there has been no problem after 9:30 p.m.) To entertain the crowds, the owners have installed a full bar at the front that dispenses cocktails, wine and beer, though curiously, no sake.
The food does come out fast, so seats turn over quickly. The wait staff stays attentive and the second you’re down to the last pickle of an appetizer, they bring the soup. The servers don’t hold back while you sip a preprandial cocktail, but the house concoctions pair surprisingly well with the food. The drinks were created to be drunk with the dishes.
Everything I put in my mouth at Ramen Shop, which happened to be every dish on the menu, delighted me. In one appetizer, perky Japanese-style pickles–daikon, black radish, kumquat, napa cabbage, all made daily–teased stolid marinated cooked sardine filets ($10). A pastel salad of wok-smoked, flaked black cod, entwined in shaved fennel and asparagus with slashes of cara cara orange and playful rings of kumquat ($12), tasted like spring. A no-nonsense bowl of mahogany fried rice ($10), studded with small juicy shrimp, melting hunks of pork, and long strings of nettle had flavor that didn’t stop.
Shio ramen ($15), light, clear broth seasoned with salt, got a tremendous jolt of umami from a small handful clams. This broth really brought out the butteriness of a slice of fatty, spit-roasted pork and half of a soft-centered, orange-yolked egg. The chrysanthemum pepperiness of shungiko greens sent this one over the top for me–my ultimate ramen.
In a vegetable ramen ($13), the broth got richness and texture from miso with maitake mushrooms playing the role of meat. It’s perfectly delicious if you don’t taste it after something like the steelhead miso ramen with ground pork belly ($15). For those who like dojo-style ramen, fat and muscular, this is the bowl for you. Al dente noodles in this dense, milky broth full of fat and smoke, cut with the bite of spring onion and a hint of red chile, reminded me of spaghetti bolognese.
An espresso cup of super velvety coffee-caramel pudding topped off with an equal amount of softly whipped bourbon cream ($6); and a thin black-sesame ice cream sandwich with delicate brown sugar cookies ($6) were irresistible and proportioned to follow a meal of noodles. I’d order the ice cream sandwich, thoughtfully cut in half for sharing, just to get the two soft tart fruit jellies that accompany it. I strolled out of Ramen Shop, past the waiting crowd, with the lingering scent of clementines on my tongue.
5812 College Avenue, Oakland; 510-788-6370; www.ramenshop.com. Open Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday 4 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4 p.m. to midnight.