- CP photo by Vanessa Song
- Inferno ramen, with beef shank, egg, crispy chicken skin, scallion and chili oil
After months of pop-ups, delays and anticipation, Ki Ramen is open on Butler Street, in Lawrenceville. Occupying a choice corner spot, the restaurant stretches down 44th Street on three levels: the main, high-ceilinged dining room; a mezzanine floor with desirable counter seating facing the kitchen; and a back room that’s down a couple steps and centered on a bar. The atmosphere pleasingly conjoins casual comfort with simple stylishness that doesn’t try too hard to be hip.
The fact that Ki Ramen is a joint venture between Umami’s Roger Li and Piccolo Forno’s Dom Branduzzi might suggest some form of fusion between two of the world’s most famously noodle-centric cuisines. But no — Ki Ramen’s flavors and ingredients are definitively East Asian.
Location Details Ki Ramen
OK, there’s porchetta, clearly a nod to Branduzzi’s heritage. But the fairly thin slice of rolled pork belly doesn’t really stand out relative to simpler Asian versions of that cut. And it works because, like most noodle dishes, ramen is a bit of a chameleon, set in its core categories of ingredients — broth, wheat noodles, protein and vegetables — but not in its flavor profile.
Ki Ramen plays up this flexibility, offering six set bowls and a list of add-ins for those inclined to customize. Choices range from the expected — nori, bean sprouts (charred, a nice touch) and enoki mushrooms — to the exotic — crispy pig ears and the delightfully named “soy shiitake butter bomb.” Some of these are already included in the six set soups, each of which seems complete on its own, making the add-ins purely elective. We liked this approach and the option to round out our bowl to suit our mood and appetite, or not.
Ki Ramen’s accomplished chefs nailed the essentials. The double broth, comprised of pork and paitan chicken — a rich, almost creamy stock made by boiling the bird’s bones, cartilage and connective tissue into an opaque emulsion — was deeply savory without being distinctively meaty, enabling it to take on the flavors of each soup’s ingredients. The noodles, cooked to order in little baskets lowered into a massive box of boiling water, were stretchy, slightly chewy, almost Italian-style al dente. They held their texture through the meal, although they inevitably grew mushy in leftovers.
But this leads us to another excellent quality of Ki Ramen: The soup arrived hot, but not punishingly so. After one very hesitant first sip, we were able to spoon and slurp it eagerly while all the ingredients were at their peaks.
Two broths, curry and miso, were vegetarian, but thanks to richly flavorful components like coconut milk, they didn’t taste wan in comparison to the bone-based double-broth bowls. Curry ramen took on a subtle Thai note from tamarind, but tempered it with briny Japanese wakame and earthy, hearty miso. Shoyu ramen took its main flavor from soy sauce, and the shio version from that most elemental of ingredients, sea salt. Yet even this broth, robustly rounded by porchetta, crispy pig ears, scallions, sesame seeds and a six-minute egg with a lusciously creamy yolk, was a world away from the cellophane-wrapped student staple with its salt-bomb seasoning packet. Dan dan ramen took its name and its nutty, sesame-based flavor profile from the classic Sichuan noodle dish, but its spice from pickled Korean kimchi.
Crispy pig ears were also available as a snack or side plate, allowing us to isolate their unique character. The thin strips arrived lightly fried, seasoned and crisped on the outside, but their overall texture was better described as chewy and fatty. The contrast was addictive. In the shio ramen, these textures held up surprisingly well, as did our add-ins of fried chicken skin, which were golden puffs of umami goodness.
Other snacks were also superb. Redundantly named bao buns were thick, fluffy, split and served open-face with daily meat or veggie toppings; our curry beef was shredded and headily flavored with anise. Chilled miso eggplant was ultra-tender and wonderfully savory. And rayu cucumber consisted of coarsely chopped, bite-size pieces marinated in bright, spicy taberu rayu: sesame oil infused with hot chiles.
Only fried cauliflower — cavalfiore, the name an almost-lone nod to Chef Branduzzi’s Italian heritage — was slightly disappointing, with a sauce that lacked, of all things, enough salt.
Like a great bowl of noodle soup, Ki Ramen has all the ingredients for success, confidently combined with just enough intrigue to set it apart from the rest.