The owner of Ikemen Ramen, Hollywood's newest ramen restaurant, likes comparing his team to samurai. Despite their protests to the contrary, Yasumasa “Max” Kawabata insists to his partners that if they were to be in the movie The Last Samurai, he would be Tom Cruise. But if the Ikemen staff were all actors, then they're surely characters in a familiar samurai archetype: ronin — masterless samurai — taking on one final mission for redemption.
For Kawabata, Ikemen is a return to Hollywood after the closure of Agura, his 150-seat Japanese fusion restaurant on La Cienaga's Restaurant Row. Kawabata put $2 million into Agura's design, the kind of Vegas-inflected super restaurant that meshed Baroque architecture with a giant bronze Buddha statue behind its sushi bar, but it only remained open from October 2009 to July 2010.
Despite owning five restaurants back in Japan, Kawabata was resolute on staying. “I couldn't go back to Japan,” he said. “So I wanted revenge.”
For general manager Takashi Adachi, Ikemen is an escape from the grueling Japanese corporate world. Adachi lived in Seattle for six years, and after returning to Japan to work, found that he conflicted with the traditional Japanese way of conducting business. Working at his father's company producing katsuobushi — dried, fermented and smoked bonito flakes — Adachi longed for a return to life in America.
Bringing the two together was Shigetoshi “Sean” Nakamura, a celebrity ramen chef who taught himself to make ramen soups while studying at a community college in San Diego and returned to Japan to eventually open four ramen restaurants. His return to Southern California was as consulting chef to Ramen California, creating Reggiano Cheese Tofu Ramen and Marsala Curry Ramen. After Nakamura left Ramen California earlier this year, the restaurant has since changed its menu to more traditional miso and soy sauce selections.
Ikemen is the word for a suave, sexy guy and it's the idea of creating a restaurant that embodies these qualities that brought these three together. So they hand-carved their bar, put up vintage exposed-filament bulbs and connected an iPod to pump jazz standards. They wear vests, skinny ties and fedoras while serving tomato ramen and Italian basil dipping ramen.
The restaurant specializes in tsukemen noodles, bare noodles served separately from a more intensely flavored soup, to be dipped bite-by-bite. Along with their signature Ikemen Dip, described as an au jus of tonkotsu pork broth with bonito powder, they serve dishes like the Zebra Dip, tonkotsu with black garlic — garlic slowly roasted until blackened and umami-rich — and green onion.
“We're the same color. The same passion,” Kawabata said of Nakamura after meeting him at Agura. For the weeks before and after Ikemen's opening, Nakamura slept in a room above the kitchen, barely large enough to hold a twin-size futon, a desk and a printer to create new menus.
Accessible only by step ladder and through a hole in the ceiling, the heat from the kitchen below made the room sauna-like at all hours of the day. Nakamura slept about two hours a night. Because the room didn't have running water, he jogged every morning to Kawabata's home in Beverly Center where he showered before the two drove together to Ikemen.
Adachi came to Ikemen after having worked with Nakamura as his katsuobushi producer. Nakamura is famously picky about his ingredients, once trying 24 types of tomatoes before finally accepting the 25th for the tomato ramen at Ramen California. Adachi brought with him the katsuobushi from his father's company in Japan, created through a complicated process developed to preserve fish back in the Edo period of Imperial Japan. Mackerel, bonito and anchovies are cleaned, boiled, smoked, fermented and dried. Adachi shaves his katsuobushi into thin flakes with a specialized katusobushi machine before each order. The transparent whisps of fish become a kind of umami-bomb for soup.
Though his business card reads “General Manager,” Adachi is really head chef. Nakamura, who trained him, has now flown to New York to open Ramen Lab, a culinary school for ramen professionals. The worry has been that Adachi will struggle with the speed of a full restaurant, so they kept PR to a minimum. Hidden in a strip mall at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, the only mention of Ikemen anywhere in the media has been by local ramen blogger Rameniac, a longtime supporter of Nakamura since his Ramen California days.
Adachi has managed to handle the workload thus far and is even in the process of training other cooks to work with him now that Nakamura is gone. But some worry remains. “Bonito is great, but he needs to be quicker,” Nakamura said of Adachi.
It was Kawabata who sponsored Adachi for a working visa, a rare chance for him to come back to America as he has wanted. Kawabata hadn't actually met him, but Nakamura's recommendation was all he needed. “That's the Japanese trust,” Kawabata said. “We're samurai. The Last Samurai.”
Ikemen: 1655 N La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles; (323) 800-7669. www.ikemenhollywood.com.