Takeshi Omae has an enviable résumé. He trained at Le Cordon Bleu in London. He was a disciple of legendary Japanese chef Masaharu Morimoto, acting as executive chef for Morimoto XEX in Tokyo before taking over and renaming the place Omae XEX. He also was Morimoto's sous chef on Iron Chef America. In Tokyo, Omae was twice awarded a Michelin star. He has his own mineral water brand. And now, he's here to conquer America, starting with Sherman Oaks. His weapon of choice: bowls of steaming burnt miso ramen.
Sherman Oaks is hardly known for its wealth of ramen, nor for its Michelin-starred chefs. Yet it's here, in an undistinguished strip mall (is there any other kind?) that Omae set up shop last June, with a far more modest endeavor than his restaurants in Japan.
In fact, Ramen by Omae is just an entrance point, a small place to stake his claim while also working toward an upscale omakase joint in Las Vegas.
Lucky Sherman Oaks. Lucky us.
Omae occupies a small bright white room, with about 10 tables and a compact ramen bar facing the kitchen. It's adorned only with a chalkboard on one wall, displaying specials in colorful chalk scrawl.
For now, let's ignore the specials — we're really here for the star of the regular menu, the burnt miso ramen. What is burnt miso ramen? Exactly what it sounds like. Order it and, behind the counter in the kitchen, cooks set explosive, leaping fire to the red fermented bean paste in a wok, before adding it to a tonkotsu broth that has been cooking for 40 hours. The milky, fatty, porky broth takes on a charred but sweet flavor, a lingering smoke almost like mesquite. It's absurdly seductive.
The waitress who presents your menu will be either harried or gracious, depending on how packed the place is. She'll also give you a large, laminated fact sheet, which clues you in to the theology of the restaurant.
"Our Ramen Places Has 5 MOST," the title proclaims, and it goes on to make a series of boasts: Ramen by Omae spends more hours preparing its ramen than anyone else in the world, it's more concerned about your health, it assuredly makes less profit than any other ramen shop, its ramen has the least "kick" (meaning less oil and salt and no MSG), and it takes longer to get your ramen here, thanks to the burnt-to-order nature of the thing.
There's a lot of philosophy packed into this manifesto. "Chef Omae likes to cook the soup in a way you notice more taste as you consume more," it explains. "We like you to feel the most taste at the end, never at the beginning." It's hard to see how anyone could think this deeply about noodle soup and not deliver something astonishing.
If burnt miso is just not your thing (weirdo), the menu's other variations do not disappoint. The regular tonkotsu ramen is tongue-coating and rich. The chicken version is lighter but just as deep and balanced, and you can get that with burnt miso as well.
With all the ramen, you choose between a thin white noodle or a thicker, chewier yellow noodle, which, to my taste, is more suited to this style of ramen.
You also choose between a beautiful soft-boiled egg or a hard-boiled egg. I have no idea why you'd go hard, the soft being an oozing, textural wonder, but to each his own.
You have the option of getting your ramen with "the works," meaning with every topping available: extra meat, pork-stuffed wontons, nori, black mushroom, cabbage, green onion, spicy mustard greens and an egg. I found this ridiculously overwhelming, and the cabbage made the soup sweeter than I would have liked. But it sure was fun.
And what's on that chalk-scrawled specials board? A ramen burger, that faddish monstrosity that's somehow taking the country by storm.
This is the part of the review where, theoretically, I might tell you the story of how I was won over by the ramen burger. Can't you just see it? The jaded restaurant critic, one who tends to roll her eyes at the fad-chasers who stand in line for cronuts and burgers with buns made of ramen noodles, finds herself utterly seduced by the juicy reality of those noodles and the bloody, beefy patty within.
It's a nice idea, but I had to let it go when presented with the actual thing — gummy noodles with a lightly crisp edge, wrapped in paper, holding a thin beef patty slathered with mayo and American cheese and goopy goop. The main problem seems to lie in the patty itself, which (unlike everything else at Ramen by Omae) doesn't appear to be particularly well-sourced or cared for. It tastes like the thin, gray, industrial-grade burgers found on the kind of middle-school lunch line that might make Michelle Obama cry.
While ramen burgers have caused pandemonium at certain festivals, Omae may be the only place in L.A. that's dependably serving one. The upside is that you won't have to wait in line to get it. But to come here and fill up on such frippery when there's burnt miso ramen on offer is an act that verges on insanity.
On the other hand, the teba gyoza are blatantly delicious. Teba is not really gyoza at all but rather chicken wings stuffed with gyoza filling. In fact, the juxtaposition of the two — the ramen burger and the teba gyoza — is like a study in how to do silly food gimmickry wrong and how to do it right.
Here, the meaty part of the chicken wing is deboned and then engorged with a mixture of ground pork, scallions and ginger, before being deep fried to a lightly crispy ideal. According to the laminated fact sheet in the menu, the teba gyoza are offered "just for our cultural introduction purpose, not for profit." (It's hard not to notice a theme here; Japanese hospitality can be endearingly insistent on altruism.) The kitchen makes only a small, set number of orders per day, which means you can't make a whole meal of them. It's a good thing for the restaurant's other patrons that Omae doesn't have a liquor license — with a pint of beer, I might try to insist on a full basket of the meaty, gingery goodness.
But really, the menu makes a good point: Those chicken wings are there as an entrance point for a meal of ramen, an introduction to the way Omae does things. Even the edamame are prepared with extra care, wok-fried with coatings of spicy miso or garlic soy. You also can order beautiful little rounds of takana rice, rice dotted with pickled mustard greens.
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Omae himself is mainly in Vegas these days, preparing for the opening of his small omakase restaurant. But the food at Ramen by Omae doesn't seem to have suffered a lick in his absence.
Lucky Sherman Oaks. Lucky us.
RAMEN BY OMAE | Three stars | 14425 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks | (818) 784-8981 | ramenbyomae.com | Tues.-Sun., noon-3 p.m. and 5:30-10 p.m. | Ramen, $7.50-$14.95 | No alcohol | Lot parking (valet at night)