Ramen California's soups are startling, peculiar creations crowded with a garden's worth of unconventional ingredients. Bobbing in a bowl might be florets of purple cauliflower, earthy chunks of celery root or broth-staining bits of beet. The restaurant's produce-packed style marks a new direction for the noodle soup -- one guided by ramen prodigy Shigetoshi Nakamura.
Though he's just over 30, Nakamura is one of Japan's premier ramen chefs. That his sought-after skills are now stateside isn't by chance but providence.
The small, months-old Torrance restaurant sprouted from a California dream sowed during time Nakamura spent here as a teen. As a result, Ramen California subscribes to many of the tenets of modern California cooking, including a devotion to the seasonal shifts of the local farmers market. In doing so, the restaurant stands alone -- Ramen California doesn't chase tradition, it generates its own.
Because of its dedication to innovation, some have tagged the place as a purveyor of molecular gastronomy. Given Nakamura's friendship with Spanish master Ferran Adrià, that's understandable
But where molecular gastronomy trades in deconstruction -- the dismantling and subsequent reassembly of flavors, textures and memories to form new and novel experiences -- Ramen California operates on a more natural level, allowing ingredients themselves to challenge expectations. Nakamura's dishes are more Alice Waters than Adrià.
The signature bowl is the California ramen. Filled with about 30 kinds of vegetables -- the aforementioned produce plus greens, carrots, potatoes, squash, baby corn and more -- the dish is as much a salad as it is a soup. Absent are the flavors that define traditional types of ramen, such as the rich pork punch of tonkotsu and the mild brine of shio.
The California ramen instead relies on the vegetables to maintain interest. Despite its lightness, that turns out to be an easy task: There always seems to be a new, expertly cooked vegetable to be plucked from the bowl's depths.
Ramen California smartly offers its noodle soups in three sizes (a small 15 ounces, manageable 20 ounces and massive 40 ounces), allowing diners to try most of the restaurant's six varieties in a single sitting. The heirloom tomato ramen is an excellent candidate for such a flight: a pile of peeled, bite-size tomatoes to be picked out for pure bursts of flavor.
More inventive is the Reggiano cheese tofu ramen, in which Nakamura's silken, fresh-made tofu (studded with bites of Parmesan) melts right into the broth. The only caveat is that the cheese tofu has been extremely popular, often causing the restaurant to sell out.
Common to all of the restaurant's ramen are the broth and noodles. The broth is remarkably clean, a focused chicken stock that provides a powerfully simple base. The noodles, curly strands made with semolina to achieve the desired al dente texture, are similarly good. Optional is the addition of chicken, a highly recommended extra that supplements the soups with four or five excellent pieces of tender and smoky grilled chicken.
Small plates too
At dinner, Ramen California adds an often-changing small-plates menu. There are some odd selections, including an out-of-place sausage and gnocchi dish, but there are nevertheless plenty of standouts.
The carpaccio, for example, is an essential starter. Laid on a bed of mixed greens are sheer slices of fish (one day it's flounder, another it's snapper) dressed with a few drops of olive oil and shards of black lava salt. The bowl of snackable heirloom tomatoes, kissed with just a bit of olive oil, is also good -- a simple pleasure as addictive as popcorn.
Even Ramen California's complimentary bread -- a soft, sea-salt-crusted rosemary roll that servers describe as Nakamura's riff on Chinese bao -- is worth an additional order.
Despite its rapid ascent in the ramen world, Ramen California is still a young, developing restaurant. But regardless of what may change, its core Californian values are sure to remain, a philosophy some will inevitably consider an act of treason against the current state of ramen.
Still, as wildly unique as Ramen California is, the restaurant is also exceptionally good. Nakamura isn't subverting the classics -- he's simply exploring new territory.