Ramen’s Stories Are All Personal

A bowl of traditional ramen at Sen Restaurant in Sag Harbor. Courtesy photo

A confession: Growing up, I believed that ramen came in only two iterations. The first was a packet (in my home, we favored the since-discontinued “Oodles of Noodles” brand) smashed against the countertop and reconstituted in two cups of water and a MSG-laden powder, with the help of three minutes in the microwave. This was the ramen I enjoyed as a latchkey kid, when there was no one home to witness my misdeeds. The second version was more complex. My stepfather, who had served in the United States Air Force in Thailand, brought into our home a certain culinary worldliness. You might think you know Oodles of Noodles, until a stranger lets you know that a ten-cent packet of dehydrated carbohydrate can be gently cajoled over stovetop heat and fortified with an egg, dropped directly into simmering broth, its yolk runny when broken. That version of ramen was reserved for special occasions.

But ramen, as Sen General Manager and co-owner Jesse Matsuoka will tell you, has more than a single (or dual) identity. In Japan, where the soups “come” from (their noble home, I learned from Jesse, is actually China), soups are distinctive, regional. Broths differ. Noodle styles differ. Occasions differ. One might find oneself at a fancy ramen restaurant known for its laboriously made tonkotsu pork stock one night only to retreat to the hastily made — and equally satisfying — ramen from a late-night hole-in-the-wall the next. “In terms of how the ramen phenomenon is happening,” Jesse said, “it’s because you have so many different options. It can truly never get old.”

On Thursday, November 29, Sag Harbor’s Sen will host the latest in its series of chef dinners. Aptly titled “Ramen Fest,” the four-course meal — offered with saké pairings for $50 — will allow diners to make their own ramen fantasies come true, all while enjoying an educational journey deep into the world of noodles. Reserve in advance for either the 5 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. seating.

The principle of options, and many of them, feels like a jumping off point for Sen’s ramen dinner. The meal will include an amuse bouche of hand-made soba noodles, featuring a buckwheat flour that Jesse brought back in his suitcase from a recent trip to Japan (insert joke about traveling with a bag full of white-ish powder); a selection of noodle “salads,” featuring noodles made from green tea, squash, and beet; and a dessert course of a panna cotta designed to look like ramen broth, decorated with edible sweets, like chocolate, candied kombu, and meringue, that mimic the noodles and toppings.

But the piece de resistance is the entrée course, in which diners can choose between various noodles, toppings, broths, and proteins. There are wavy noodles, thin and thick noodles, non-wavy noodles, soft-cooked eggs, scallions, chicken miso, duck confit, pork belly, pickles, nori, various flavored oils, and more. A recent trip to Japan (followed, incidentally, by a trip to a ramen expo in Dallas, Texas) inspired a scallop broth, which is now among the offerings. “It was amazing. It was so sweet,” Jesse said of his introduction to scallop broth. “The sweetness of scallops came through.” Sen’s current scallop broth is made from dried scallops, fresh scallops, and shrimp shells, and may incorporate Peconic Bay scallops, now that they are in season. Vegetarians can enjoy a tomato broth, while meat eaters will be happy to see a traditional tonkotsu, along with a chicken broth and a duck broth. “The idea,” Jesse said, “is that you pick out what you want and then go for seconds. I like to taste through things. What’s so beautiful about ramen is that there’s no such thing as just this one style … you can literally change one ingredient out of twenty and you change everything.”

Knowing nothing of the American brand upon which my family relied for our ramen consumption in the 1980s and 1990s, Jesse described the dinner as “oodles of noodles.” His surprise at my revelation that a brand of the same name had once existed in the United States turned to glee when he unearthed a commercial from 1979, touting the noodles as “The mostly noodle noodle soup: A soup so full of noodles, we called it Oodles of Noodles.”

My own experience with ramen-from-a-packet was part of the point, part of the joy. Ramen is personal, an experience informed by preference and availability and individual choice. “I personally have been inspired by how different ramen is around the world,” Jesse said, and that applies to my own familiar versions, as well as to the countless inventions and reinventions that appear everywhere, from Japan to China to France to the midwest. Which is to say: No matter what type of slurpable soup you fancy, you’re likely to find a version that belongs solely to you at Sen’s Ramen Fest.

To reserve a spot, call (631) 725-1774 or email info@senrestaurant.com. Sen will be offering this dinner again in coming months.