It’s two hours before the opening of ramen shop Bantam King, and co-owner Daisuke Utagawa has only just arrived with the noodles. Due to some distribution issues, Utagawa had to drive himself to a warehouse in Baltimore to pick up the Japanese import.
“Anyone who wants to go and pick up our noodles on a regular basis, they get free ramen,” Utagawa says, half-jokingly.
If that seems like a lot of effort for thin strands of dough, it’s nothing in the grand scheme of preparation for this restaurant’s debut. The team tasted 34 types of noodles from Nishiyama Seimen Company in Japan with different stocks and sauces to find the perfect pairing. “I don’t know how many hundreds of ramen combinations we had to taste,” Utagawa says.
The noodles are custom produced for the specific soups that Bantam King is now serving out of a former Burger King at 501 G St. NW. The noodles are thinner, less wavy, and more delicate than the Sapporo-style variety used at sister restaurant Daikaya.
“There’s no one thing called ramen,” Utagawa says. Through their expanding businesses and ramen 101 classes, Utagawa and fellow owners Yama Jewayni and chef Katsuya Fukushima have tried to show Washingtonians the range and craft of ramen. “There are 32 different regional ramens in Japan,” Utagawa explains, and each has its own nuance and style—not so different from barbecue in America.
Even within specific regions, there isn’t necessarily one style. Later this summer, the owners will open a third ramen shop called Haikan in Shaw. It will offer Sapporo-style ramen—but a different type than what’s served at Daikaya. “There are one thousand ramen restaurants in Sapporo alone, and most of them serve what’s called Sapporo-style. So if they can make one thousand different ones, I think we can make two different Sapporo-style ramen,” says Utagawa.
But at Bantam King, the team is focusing on chicken ramen, which isn’t attached to a specific region. In fact, Utagawa says it’s only just emerged in popularity over the last 15 years. The name Bantam refers to a type of chicken, but it’s also a weight class in boxing.
In Japan, chicken ramen might also have pork in the broth or shrimp as a topping, even if chicken is the dominant ingredient. But at Bantam King, no additional proteins are involved. The team decided to focus on chicken ramen after enjoying bowls of it during a research trip to Japan last year. Another reason to omit other traditional meat ingredients is that a lot of people don’t eat pork, whether for religious or other reasons.
There are two types of ramen broth in Japan: chintan, which is clear like a delicate consomme; and paitan, a creamier, richer option. It’s not easy to make proper chintan stock, which should be light—yet rich—and very complex. Bantam King offers both varieties, but the chintan broth will be available in limited quantities. There likely won’t be more than 100 servings a day.
The restaurant is also serving a vegetarian ramen, which is different—“more subtle but really rich,” Utagawa says—than the one at Daikaya. Also, Bantam King doesn’t have woks like its sister restaurant, so the ramen toppings are different.
In many ways, the Daikaya team members are sticklers for tradition. “To call it ramen, you have to have four things. And the four things must come together only after the order is taken. You can’t pre-mix it,” Utagawa says. Those four things are: noodles, stock, tare (a concentrated sauce made of salt, soy, or miso), and flavored oil. Toppings are important, but they’re not “essential” for a bowl to qualify as ramen.
That’s why you’ll never see a bottle of, say, Sriracha. “That’s not ramen,” Utagawa says. “Then it’s pho,” Fukushima says.
That’s also why you’ll never see Bantam King or Daikaya offer their ramen to go. The way Utagawa sees it, it’s no longer true ramen when you take it home. “There is absolutely no way to do ramen takeaway that still tastes good,” Utagawa says. “People say, ‘Well, I’m paying for it. It’s none of your business how I eat it.’ But it is our business because it is something that we make.”
While such rules are doctrine when it comes to ramen, Fukushima is much more liberal when comes to the other big component of the menu: fried chicken. It’s not something you’re likely to find on the menu if you go to a Japanese chicken ramen shop, especially prepared the way Fukushima does. The $24 half-bird platter is much more like the Southern comfort food than Japanese karaage.
But that’s not to say there aren’t Japanese touches. Fukushima brines the chicken in kombu and dashi, which give it a smoky quality. Japanese starches, including rice flour and potato starch, are used to batter the bird. It’s a far cry from the last time Fukushima served fried chicken professionally—in his second-ever restaurant job at Wendy’s. That said, “we actually used the same pressure fryer at Wendy’s,” he says.
Utagawa also finds the restaurant’s fried chicken very Japanese in its simplicity. “Rather than focusing on what’s the spice or what’s in the batter, it tastes like just really good chicken,” he says. “One thing that’s particular about Japanese cuisine is we focus on what’s inherently beautiful about the ingredients. And by taking away what’s unnecessary, we show the beauty and complexity of what nature has to offer.”
The regularly rotating “fixings” that come with the fried chicken are a little more playful. The sides currently include biscuits with Szechuan strawberry jam, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes with gravy, cole slaw with yuzu and sansho pepper, and corn on the cob with furikake (a Japanese seasoning).
The fried chicken platter comes in a paper box… on a silver platter, which encapsulates the high-brow, low-brow mashup that is Bantam King. Fukushima, after all, has dabbled in both homey cooking and modernist cuisine. He helped open the original Minibar as well as other José Andrés restaurants including Zaytina and Oyamel. If you look near the open kitchen at Bantam King, you’ll notice a framed photo of Fukushima next to Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, and Andrés.
The chef is still interested in eventually doing a Japanese tasting menu that would harken back to his days at the old Minibar. “It would be small, and it would be just like the Minibar used to be where we cooked right in front of you,” he says. But it’s not yet clear when or at which restaurant that will happen. “It’s on the back burner,” he says.
Now, reconcile that with the fact that Bantam King uses plastic cutlery and still looks kind of like a Burger King, albeit a Japan-influenced one. Rather than erase any trace of the fast food joint, the Bantam King team has embraced it. Designer Brian Miller of EditLab at Streetsense kept the original tiled floors and outfitted the place with plastic chairs, fluorescent ceiling lamps, multicolored Christmas lights, and chochin paper lanterns. The walls are covered in bright blue, yellow, and green cafeteria trays as well as wallpaper made of “ramen cat” cartoon strips.
Rather than Pepsi and Coke, a refrigerated case in the corner carries Japanese canned sake, shochu, and sodas like melon cream and milk tea. The building also still has a takeout window from its fast-food days. And while you definitely won’t see ramen coming out of it, Fukushima is playing with the idea of using the window to serve a twist on Mexican fried ice cream that’s dredged in the fried chicken mixture and deep fried. (But don’t hold him to it just yet.)
Ultimately, though, Fukushima admits he’s scared that people will come in only for fried chicken or other side treats. While there might be other things on the menu, he wants to be clear about one thing: “The ramen is the key,” Fukushima says.
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