If noodles are the ultimate comfort food, then the Underground Gourmet can imagine getting very comfortable at Momofuku Noodle Bar, despite the East Village shop’s nearly unpassable, narrow aisle of stools and its starkly functional, brightly lit setting. No one expects to linger over ramen: The proper etiquette, of course, is to bend the noggin troughlike over the bowl and in an ecstasy of feverish slurping shovel it in at a rate that should qualify you for a seat at the Nathan’s Fourth of July hot-dog-eating contest. But the young crew at Momofuku, overseen by a veteran of Craft who is an ardent student of Japanese cuisine, creates its own dynamic atmosphere, navigating the open kitchen with a balletic grace that becomes hypnotic, shimmying by each other to drain noodles out of simmering vats, carefully composing soups as tantalizing still lifes almost too beautiful to touch.
Once the big, steaming bowl of house ramen arrives—an admittedly untraditional but deeply considered version—it’s impossible not to plunge right in, chopsticks in one hand, soup spoon in the other. This is Japanese ramen by way of a Carolina whole-hog barbecue, with more than a soupçon of French technique, deriving its super-porky flavor as much from hot, fatty slabs of succulent Berkshire pork belly and deep-pink shredded shoulder as from the long-simmered stock (made from 70 pounds of chicken legs, roasted pork bones, ham hocks, and bacon). Almost in atonement, the toppings are conspicuously fresh and nourishing—the chopped scallions and slivered snow peas, the chewy preserved bamboo shoots, the optional (but highly recommended) Greenmarket corn, briefly sautéed and still crunchy, the delicate sheet of nori propped on the rim. Sure, the noodles could be a little firmer. But there’s even a bit of performance art, as a cook gingerly cracks a slow-poached egg and its golden yolk oozes at the prod of a chopstick over the the whole glorious affair.
There are equally worthy variations on the theme: noodles without the soup, enlivened by a ginger-and-scallion paste; noodles served with the broth on the side; cold Korean buckwheat noodles with Asian pear. There are delicate, glistening gyoza and spongy Chinese-style buns stuffed to order with cucumbers and more of that juicy shredded pork. But except for edamame and some especially delectable kimchi, pork pervades all. Even the chicken over rice—a cold-smoked and confited, crisp-skinned leg and thigh—is infused with the flavor of bacon, which, according to the owner, makes everything taste better. Agreed.