Tragedy struck when his wife miscarried their second child and suddenly passed away soon after.
Distraught, Ivan felt that he had lost everything.
Years later, on one of his extended trips to Japan, he met and fell in love with another Japanese woman.
They got married and settled in Japan. Ivan, living out a normal life as a stay-at-home-dad, started to get restless. He began experimenting with ramen, taking a crash course and then teaching himself the rest.
He opened his first restaurant in 2007.
It became a hit in Japan, with long lines of hungry Japanese people willing to wait hours to try his rule-breaking, unconventional interpretation of ramen (think flavors like "four cheese ramen" or a soy milk based dipping broth). It was shocking that a foreigner, gaijin, could pierce and conquer Japan's obsession with ramen.
After opening up several successful locations in Japan, Ivan decided to move back to the US in 2012, partly to be closer to family, but also to challenge himself to open up his restaurant in New York, his home.
Lucky for us, that means we no longer have to fly across the globe to get a taste of this famous ramen that has taken Tokyo by storm.
Bryan and I squeezed in one last meal before catching our 6PM train back to Boston. We met up with Cindy from Chubby Chinese Girl Eats and her now husband for a quick super early 4:30pm dinner (thanks friends for your willingness to eat at such an odd hour!) at Ivan Ramen in Gotham West Market.
Gotham West Market is very crowded, filled with different gourmet eateries all under one roof.
At 4:30PM, it wasn't hard to find seats for four people, but the bar quickly filled up, and by the time we left, it was pretty packed.
The menu itself is pretty simple. There are a few basic ramen broths you can choose from: Shoyu (soy sauce) or Shio (salt). There's also a Spicy Chili Ramen, which is uses the same broth base but throws is fiery red chilies, and Mazemen, a thicker, saucier tossed noodle dish. The basic ramen is pretty spartan, so if you like your ramen full of goodies, definitely choose some add ons, like an egg ($2), pork belly chashu ($3), chicken chashu ($3), roast tomato ($2), or chili garlic oil ($1).
If you don't feel like noodles, you can order a donburi, or a rice dish. In fact, the donburi turned out to be my favorite item here. We ordered a small Smoked Whitefish Donburi (love the fusion of Jewish and Japanese cuisine!), which consisted of rice in a sweet soy dashi topped with salmon roe, cucumbers, and scallions ($8 for a small, $14 for a large). The ingredients were simple, but the flavors were really deep and complex.
The Tokyo Shoyu Ramen consists of a broth made with chicken broth plus soy sauce and dashi. All of Ivan Ramen's noodles are made with rye, which is definitely not traditional. The basic version comes with pork belly chashu, but for an extra $5 you can get it "fully loaded" (pictured), which also includes a soft boiled egg, extra Chashu (either chicken or pork belly), and a roast tomato.
The Spicy Red Chili Ramen uses the same dashi + chicken broth and rye noodles, but uses minced pork and a "smashed" egg instead.
Another option is "Mazemen", a style of ramen where you mix ("maze" means to mix) noodles ("men") in a thicker type sauce. We got the Roasted Garlic Mazemen ($13), which consists of rye noodles in a thicker "sauce" made from the same dashi + chicken broth, pork belly chashu, and nori (seaweed).
Here's Bryan bringing all of our noodles! (Yes, we are pigs. Bryan and I ordered three bowls between the two of us because we really just wanted to try it all).
Overall, surprisingly, my favorite dish turned out to be the Whitefish Donburi, which had a really nice mix of deep, rich flavors from the smoked whitefish, salty salmon roe, and various spices mixed into the rice.
We were a bit underwhelmed by the ramen. The rye noodles are definitely softer and less al dente than a typical Japanese wheat-based noodle, which is quite springy and "Q" (to borrow a Taiwanese term). The broth flavor was decent though it wasn't the best we'd ever had. I think we still prefer some of the other ramen places in New York, like Momofuku Noodle Bar or Ippudo.
But perhaps it's too early to judge.
There's a part of me that wonders whether there is just some inconsistency between the locations right now. It's hard for me to believe that I would be underwhelmed at a place that's so popular with Japanese people. I must be missing something.
I'll wait until I've had this at a few more locations, whether in New York or in Tokyo, before I make my final decision on whether I'm a fan of Ivan Ramen. Right now, I know I really enjoyed the donburi but found the ramen to be enjoyable, but nothing spectacular.
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