Ramen 9000. Photos by Clayton Sandhu
Montrealers seem to go nuts for ice cream, as evidenced by the countless new crèmeries that open each summer, not to mention the hour long lines to get a twist-cone at Kem Koba. However, as the seasons change and the dark cold depths of winter take hold, most of these crèmeries are obligated to shut their doors. So what is an ice cream shop owner to do to make ends meet? Make ramen, I suppose. After a prolonged winter retreat to Asia, with a clearly influential trip to Japan, Dalla Rose’s Mike Dalla Libera and Nick Rosati (formerly of Nora Gray) set out to keep their doors open all year round. “Miso ramen three ways” was the resulting idea and they’re doing it under the pop-up moniker Ramen 9000.
Over the past few years, Montreal has attempted to catch up with the rest of the modern world in its wholehearted embracing of Japanese food. We’ve seen the opening of a few more high-end sushi bars, an influx of quality saké in bars and on wine lists and countless izakayas and ramen joints have popped up to remind folks that there’s more to Asian soups than pho. That said, there has been some serious stagnation in the varieties of ramen available in Montreal. In Japan, there are over 10 clearly defined regional variants and then countless additional variants on those styles within the region and abroad. The ramen in this city is generally Hakata style, sometimes referred to as tonkotsu ramen. It’s the ubiquitous milky, viscous and oh-so-savoury broth made from roasted pork bones and marrow that are served with braised medallions of tender pork belly. It’s universally loved, but after a while becomes saturated and heavy, and its richness becomes cloying. Enter Ramen 9000, an “as vegan as you want it” bowl of noodle soup that is as satisfying to eat as any tonkotsu, but without the weight.
The broth is made from a simple dashi composed of Gaspesienne Kombu (the seaweed essential to the production of any dashi) left to soak overnight and then simmered with a powder of wild mushrooms and other aromatics including roasted shallots and ginger and finally finished with a blend of white Shiro miso and red Aka miso. This makes for a 100 per cent vegan base, but the resulting broth is delicious, generating an incredible depth of flavour that we crave from a good bowl of ramen. Kombu, miso and mushrooms are all umami powerhouses in their own right, and when paired with the rich flavour of roasted shallots yield a complex broth with a beautiful richness of flavour — in my opinion much more interesting than tonkotsu. The variants are the basic, the Dalla Rose and the chili ramen. I opted for the Dalla Rose: the classic broth served with toothsome noodles, succulent shiitake mushrooms and a small pile of homemade kimchi. For those who crave meat, there is the option to add roast pork; additionally one might add marinated tofu, or as I did a soy- and mirin-marinated egg.
I’ll cut to the chase and say the soup is damn good. I’ve been to Japan, I’ve eaten ramen countless times, I’m not an expert but I’ve done my due diligence and this is great ramen by any standard. Often ramen is overdone by adding soy and miso to an already seasoned broth that is constantly reducing during the course of service. Ramen 9000’s broth is elegant and robust, drawing the majority of its saltiness from the miso itself. Tender pieces of shiitake mingle with perfectly cooked noodles whose textures play off one another pleasingly. Furthermore, the shiitakes are like a double-pleasure in that they both flavour the broth with their undeniable smokey, meaty flavour and act as a sponge for the broth, releasing a burst of flavour with each bite. I personally could have done without the bean sprouts as I find them to be superfluous, offering a measly crunch and little in terms of flavour, but that is nitpicking (and I know I’m in the minority when it comes to bean sprouts).
To address the elephant in the room, it’s true the Ramen 9000 folks are two white guys — it’s only fair to address this fact. In their defence, ramen shares a long history of cultural interpretation. The dish originated in China and was subsequently adopted by the Japanese in the latter half of the 1800s. Its popularity has caused all types of cultural variants that wildly diverge in flavour, from traditional ramen styles in Korea, Malaysia and Thailand. Ramen 9000 plays homage to the dish’s Chinese roots with their chili ramen (a riff on a Szechuan noodle dish known as Dan-Dan noodles) inspired by a 2018 trip to China. And while I agree that the cultural appropriation of Asian cuisine is a plague, I believe that taste should be the judge of good, not solely principal. Ivan Orkin of the iconic Tokyo restaurant Ivan Ramen was a Jewish guy from New York who moved to Japan — if you’ve seen Chef’s Table, you know he found success. If the Japanese can accept a white New Yorker making ramen on their turf, you can give the guys at Ramen 9000 a chance to prove their worth. Ramen, after all, is built on a culture of borrowing, as is most cuisine, and to deny someone legitimacy by virtue of their cultural identity is to rob yourself of the potential of eating something delicious. Why would you want to do that?
Ramen 9000 serves a lovely bowl of noodle soup, a different bowl than most. You can have lunch in 30 minutes and it won’t cost you more than $20. Although the seats are small and few, the service is speedy, and that’s the way a bowl is meant to be eaten: noodles slurped and bowls emptied, all while the broth is still hot. Oh, and they still serve ice cream, so now that’s you’re all warmed up, why not take a scoop for the road? ■
4609 Notre-Dame W.