Older readers of The Improper may remember the dark ages before Boston’s ramen renaissance, when a meager fistful of venues of variable quality served Japan’s most famous noodle soup. A glimmer of hope appeared in 2012, when Guchi’s Midnight Ramen, a short-lived, wildly popular pop-up series by a couple of local fine-dining chefs, revealed a ravenous local appetite for quality ramen. Boston has since seen a steady influx of purveyors of regional ramen styles from all across Japan, with many Western chefs honing their own less-traditional variants. While I’d love to credit this sea change to the brilliant 1985 movie Tampopo, it likely has more to do with the ascent of galloping food-nerd culture and certain of its idols, like David Chang. Whatever its roots, there’s no longer any excuse for confusing carefully crafted ramen with the 10-for-a-dollar instant-ramen packets that still stretch many a starving student’s food budget. Riding this welcome wave is the new Ganko Ittetsu Ramen, a tiny Coolidge Corner joint serving a gorgeous, sophisticated trio of ramens in the style of Sapporo in northern Japan.
A refreshing start is the lone appetizer of cucumber ($5), cool, crisp chunks barely pickled in a mixture of salt and koji (the mold that provides fermentation to foundational Japanese foodstuffs like soy sauce, miso and sake) and dressed with sesame oil and soy sauce flavored with bonito flakes and kelp. Eminently simple yet boasting a subtle richness, it betokens the umami-rich alchemy of the flavors to follow. The only beverages are cold bottles of unsweetened green tea or green/jasmine tea ($3 each). Beyond that, there’s nothing but the main event: three types of ramen, all based on a deep-flavored, light-bodied chicken/pork broth, served in modest-sized but filling bowls. Any ramen-ya must be judged on the quality of its noodles, and Ganko hits a high bar on that score, serving a slender, kinky, straw-toned alkaline noodle purportedly made to its custom specifications by Sapporo’s Nishiyama Seimen Co. It’s bouncy, holds onto a bit of broth and has a delectably tender/chewy texture: a pretty special noodle by local standards.
Shoyu ramen ($11) is the lightest, most limpid style here, a fine place to start. As with most Sapporo-style ramen, the soy-sauce-based tare (the mixture of salty, umami-rich ingredients that give each soup its namesake flavor) is wok-cooked briefly with the broth and vegetables. Floating atop those great noodles are islets of tender shredded pork shoulder, onion, corn niblets, seasoned scallions, a five-minute egg (half an exquisitely soft-boiled egg, the yolk just slightly runny), a rectangle of papery nori and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. This is a bowl of unassuming, soul-nourishing comfort, though you can vary it with any combination of six optional add-ins (more on these below) and maybe a dose of white pepper from the table shaker.
Tan-tan ramen ($13) takes the familiar dish of Sichuan-style dandan noodles and crosses it with the soupiness of ramen. Starting from a tare of spicy sesame paste, it’s garnished with sauteed pickled vegetables, seasoned ground pork, scallions, crimson-toned chili-infused sesame oil, a curl of wakame (a leafy, slippery, dark-green sea vegetable) and sesame seeds. The capsicum heat isn’t particularly molten; heat-seekers should opt for an add-in of spicy garlic oil ($1). The opaque broth is dominated by the buttery, nutty sesame paste, making this a homelier, heavier, less multi-dimensional bowl than its brethren. To my palate and eye, the star here is the house specialty of miso ramen ($13) in the signature Sapporo style. Its luscious, translucent broth, insistently flavored with miso tare, is crowned with a lovely, fatty slice of simmered pork belly, sauteed napa cabbage, onions, mung-bean sprouts, scallions, wakame, corn, julienned ginger, a five-minute egg and sesame seeds. It is, in a word, glorious.
The trencherman can add tasty bulk to any bowl with an extra slice of pork belly ($2) or kaedama ($2), a top-up of noodles that you should order after you’ve finished your first noodles but still have some broth left. An extra five-minute egg or two ($1 each) is a brilliant protein-enhancer, but can arrive a little cold; let it warm up in the broth a bit, or stir the yolk into the soup. To add variety on repeat visits, consider a dose of black garlic oil ($1), garlic slowly caramelized until it blackens, then blended into sesame oil; the result is inky and deliciously bittersweet. Crunchy garlic ($1) is another terrific topper, a dryish, tawny crumble that adds pleasurable crunch but is not fiercely garlicky enough to ruin date night.
Set in the middle of the first level of the ancient, crumbling former beauty that is the Arcade Building, Ganko features an attractive but typically spare, no-nonsense space: five counter seats and 14 more at tables, where you’re expected to briskly slurp down your noodles in that brief window when their texture is just so, then make way for other hungry patrons. It might be hard to convince a time traveler from distant 2010 of the fact, but Boston is now blessed with a bevy of fine ramen shops, and Ganko Ittetsu sits proudly at the top of that heap.
Hours: Daily, 11:30 am-9 pm
Parking: Large public parking lot nearby, metered street spaces
Ganko Ittetsu Ramen 318 Harvard St., Brookline (617-730-8100) gankoramen.com