Ramen fever has hit New York City in a big way.
Restaurants like Ippudo and Momofuku Noodle Bar have brought the Japanese comfort food to the attention of adventurous eaters throughout Manhattan. Now two chefs, who worked under Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto in the Meatpacking District, are bringing the noodle craze into Prospect Heights.
Chuko, the upcoming ramen shop in the old Nick’s Diner space on the southwest corner of Vanderbilt Ave. and Dean Street, is the brainchild of chefs and owners Jamison Blankenship and David Koon.
The restaurant will serve bowls of ramen, a traditional Japanese dish with noodles, vegetables, and meat in a savory broth. In addition to ramen, Chuko will offer dipping noodles (chilled noodles that are dipped in a flavorful hot broth), gyoza (pork dumplings), and eventually wine and beer.
For dessert, they plan to have homemade ice cream sandwiches, made with help from Ample Hills down the street.
The 35-seat space includes a long wooden bar, seating along a ledge by the windows, and several two and four-person tables. For now, the restaurant will be dine-in only, and they hope to open the week of August 8th.
Blankenship and Koon met when they both started working at the very upscale Morimoto about five years ago.
“We started together as line cooks at the bottom. We were literally brand new,” Koon explained.
They gradually rose up the ranks, with Blankenship ascending to the Chef de Cuisine position and Koon to Executive Sous Chef. The two became fast friends and about one year ago the idea to open their own ramen shop popped into their heads.
“I had kind of a lightbulb moment where I’m like, I want to do accessible food. I want to do comfort food,” Blankenship said.
Blankenship lives next door to their current space, and envisioning the old diner as a ramen shop wasn’t much of a stretch.
“The soul of a ramen shop really is a diner,” Blankenship said. “They’re all over Japan, they’re for the neighborhoods, so that just seemed like a logical step.”
David Koon’s love of ramen has taken him around the world, including several months spent in Asia. His trip ended in Japan, where he did extensive ramen research.
“I literally ate ramen three times a day,” Koon said. “That’s all I ate. I’m just obsessed with it.”
Even with their many years of fine dining experience, Koon and Blankenship are starting out with a small menu, which will allow them to get everything “just so” before they open in a couple weeks.
“We really want to focus on just the ramen at first,” Blankenship explained. “We’re not necessarily traditionalist, but we understand what makes a good ramen. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it and experimenting, and we think we can do something that’s, I wouldn’t say authentic, but very delicious—handled with good care, with good technique and ingredients.”
Chuko means “second hand” in Japanese, an idea they’ve taken to heart as they refurbish their space. They’ve done much of the work themselves, revealing nearly century-old brick walls and a tin ceiling (sadly, lead paint meant the ceiling had to go).
Staying true to the neighborhood is important to the pair.
“We want to do something really nice for this area,” said Blankenship.
“If we become a destination restaurant, that’s great,” Koon added, “but our main focus is to cater to our neighborhood.”
In an effort to make sure they’re serving the varied Prospect Heights community, they will offer a vegetarian ramen (something rare among the city’s ramen outposts), and they hope to stay open late on weekends so that other restaurant workers can come there for a good meal when their shifts are over.
“We’re going to have a soul to the place—good music, intelligent staff, good food, nothing expensive, maybe a $20 to $25 check average,” Blankenship said.
When Chuko opens in a few weeks, they will serve dinner nightly, and they hope to eventually expand their hours to include weekend lunches. The menu may also expand as the chefs get more comfortable in their new environment and get a feel for their clientele.
One thing that isn’t going to change is Blankenship and Koon’s commitment to making Chuko the best restaurant it can be.
“This is it for us,” Blankenship said. “This is what Dave and I have been working for our whole careers.”
Chuko, 552 Vanderbilt Ave. at Dean Street, (718) 576-6701.