Threading the noodle
“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.