Note: Ratings have been changed to Knife (ok), Fork and Knife (good), Fork, Spoon and a Knife (very good), Fork, Spoon and a Knife + Dessert (excellent).
After a long hiatus, I am back. The person that I founded this food blog with has moved across the country! And I have taken up the reigns. New look, new design, new restaurants, albeit, same author.
As a professional at one of the Big 4 accounting firms, I’ve had my hands tied for the past few months and have been pulled apart in different directions (not literally, but sometimes, almost smacked into a beam the other day…). My mind, rather, has always kept scheming and mentally maintaining a list of restaurants that I need to try as well as return back to. After scanning the NY Times Food section a few weeks ago, I saw a new headliner, TsuruTonTan, which focuses on udon.
Udon is not as popular as its younger sister ramen. Ramen is everywhere (see my previous post), udon is not necessarily so. It is relegated to a little section on the back of menus sometimes when I go out for sushi, hoping it is not forgotten. Udon is my staple at Korean delis for lunchtime meals. Most people of Asian descent are familiar with udon, but for those of you that have not been acquainted with it, it is a thick solid wheat flour noodle, that is chewy but slick, either sautéed or put in soup. It is said that udon is of Chinese origin brought to Japan during the Nara period (710-794 AD) and predates ramen by hundreds of years (ramen is relatively new being invented in the early 20th century).
I wanted to give TsuruTonTan a go, since the restaurant had just opened in late August of this year and that I have never been to a restaurant where its main focus is udon as sushi as ramen restaurants have become the most familiar in America representing Japanese cuisine.
TsuruTonTan sits quietly next to a few restaurants in Union Square on 16th street between Broadway and Fifth Ave. The restaurant tries not to draw attention with having a black exterior, but the extended entrance canopy that states its name in bold white letters with a spattering of red, and the large unbordered window that sits next to it, makes passersby wonder if maybe they should go in. When you do go in, there’s a decent space immediately to your right for waiting. Bar is to the right as well in front of the waiting area and had a decent amount of drinkers, waiting for a table to open up. It should be noted that the restaurant only serves dinner, I think established lunch hours will come in the near future. Since the restaurant is new, it was a little hard to look for reservations around dinnertime, especially for five people (even on a Sunday). You can go directly on the website to make reservations or call up the restaurant the old-fashioned way. Additionally, you can “watch” to see if the desired timeframe you wanted the reservation for will open up and a notification will be sent to your email. We were lucky and were seated without a reservation, however, our table did come with a time limit as the restaurant was expecting another party after us (must be one of the many reservations we could not get).
After we were seated, our waiter was kind enough to explain the menu to us: Hot Appetizers (beef buns, shrimp tempura, tatsuta fried chicken), Cold Appetizers (spicy tuna tartare cone, sashimi, uni & caviar), Traditional Udon Soup (clear fish broth, kombo kelp, bonito flakes with a selected protein), Special Udon (traditional broth but shaken up a bit with crème, caviar, or egg drop to name a few), Curry and Crème (various dishes such as pork katsu, truffle crème and seafood), and Cold Noodles. All udon dishes come with a choice of thick or thin noodles. The waiter also noted, that there is no doggybags/take-aways/take-out due to health reasons. The quality of the udon will decrease and won’t taste the same if you were to take it home, potentially making you sick. Disappointing, but if it saves you time that you would have spent on the toilet had you took food home, then OK.
The drinks menu had a pleasantly surprising offering, although many of the wines you cannot order as a glass. Sake ranges from the best, Junmai Daiginjo, to affordable, Junmai. One selection of hot sake exists on the menu, the Itami Onikoroshi, the Kingslayer (jk had to throw that in there)…I meant, Demon Slayer. There are several cocktails, spirits and a small listing of beers. Lastly, they offer virgin cocktails too, albeit three, but more than what most places list. Very inclusive.
Since there was a time limit and we had to be out of the restaurant in 45 minutes, we skipped appetizers and ordered the main courses, all with thick noodles:
- Beef Udon (beef short plate and toyko negi) with a poached egg ($16 + $2)
- Sizzling Sukiyaki Udon (stir fried udon with beef, vegetable, & sweet soy in stone pot) (2, 1 without meat) ($18 each)
- Spicy Soondbugu Jigae Udon (beef short plate, vegetable & spicy broth in stone pot) ($19)
- Truffle Crème with Mushroom with added beef ($17 + $4)
- 1 round of Demon Slayer ($13)
Service was attentive, and the waiter knew to jump in at the right moment to get our orders to the kitchen. While our food was cooking, we had time to notice the ambiance. TsuruTonTan is a place that sits between old world and new. There are the traditional slits of wood bordering sections of tables to give the feeling of pseudo privacy and the woman’s bathroom has a sliding door entrance to mimic the sliding doors in Japanese rooms, but the decor on the walls beg to be of the modern world. Hard rocks shaved into 3-D semi spheres lined the walls in perfect rows, and blocked 3-D letters in different directions formed the wall behind the bar. The music was of the chill variety.
Demon Slayer was dropped off first. I don’t really go for hot sake. I don’t really like hot alcoholic drinks in general (please, no Hot Toddy) but Demon Slayer actually convinced me otherwise, if only for hot sake though. It was a smooth taste, dry and not sweet, not potent in alcohol content, and was the right temperature of hot without ruining the taste.
Within another 10-15 minutes, our desired orders were at the table. Main courses come to the table on large wooden trays, udon soup bowls take up the most room as they lay in a bowl that is almost the size of a canonical hat that people in the rice fields wear. The beef udon soup was delicious, with a light broth that doesn’t just sit in the stomach after the meal is over. The broth was less oily compared to a Korean deli udon soup order, and the beef was plentiful and not overly cooked. The udon noodles itself were slick from the oil and fat from the soup and I happily slurped it down. Halfway through eating, I had forgotten that my poached egg was sadly sitting on its own plate and I quickly dropped it in the soup and cut into it so the yolk could spill out and mix with the rest of the contents. This added a little bit of thickening to the broth, but was magnificent.
The sukiyaki which does not have as much broth as the soup was also tasteful. Even though the spicy one was definitely on the spicy side, you could taste the underlying flavors instead of just the one dimension of spice. If you are slow to eat, as one of my friends was, or if you are patient and wait a little, the udon on the side of the pot ends up getting slightly dried out where it can be crackly and crunchy due to the hotness of the clay pot. Makes for an added element of tastiness. Lastly, the truffle crème is savory, rich but balanced.
After our plates/bowls were cleared away, the bill was delivered. Prices were fair for very good udon as well as attentive service and I would come here again one day, maybe this time for a cocktail too. Even though we had a time limit, we were never rushed out of our seats, we stayed 15 minutes past when we were supposed to give the table up but were never asked to leave.
Overall, I’d say, I’d give this place a rating of a Knife, Fork, and Spoon.