"I'm not a huge ramen eater," is the kind of thing I hear more often lately.
Some Philadelphians, finally presented with their long-awaited ramen renaissance, simply get timid upon discovering that the more authentic bowls of noodle soup being served at NomNom or Terakawa are far more intense than the "Oriental Flavor" insta-noodles they subsisted on in college for 50 cents a pack.
I know such people - but I'm not one. I've relished the slow emergence of these Japanese-style (via Lower Manhattan) woody nooks, savoring fresh alkaline egg noodles with just the right al dente snap ("katame"), the velvety fat-streaked tenderness of chashu pork belly, and the way a good cloudy tonkatsu pork bone broth coats my lips with slow-steeped richness.
I wasn't entirely surprised, though, when chef Ben Puchowitz became the latest to tell me recently: "I'm not a huge ramen eater."
True, he does cook one of the most intriguing ramens I've slurped lately at CHeU Noodle Bar, the chef's counter and bar clad in old shipping pallet wood strips, which he opened on 10th Street with childhood friend Shawn Darragh. Darragh has even shellacked $700worth of squiggly Top Ramen bricks into a ramen sculpture, behind clear plastic on the collage wall in this slender, 30-seat space.
But its presence on the blackboard is a begrudging token to convention: "I didn't even want to put it on the menu," Puchowitz concedes.
An earlier take on duck pho didn't survive as long, removed to avoid constant comparisons to traditional standards.
That's because, despite early expectations that CHeU was going to be a modern homage to the ramen phenomenon, it has turned out to be something far less focused, a small-plate fusion lab for the 29-year-old chef to spin creative, seasonal whims using Asian flavors as a launching pad rather than a guiding light.
"Authenticity" is explicitly dismissed on the menu in favor of "we cook what we like to eat." This explains the presence of house-made scrapple, mozzarella, and matzo balls. And Korean rice cakes tossed like gnocchi with bacon, peas, and mushrooms in a spicy-sweet gravy. But it doesn't guarantee that these dishes, sprung from a cook with no Asian kitchen experience who learned on the job for the last decade at his family's Matyson, are good enough to ignore tradition altogether.
There were some winners, like the cold sesame noodles teased with spicy pickled cucumbers, and the crispy chicken wings and shishito peppers drizzled with sweet black garlic puree, sesame, and lime.
But a number of dishes were lacking details, usually in balance of seasoning or texture. The house-pickled kimchi is a quick overnight recipe that shows spice and salt but misses the tangy middle note of fermented acidity. The dumplings stuffed with brisket and date were too mushy inside their beggar's purse noodle pouches. The cold buckwheat noodles offered an intriguing combo of shaved papaya and tomatoes with the piquancy of trout roe and shaved bottarga. But their delicacy was drowned like overdressed salad by a ginger-scallion vinaigrette.
That improvements were obvious between my visits speaks to the swiftly evolving nature of this repertoire, which had only a few pop-up meals to mature (and attract investors) before going prime time as a restaurant on April 1.
But the progress by my following visit was clear. Those dumplings were plump and firm. The buckwheat noodles' heavy dressing had been dialed back to a touch of ginger and lemon.
Though I was initially disappointed with the grilled foie gras meatballs, which had no discernible foie ooze, they were much better on the second visit, visibly pinker and lusciously moist. Infused with exotic clove, star anise, and Sichuan peppercorn spice, they were ideal inside a butterleaf wrap with Vietnamese pickled banana blossoms and Thai basil.
Once my expectations were recalibrated, I found it hard not to enjoy. There's such an edgy, creative vibe to the frenetic open kitchen, framed by a counter lit with pendant lights hand blown by Puchowitz's brother, Zach, it could erupt at any moment in spontaneous noodle combustion.
I wish they'd slow the pacing just a click, so we could enjoy the flavors longer. On the second visit, dishes arrived with more satisfying consistency.
The barbecue pig tails may be my favorite new bar food of the year, the sublimely tender shreds of meat, spiced with togarashi and hickory smoked, slip right off their wing-nut-shaped bones in a finger-licking Korean barbecue glaze. Paired with kimchi-cured ramps, fermented far longer than the standard cabbage, a plate of these tails should automatically trigger a round from the former BYOB's new list of craft canned beer. (The $3 Bud and Pabst are for Puchowitz and Darragh, respectively.)
Also a must is the gingery broccoli sauteed with house-made Vietnamese sausage crumbles, fish sauce, and lime. The paku ribs, cut from an oversize piranha relative, are roasted with crispy tamarind-glazed skin over charred corn salad, and were uncannily like tender white pork ribs.
A fryer-crisped rectangle of house scrapple could be a new icon for Pennsylvania Dutch-Asian fusion, with five-spice added to the loaf of corn meal and pork scraps, a sweet soy drizzle, and ginger-spiced cucumber pickles on top.
But a so-called noodle bar must rise on its doughy virtues. And CHeU ladles out more hits than misses. The "torn" noodles made from ripped dumpling skins are among my favorites, tossed with slow-cooked lamb neck stew with the slightly too-tart pickled mustard greens. CHeU's latest noodle, a spaghetti-shaped strand of fermented rice dough, stars with fresh favas in a curried coconut corn broth, vivid with lemongrass and chiles. It's a riff on Thai tom ka ghai, even if the inspiration deliberately goes unmentioned.
Comparison, though, is impossible to deny with the matzo ball in brisket broth, an ill-advised mash-up of two courses from the Puchowitz family seder. The matzo ball, a bit tacky in the fatty richness of sweet-and-sour beef soup, belongs back in its natural element of lighter chicken soup. Sometimes tradition can't be trumped.
On the other hand, Puchowitz's ramen, for all its liberties with broth (alternating notes of smoky pig tail, seaweed, and Korean-spiced miso) and add-ins (sea beans), shines with some very traditional assets - snappy alkaline noodles, tender pork, a soft-cooked egg, and a cloudy richness that coats my lips. In the end, despite the chef's hesitation, this reluctant ramen may be his most satisfying creation.
CHeU NOODLE BARcq-that's how they do it with mix of caps and lower case
2 bells (Very Good)
255 S. 10th St.;
Chef Ben Puchowitz of Matyson and childhood friend Shawn Darragh have taken their edgy fusion riffs on the Asian noodle trend from experimental pop-ups to chef-counter reality at this lively and casual 10th Street nook. The chalkboard menu deliberately veers away from authentic standards in favor of unconventional and seasonal takes on noodles, buns, and dumplings, a tact that - at times either frustrating or thrilling. On good nights, though, a small-plate feast here can add up to one of the most fun dining experiences in town.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS BBQ pig tails with ramp kimchi, brisket-date dumplings in chili oil, paku fish ribs, black garlic wings with shishitos, crispy rice cakes, scrapple, broccoli with Vietnamese sausage, foie gras meatballs, snap peas with yuzu and mozzarella; pork ramen, lemongrass noodles, hand-torn lamb neck noodles, cold sesame noodles, kaffir-marinated strawberries with Sichuan peppercorn whipped cream.
DRINKS No longer BYOB, CHeU now has a starter list of a dozen canned beers. Try the Sly Fox Grisette Working Class saison, or the 21st Amendment Hell or High Watermelon Wheat. There are a few inexpensive wines, including riesling and pinot noir, as well as a basic array of liquor, good to mix with the daily juice.
WEEKEND NOISE The tiny space, high energy, and big noise add up to 93 boisterousdecibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Lunch Wednesday-Monday, noon to 2 p.m. Dinner Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m. Closed Tuesday.
All major cards.
Not wheelchair accessible.
Street parking only.
Co-owner and chef Ben Puchowitz and co-owner Shawn Darragh talk about CHeU Noodle Bar at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan visits the Jersey Shore. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.