As a huge fan of ramen, I believe that done properly it can be a delicious meal and not just something whipped up by sodium-starved college students in their dorm rooms. This past summer I had the chance to visit Chef Morimoto’s (of Iron Chef fame) New York City ramen restaurant, Momosan, where I had easily the best ramen of my life.
After coming back to Ithaca, I heard of a new ramen-focused restaurant in the Commons. Located about two blocks away from the bus station, Maru Ramen is Ithaca’s latest ramen establishment. While Oishii Bowl’s $9 serving of miso ramen is an affordable, comforting meal I often turn to, I was excited to see a new restaurant focused entirely on ramen. Nevertheless, I refused to let my expectations grow too high. This is Ithaca after all, a small collegetown city which can’t quite compare to the culinary clout of New York City. Did Maru Ramen meet my moderate expectations? Spoiler alert: Not really.
With an exposed kitchen surrounded by a wooden bar that customers can sit at (similar to what you’ll find in ramen stalls in Japan), the interior of Maru is sleek and modern. My friends and I were seated immediately at one of the few remaining tables and given menus. The waitstaff were friendly, and the service was quick. We ordered a chicken ramen, a spicy Tantan-men ramen and a tonkatsu ramen. Even though we had come during the dinner rush, our food was served within ten minutes.
If you’ve ever seen the Japanese movie Tampopo, you’ll remember the ramen master who artfully describes the ritual he follows when eating ramen, so as to fully appreciate every aspect of it. (If you haven’t seen this movie, please stop reading this and go watch it; it’s easily one of the best food films of all time). I, too, have my own ritual. First, I taste the broth, which I find to be the most important part of any bowl of ramen. If your broth isn’t good, you might as well throw out the whole bowl. Maru’s website boasts that its broth is “slow-prepared” and “home-cooked,” so I was excited to try it.
The first broth I tasted was from the chicken ramen. Unfortunately, it was underwhelming. It didn’t have much depth of flavor, and the flavor of the chicken was barely detectable. The Tantan-men ramen’s broth also uses the chicken broth but adds spicy Tantan dashi. Though the broth was definitely spicy, it lacked the complexities that a rich ramen broth really needs. I was hoping for a deep meaty flavor, but the spiciness overpowered and masked it. The tonkatsu ramen’s pork broth was by far the best one. With a slightly thicker consistency and undertones of ginger, it had a better mouthfeel. It wasn’t mind-blowing but had a much better depth to its flavor than the chicken ramen did.
The second step of my ritual involves the second most important aspect of ramen — the noodles. There’s nothing worse than having soggy noodles in your bowl of ramen. They should have a thick texture that soaks the flavor of the broth while maintaining their chewiness. Maru’s noodles were surprisingly tasty; they had good body and texture, standing up to the heat of the broth. They were definitely the best part of my meal at Maru.
Finally, I try the rest of the toppings. The signature pork belly chashu was tender, soaking up the flavor of the broth in both the Tantan-men ramen and the tonkatsu ramen quite well. But there was only one small, meager piece of pork in my whole bowl. There also weren’t many vegetables in the bowls either — just a few measly pieces of seaweed, bean sprouts and scallions. On top of all that there was way too much broth. Combined with the fact that there wasn’t enough of everything else, Maru’s ramen failed to reach my moderate expectations.
The Tantan-men ramen cost me about $14 while the two other bowls were closer to $12 each. These prices wouldn’t have been bad if the ramen had more substance, such as noodles, meat and vegetables. But I felt like I paid 14 bucks for a handful of noodles, one small piece of pork and a whole lot of mediocre broth. I wasn’t satisfied at all. Moreover, since Maru is far from Collegetown, I just don’t see myself making the effort to get down there just for a bowl of subpar ramen. I give this place two-and-a-half stars.
Serves: Japanese ramen
Vibe: a casual, sit-down restaurant