When chef David Punch opened Sycamore a few years back, it was an immediate smash, and his charming nose-to-tail bistro in Newton Centre has been steadily, deservedly packed ever since. Few observers were surprised to see him taking over another nearby space. But I felt some trepidation when I heard his new spot, Little Big Diner, would focus on ramen, a foundational corner of Japanese soul food about which Bostonians can get a little obsessive. Could a Western chef live up to our manic ideals of proper ramen? Such a passion project would not be the first to founder on the shoals of overheated expectations.
With only 22 seats, most with a clear view into the close-quarters open kitchen, there’s a good chance you’ll have to wait a bit. Take the edge off of anticipatory jitters with one of the fine house cocktails, like a fizzy Singapore Sling ($10) of gin, cherry Heering, Benedictine and soda served in a ceramic Tiki mug, or an actual Tiki drink, the Flip the Bird ($12), a variant of the classic Jungle Bird: white rum, Campari, green Chartreuse and orgeat. There are also seven wines by the glass ($8-$11), a half-dozen sakes ($7-$12/glass, $20-$115/larger formats), six beers ($6-$10) and one cider ($8). Bottled fruit sodas, canned cucumber seltzer and housemade iced green teas (all $3) round out a nicely curated drinks lineup for a self-styled diner.
Once seated, there are a bare five or six appetizers to consider. Green papaya salad ($7) immediately calms fears about the kitchen’s hand with Asian flavors, as it is superb: a generous bowl of unsweet shredded papaya tartly dressed with lime and dotted with chopped long beans, salty peanuts, fiery chilies and fierce toasted garlic. Grilled shrimp “salad” buns ($9) are similarly brilliant: three soft, puffy Chinese steamed buns topped with fistfuls of crunchy small shrimp subtly dressed with cucumbers, lime and mayo. Grilled chicken wings ($10) boast crisp, nicely grill-charred skin, a tangy/hot glaze of jalapeno-based green Sriracha and a sticky dip that appears to mix Thai sweet chili sauce with honey. The LBD flat patty ($9) is fantastic, a smallish charbroiled beef burger (with a miraculous bit of pink in the center) layered beautifully with pineapple sambal, crunchy fried onions and mayo, served on a fluffy, slightly sweet bun from King’s Hawaiian Bakery. Only steamed pork and cabbage dumplings ($9) disappoint with their dryish filling and slightly gummy wrappers, though a dressing of excellent housemade kimchi on one visit helps a little.
Little Big Bowls ($12-$16) offer a hefty second-course option, crowning white or brown rice with fresh herbs (Thai basil, mint, cilantro), crisp-fried shallots and a drizzle of fiery/sweet gochuchang-based sauce or sweet soy sauce. Two standout adornments turn these from ordinary rice bowls into something special. One is namuls, an assortment of lightly pickled, paper-thin-sliced vegetables (typically kohlrabi, cucumber and rainbow radishes) with more of that fine kimchi; the other is a big, expertly grilled hunk of protein, like boutique-ranch flank steak ($16) or wild Arctic char ($16). Adding a fried egg for $2 is a good idea, too. They’re little symphonies of bright, clear flavors and contrasting crunchy and chewy textures.
The other second-course option is that expectation-laden ramen, which Little Big brings in three variants, all featuring the skinny, springy alkaline noodles of the justly famous Sun Noodle factory. Mercifully, any nervousness about this American chef’s ramen chops is quickly laid to rest. Forest mushroom ramen ($14) builds on a light but densely flavored mushroom-veggie broth with a variety of mushrooms, notably marinated shiitakes, showered with watercress, scallions and sesame seeds and bulked up with cubes of organic tofu. It’s an oddly beautiful and refreshingly light vegetarian ramen. Shio chicken ramen ($15) is founded on a translucent, light-brown chicken paitan broth topped with islands of shaved cabbage, dehydrated then rehydrated sliced daikon, seaweed, scallions and half an ajitama egg, soft-boiled and marinated in soy. The beauty of this bowl is in that luscious, schmaltz-enhanced broth and some flavorful grilled boneless chicken thighs. Miso ramen ($15) fattens that same terrific paitan broth with miso paste and tops it with a rich ingredient assortment: ground pork, smoked corn niblets, mung bean sprouts, scallions, an ajitama egg and blackened-garlic oil, with an optional dose of mild chili heat. Seven optional add-ins offer further variety for repeat visits, like the “S#@t that’s hot” bomb ($2), a ferocious housemade, umami-rich fermented-chili condiment for serious fire-eaters.
With no reservations, no takeout and that clamorous kitchen at its center, the spare, industrial-esthetic room has some of the bustling feel of a proper ramen-ya minus the eat-and-GTFO pacing urgency. A high ceiling, cute branding (an adorable octopus logo) and sweet-natured, on-point service add to a sense of low-key comfort. In all, with its tight menu of modest street-food dishes assembled with way-above-average ingredients and keen attention to small details, Little Big Diner bolsters a growing complement of indie Asian restaurants that are extraordinary enough to draw Bostonians out to the suburbs.
-Green papaya salad
-Grilled shrimp “salad” buns
-LBD flat patty
-Shio chicken ramen
-Spicy miso ramen
-Little Big Bowl with grilled Arctic char
Little Big Diner 1247 Centre St., Newton (857-404-0068) littlebigdiner.com
Hours: Lunch, daily, 11:30 am-3 pm; dinner, Sun.-Wed., 5-10 pm, Thu.-Sat., 5-11 pm
Parking: Metered street spaces, nearby public lot
Liquor: Full bar