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A good bowl of ramen starts with the noodles. Daisuke Utagawa should know. The Japan native co-owns some of D.C.’s best ramen shops, including Daikaya, Bantam King and Haikan. This year in the Yards he and his team are opening Hatoba, their fourth ramen restaurant that is sure to have everyone slurping. We caught up with Utagawa to learn more about the new venture along with the proper way to eat ramen. (You’re probably doing it wrong!)
What can you tell us about the new shop?
All the ramen shops we’ve done are very sensitive to that particular neighborhood. Our goal is always to be the neighborhood ramen joint — not just a brand that’s concocted and dropped in. I can tell you it will not be a fine dining restaurant, but a casual place.
How important are the noodles in a bowl of ramen?
The word “ramen” means noodle, it doesn’t mean soup. Let me put it this way: If you want to make a good pizza, you are going to have to have a good dough. No matter what you put on top, if you don’t have a good dough you can’t have a good pizza.
What do all good ramens have in common? If I was really pressed to say, it would be balance. It’s like an a cappella group. The group consists of five or so people, and each one of them has a great voice. What makes the group so fine is the balance and each member knowing what to do for the others, in terms of pitch and speed and tonality.
Your team has taken some pretty incredible research trips to Japan. What do you look for when you travel?
Everybody has a different take away from these trips. Mine is different than [chef] Katsuya’s [Fukushima] and Katsuya’s is different than [partner] Yama’s [Jewayn]. We each have our own reasons for going there. Sometimes I end up being the guide, simply because I was born and raised there, but my partners will have something specific they want to research.
What did you hope to learn during the last visit?
I like to see how things develop over time. With regards to ramen there’s an origin and a reason it started, and there’s a reason it became so popular. It’s this living organism and I want to see how it’s evolved. Food is not static. My main job is to go and see how ramen is evolving.
Do you remember your very first bowl of ramen?
Yes. I went to this shop when I was 4 or 5 years old. I saw people eating these wonderful looking bowls of soup, and I thought the way they were eating it was so cool. I got my bowl and it was so hot that I burnt my tongue. I think I started to cry.
Oh no! Hopefully things went smoother after that.
I remember loving the chewiness of the noodles, but I couldn’t eat it fast enough and it was getting soggier by the second. I wanted to do what people where doing, pulling the noodles out and slurping. I was like, “Why are they doing that?”and, “How can I eat ramen in that same cool way?”
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