Last year was L.A.'s year of ramen, if you're keeping score, the year when the utility noodle bowl became a fetish object, and even casual eaters began to go on about tonkotsu broth and flavor bombs, kotteri and fresh negi, and my friends seemed to be divided between those who insisted the font of desire lay in the food court of a Mar Vista supermarket and those who believed it was next to the Marshall's in a Studio City mini-mall. If your broth wasn't made with Berkshire pork bones, and you weren't boiling it for at least 12 hours, your noodle shop wasn't in the running.
But back in the primordial days of 2010, I had barely heard of tsukemen, a Tokyo-born dish of bare, cooled noodles, served with a superconcentrated dipping sauce of reduced, fish-scented pork broth, which apparently is the next stage in ramen's evolution, the way that plasma screens are giving way to LED. (I didn't even realize that the dish was more or less pronounced “skeh-men,” almost but not quite rhyming with “lemon.”) Tsukemen is hip in all the usual ways, including obscurity, a stylized consumption ritual and flavor of an intensity that can be overwhelming the first few times out, like Skrillex or Scotch whisky. You can get tsukemen all over town now, at Yamadaya in Culver City, Ikemen in Hollywood and even at the old standby Daikokuya downtown, although even in those places you see nine out of 10 customers eating ramen the old-school way.
Still, even in the middle of this newfound abundance, the appearance of Tsujita L.A. — a branch of Nidaime Tsujita, considered one of the best in Tokyo — was a big deal to the noodle cognoscenti, a noodle shop so revered that it got away with a months-long soft opening during which no noodles at all were served. It still serves its ramen and tsukemen only at lunch — at dinner it becomes a fancy izakaya with a killer list of rare sake and soju, a small specialty in ochazuke served with raw tai, bream, imported from Japan's Inland Sea, and sea urchin shooters that may provide the most intense three seconds of pleasure you will ever find in a champagne flute.
The first time I visited the restaurant, on the third day it served ramen, Tsujita was filled with L.A.'s noodlerati, and the blogger who calls himself Rameniac, who was stuck in London at the moment, was observing his friends eat noodles on Skype. Takehiro Tsujita, the chef, is apparently the man.
When you slide into a booth at night, across from the quilted-wood wall and beneath a ceiling sculpture in which thousands of dowels have been massed to resemble billowing wooden clouds, you will hear the waitresses explain to at least a dozen men that ramen is served only in the daytime, that they can dine on sashimi and simmered beef tongue and special chicken teriyaki instead, and you will see a dozen groups of people walk down to one of the more conventional ramen parlors on the street instead.
You probably will not be unhappy with an evening omakase at Tsujita, an abbreviated kaiseki menu nicely adjusted to the season, although the prices of $55 and $80 may seem a bit high for a meal that seems a bit like a pop-up, even if it is a nice one.
A recent meal included a glass of sweet sake infused with the fragrance of baby plums; spoonfuls of tuna tartare flavored with chile and with caviar; a jigger of beef stewed with radish; tiny wedges of omelet; and a delicate wad of spinach flavored with bonito flakes — that was just the first course. There was sashimi of salmon, yellowtail and tuna, served with freshly grated wasabi and a bit of soy sauce flavored with ground sesame; and a pan-grilled silver cod with miso glaze, a lot like the izakaya standard kasu cod but sweeter and silkier. The blackened pin bones of the cod poked up from the filet like nifty buttons; I assumed the effect was intentional. There was a course of lobster “dynamite,”' blanketed in an overly floury white sauce, and an uni shooter. Slices of tai were served with a mound of rice, and the waitress instructed us to eat some of the fish as sashimi, drape the rest over the rice and pour broth from a steaming kettle into the bowl to eat as soup.
But the revelation at Tsujita, what separates it from every other Japanese restaurant in town, is the lunchtime ramen — specify hard-cooked — that float in soup made from chicken, fish and long-boiled kurobuta bones. The gossamer noodles act more as texture than as substance; they add little weight to the broth. Or better yet, get the tsukemen: thicker, burlier, more slippery noodles, pure chew, with the tensile strength of hand-pulled Lanzhou mian; with syrup-dense dipping sauce porkier than pork itself.
You may have chashu, fat pork simmered until it nearly falls apart of its own accord, or a special egg simmered at low temperature, which droops from your chopsticks and whose yolk is liquid and impossibly orange. You will taste the spicy mustard leaf condiment — in fact, you'll probably polish off the jar. You are instructed to eat one third of the noodles with the dipping broth, the second third with a shake of powdered chiles and the final portion with a squeeze of lime. The menu for the Tokyo restaurant specifies sudachi citron, a more fragrant fruit, but even the ordinary California lime reveals a new dimension of the noodle's depth. When you are finished, the waitress takes your thickened sauce and tops it up with hot water. It has become soup.
Tsujita's noodles, you understand, come with rules. Ramen and tsukemen will not be packaged to go, no matter how tearfully you beg. (You are permitted but not encouraged to take home leftovers.) Only canned, cold tea is available at lunch, although black tea is served at dinner, and if you insist on drinking your tea hot, somebody will heat your aluminum can. If you try to taste the tsukemen dipping sauce alone, somebody probably will stop you before the spoon makes it up to your lips.
A few weeks ago, I sent a couple of visiting friends, who run one of the best three or four restaurants in the East Bay, to Tsujita, telling them that they might find the tsukemen life-changingly good. It must have been. The next day, they were contemplating a move to West L.A.
TSUJITA L.A. | 2057 Sawtelle Blvd, W.L.A. | (310) 231-7373 | tsujita-la.com | Lunch daily, 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; dinner Wed.-Mon, 5 p.m.-mid. (Last orders taken 30 minutes before closing time.) | MC, V | Beer, wine and sake | Street parking | Lunchtime noodles, $8.95-$14.95; rice bowls $3.99; dinner: small plates, $6-$18; sashimi plates, $10-$32; set-price omakase dinners, $55 and $80