Thread­ing the noo­dle

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Laurel Glad­den For The New Mex­i­can

“First, ob­serve the whole bowl. … Ap­pre­ci­ate its gestalt. Sa­vor the aro­mas. … Ca­ress the sur­face with the chop­stick tips to ex­press af­fec­tion. Fi­nally, start eat­ing it, the noo­dles first.”

These lines come from a scene in the quirky 1985 Ja­panese com­edy Tam­popo, in which an el­derly man schools a younger fel­low in the proper way to eat ra­men. It’s the sort of scene that incites crav­ings. Be­fore you know it, you will have paused the DVD and be run­ning out the door, hair un­brushed, fran­ti­cally mur­mur­ing, “Must. Have. Ra­men.” Luck­ily, you can go to Shibumi Ra­menya, tucked off John­son Street be­hind the El­do­rado Ho­tel.

Run­ning the show are owner Eric Stapel­man, of the ad­join­ing Trat­to­ria Nos­trani, and chef Har­ris Braz­ina, who came to Santa Fe by way of New York, Ja­pan, and Hawaii. There’s a pleas­ingly au­then­tic feel to the tiny place — blond wood, dark metal, creamy plas­ter, fil­a­ment-bulb pen­dant light­ing, and well-con­sid­ered Zen-like place set­tings, in­clud­ing hand­crafted ce­ramic bowls and stone chop­stick rests. Even on nights when ev­ery seat is taken, it feels like a se­cret gem, like that awe­some New York pizza joint, that road­side bar­be­cue shack, or that hole in the wall that makes the best Szechuan in San Fran­cisco.

Ev­ery­one at Shibumi seems ami­able, gra­cious, wel­com­ing, and pa­tient. Stapel­man, of course, has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing “the no-fra­grance guy.” Whether you pre­fer Chanel N° 5 or Axe body spray, if Eric smells it, you’re out. This works to your ad­van­tage, be­cause it means that when you walk in the door, all you smell is the salty, starchy, steamy aroma of sim­mer­ing stocks and boil­ing noo­dles. Un­less, that is, yak­i­tori (chicken skew­ers) or kushiyaki (meat or veg­etable skew­ers) are that day’s spe­cials, in which case the smoky smell of food grilling over a flame will greet you at the door.

Shibumi’s short menu takes up less than one side of a roughly 4-by-10-inch card, mak­ing or­der­ing easy for even the most in­de­ci­sive. By con­trast, the bev­er­age choices (in­clud­ing a few good Ja­panese beers and sake by the glass and bot­tle) hog an en­tire card. Sakes are el­e­gantly pre­sented, ei­ther in cham­pagne flutes (for the gor­geous milky-white un­fil­tered Daku Jun­mai) or some­thing like large shot glasses set in small saucers (to ac­com­mo­date the tra­di­tional over­pour, which sig­ni­fies gen­eros­ity and “over­flow­ing friend­ship”).

The small plates ( ot­sumami) are es­says on es­sen­tial fla­vors and tex­tures: crunchy, earthy bur­dock root; salty, sturdy black sea­weed; nutty se­same-dressed spinach; and juicy-chewy mush­rooms. The mouth­wa­ter­ing pork gy­oza (dumplings) are re­quired eat­ing, al­though on some nights, other types are avail­able — one evening, we sam­pled good beef and bet­ter shrimp va­ri­eties.

If the first things that come to mind when you think of ra­men are those five-for-a-dol­lar packs you bought in col­lege, you are in for an abrupt but pleas­ant awak­en­ing. The roasted-chicken-based tori­gara has a light color that be­lies its rich­ness; it sat­is­fies on a deep, soul­ful level. The tofu-veg­etable soup, called ya­sai, has a wal­lop­ing miso base and is sturdy and savory enough to grat­ify veg­e­tar­i­ans and car­ni­vores alike. The tonkotsu is a lighter-col­ored, pork-based soup with roasted Kurobuta pork; it’s the weak­est of the bunch. Kaisen — the darker, seafood-based ra­men with shrimp — ran away with the spoon ev­ery time.

Braz­ina and Stapel­man keep things sim­ple, serv­ing good, highly fla­vor­ful, well-bal­anced food pre­sented in a man­ner that’s stylish — the ce­ramic ra­men bowls are made by a lo­cal ar­ti­san — but free of pre­tense. Sure, they es­chew some el­e­ments you’d find in ra­men else­where (boiled eggs, nori, and kam­aboko, for ex­am­ple). Still, your bowl will be filled with firm, ropy, chewy noo­dles; veg­eta­bles and re­lated in­gre­di­ents (spinach, mush­rooms, turnip, bam­boo shoots, and daikon); and a sat­is­fy­ing, if some­times un­der­sea­soned, broth (which, when nec­es­sary, can be fixed with a dust­ing of bright, lip-tin­gling chile sea­son­ing, a few drops of chile-se­same oil, and a splash of soy).

All that said, ra­men is just “soup with noo­dles in it, topped with stuff,” as Mo­mo­fuku’s David Chang has as­serted. The food at Shibumi is quite good, ful­fill­ing, and pre­sented with min­i­mal­ist re­fine­ment. It won’t change your life, but it’s def­i­nitely worth eat­ing, and of­ten. Make sure your fra­grance-free self stops by an ATM on your way there, be­cause Shibumi doesn’t ac­cept credit cards or checks. It’s not too hard to re­mem­ber to bring cash, though — just use your noo­dle.

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