November 9, 2012

Hunger Strike | Ramen to that

Winter is coming. Cold, dark times draw near. As the clutches of despair tighten their vice-like grips, there’s nothing like getting a care package from home. A veritable cornucopia that runneth over with goodies to help pull you through. Stale Oreo crumbs. Mac ’n’ cheese-like substance. Microwaveable popcorn for burning.  Maybe some primo stuff like Lindt truffles or Ferrero Rocher; pre-melted and ready to get on your clothes.

And then there’s ramen. There’s always ramen.

Let me rephrase my original sentiment: There’s nothing to like about getting a care package from home. The word “care” should elicit feelings of compassion and warmth. Cup Noodles succeeds in providing warmth in the form of second-degree burns. I’m sure your parents still love you, but they would do well to remember that college students are more than just $50,000-a-year garbage disposal units. In the mean time, Chef Takashi makes a great surrogate mom; and his River North restaurant, Slurping Turtle, can be your home for a night.

Having gained most of my knowledge of Tokyo from repeated viewings of Lost in Translation, I can safely say the restaurant has a distinctly Japanese dissonance of outward chaos and inward control. Sure, you walk in and it’s all cartoon animals and pictures of Takashi eating noodles plastered on a clock. At the same time, it has a neo-industrial white plastic interior that makes you wish you’d picked up your hazmat suit from the dry-cleaners. It’s a long and narrow space with a communal table spanning its length, booths on the side, and a tiny open kitchen that occasionally flares up. Try not to mind any diners looking down on you from the second-story space. One day you, too, may have the privilege of this noble perch.

The menu entices with “Sashimi Bar/Maki Rolls,” a “Bincho Grill,” “Cold & Hot Tapas” and, less imaginatively, “Noodles.” You’re best off sticking with these last two options. If you want quality raw fish, you could do much worse in this city, but ordering sushi here is like going to Applebee’s for a good steak.  And the Bincho grill concept of small items is fun until you realize you’re paying $3 for a piece of asparagus. Desserts are a nice way to top off a meal. There’s an assortment of “exotically” (read: Asian) flavored macaroons, plus buttery black sesame and sea salt ice creams. A Japanese sundae, with a mixed bag of add-ins, is unique.

In this restaurant, the concept of “tapas” feels forced and nonsensical. Like, Here’s a trendy word, let’s use it! Good work, everyone, let’s call it a day. They are appetizers, no more and no less. It’s not really a big deal, but the Duck Fat Fried Chicken is. Everyone says it’s the dish to get, yet it’s remarkable how much your enjoyment of the dish will depend on the piece of chicken you get. Some are dry, boneless chunks with a tacky flavor. The bone-in pieces are where it’s at–they’re far juicier. The pièce de résistance is the crisped-up chicken skin, which is chicken fat cooked in duck fat…there’s a poultry party, and you’re invited.

But if fried chicken’s not your jam, other alleged “must-order” starters are the Pork Belly Snack and Octopus Salad. The pork belly would probably work better as a dessert. It’s sticky and sweet in all the wrong ways. Especially if you have facial hair. The pork is naturally sweet, but the syrupy glaze takes it over the top. Stacking that on top of a sweet white bun is a diabetic coma waiting to strike. The salad, meanwhile, had heat to it, but the octopus was tough and devoid of any flavor. The whole dish was covered in what I can only compare to a sprinkling of broom bristles. It was only dried seaweed, but eating the dish was like constantly pulling hair out of your mouth.

I overlook these indiscretions as minor hurdles on the path to Ramenlightenment. There’s not really a reason to go to Slurping Turtle other than for its ramen dishes. They are traditional takes on the noodles. Fine by me; a thousand years of noodle-making can’t be wrong. There aren’t exactly a lot of good ramen places around Chicago, so although Chef Takashi isn’t making a statement, he gets the job done. There’s nothing as satisfying as biting into a clump of noodles cooked to the perfect chewy texture and letting the rest slither back into the bowl. There is a pink fishy thing, kamaboko, strips of salty nori, tender braised pork shoulder (chashu), and a poached egg—all the proper accouterments for a bowl of ramen. Broths range from the classic soy-based Shoyu, which is light and refreshing, to the dark and silky pork-based Tonkotsu. Miso ramen, a salt-based wheat-free ramen, and other non-broth noodles round out the menu; you can’t go wrong with any of them. It’s damn good ramen, plain and simple.

Few restaurants get by on the success of a single menu item, and most of them have “Fried Chicken Shack” in their names. The food is not spectacular, and it is over-priced beyond the bowls o’ ramen. In some ways, Slurping Turtle is another example of the “must-order-dishes” fallacy that is pervasive in contemporary dining. These dishes don’t exist, so order whatever the hell you want. Takashi fills the ramen-shaped hole that resides in the soul of every man, woman, and college student, a deep-seated need no package of instant noodles could ever hope to satisfy.

Slurping Turtle is located at 116 West Hubbard Street. The cost of an average ramen is $13.