Posted On: 11/01/2017
Like the silent omelet-making scene in “Big Night” or the kick-ass meal of “Babette’s Feast,” watching Juzo Itami’s food-themed comedy, “Tampopo,” makes me obsessively crave what’s being cooked. Fortunately, unlike when the film first came out in 1985, satisfying a lustful ramen desire is much easier now. Since the film’s rerelease last year, a slew of new ramen-focused restaurants have opened, including Qui Tran and Marie-Anne Velasco’s Nudo House. “First, contemplate the ramen,” like the old noodle master in “Tampopo” said.
Tran is best known for Mai Lee, the Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant his mother, Lee Tran, started the same year “Tampopo” was released (full disclosure: Tran and I are casually acquainted through mutual friends). Velasco’s CV includes local stints at The Ritz-Carlton, The Chase Park Plaza and, most recently, 15 years in Chicago teaching at Le Cordon Bleu and staging at a couple Japanese restaurants. She returned to St. Louis to open Nudo with Tran, and together they researched various ramen styles on both coasts, sought out the perfect noodles and developed their own recipes.
Looking into Nudo’s open galley kitchen reveals huge steam pots of water roiling with fat pouches of herbs, softball-sized onions and hundreds of pounds of bones for the different broths: chicken spines, cow femurs, pork ribs – their marrow and collagen emulsifying and melding with the seasonings to form the backbone of the soup. “The broth is the soul of ramen,” as the noodle master explained.
The Classic Nudo’s pork (tonkotsu) bone broth takes 24 hours of simmering to yield its rich, opaque creaminess, salty garlic flavor and delicious gelatinous gloss (“jewels of fat twinkling on the surface”) that I slurped down with wanton pleasure one evening – but only after following the noodle master’s instructions to “First observe the whole bowl. Appreciate its gestalt. Savor the aromas.” Menma (fermented bamboo shoots) glistened with fat; a sheet of nori darkened as it soaked up the liquid; the marinated, custardy egg glimmered with a deep yellow yolk; scallions and sesame seeds floated on top. Above all, there were sliver dollar-sized slices of tender char siu roast pork over a tangle of thin, bouncy noodles.
If broth is the soul of ramen, then noodles are the body. Tran and Velasco spent a lot of time exploring the noodle trade (rarely do slurp shops make their own) before settling on Sun Noodle, named the “secret weapon of America’s best noodle shops” by Eater. Thick, smooth but chewy noodles made up the other pork broth-based ramen, O’Miso Spicy, bolstered by a house-made fermented soybean paste infused with some incendiarism. Those wanting more heat have many choices from the self-serve condiment station.
Mushroom ramen isn’t a dish typically found in traditional ramen shops, but Nudo’s Shroomed Out is a dream. Fat king oyster mushrooms, marinated and sliced as thick as half-dollar coins, provided big, meaty flavor and firm, resilient texture in the delicate soy milk-based broth. It came laced with garlic oil and topped with baby bok choy, menma and half a marinated egg. “First, caress the surface with the chopstick tips. To express affection,” our fictional noodle master advised. This vegetarian ramen deserves such affection.
There are also four varieties of pho, in keeping with Tran’s Vietnamese heritage. The Pho Shizzle interested me the most – a steaming bowl of rich and savory beef broth fragrant with warm spices and chock-full of chicken, shrimp, tender slices of medium-rare beef, clear rice noodles and floating scallions. A cup of that beefy broth showed up again with the Banh Mi Pho Dip, Nudo’s riff on a classic French dip (the other available banh mi uses braised pork belly). Nudo’s baguettes, from the local La Bonne Bouchée, strike the perfect balance of thin, crispy crust and soft, airy interior in which to stuff tender shredded beef (marinated overnight with teriyaki) and the usual crunchy banh mi trimmings, including silvers of jalapeno. Rather than the traditional pork pate spread, Nudo makes a chicken liver version for a lighter flavor and less competition with other ingredients.
Nudo’s appetizers include standard options like spring rolls, cold sesame noodles and crab Rangoon – all fresh and competently made, if not particularly revelatory. However, Nudo’s exquisite blends of soft-serve ice cream definitely is. Rotating Asian flavors include coconut ube (purple yam), matcha, mango and passion fruit. For Halloween, Velasco made black ice cream from toasted ground black sesame seeds. The dessert is a masterful stroke of business acumen: How many times have you eaten something spicy and craved a cooling cone?
I can see Nudo’s fast-casual, order-at-the counter template replicated throughout St. Louis, especially in shopping areas devoid of local dining options. Tran’s sister, Sara Tran, designed the space, transforming a former Einstein Bros. Bagels shop into a smart open concept, complete with exposed kitchen, sleek dining areas, tables made locally by Narrative Furniture and even a social media wall with the Nudo logo meant for selfie snapping. The restaurant may not uncover anything new about the nature of ramen, but Nudo has found its own voice in a market now rife with competition.
AT A GLANCE
11423 Olive Blvd., Creve Coeur, 314.274.8046, Facebook: Nudo House STL
Shroomed Out mushroom ramen
Sleek, fast-casual space that keeps things moving
$10 to $12
Tue. to Sat. – 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
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