April 27, 2015 | BITE: My Journal
First Bite at Meijin
It’s rare to find beef ramen around town, so the Spicy chili beef broth bowl is a must.
It’s rare to find beef ramen around town, so the spicy chili beef broth bowl is a must.

          Our ethnic junky adventurers, usually a six-some, were down to four Thursday night but even that didn’t seem to fit the frantic scene at Meijin Ramen and Dessert Bar, though they’d promised a table by phone. I stood there pasted against the wall, glaring at ostensibly deprived Upper East Siders pouring into Koji Miyamoto’s soup kitchen as if they owned the place. Okay. I guess they do.

Upper East Siders claim these tiny two-tops and backless stools with storage baskets below.

          The hostess tries to seat us in the adjoining bar at a high top table with metal stools that don’t quite fit or accommodate cranky knees. But finally some early-dining locals with strollers vacate and there we are, settled at a couple of two-tops pushed together, on backless wooden stools. Backless, unpadded, normally I’d rant. But I’m not complaining. The knees are happy and I especially like the fat baskets tucked under each stool. I roll up my jacket and stow it with my handbag.

Take advantage of Meijin’s serious bar. I liked my lychee mojito with shiso.

          I’m not sure why no one ordered the peach sparkling sake Jello shot. But by the time I get my first sip of the tall $12 Lychee Mojito (shiso instead of mint), I’m relaxed enough to look around. The rustic country entrance, the baskets hanging over fixtures above, the exposed kitchen and paddles lining the wall with the names of dishes in Japanese, the serving crew in their t-shirts: “Don’t Think! Slurrrrrp!!!.” B+ for effort. It’s a little Disneyland, but not too. 

The Tokyo mule, inspired by the retro Moscow mule, is served in a cup.

          I am not a ramen-hound. I liked my spicy tonkotsu pork soup at Jin Ramen (click here and scroll down to read), a small, no-reservation Michelin bib winner in Harlem. I’d asked for corn, tofu and two slices of char siu pork as $1 add-ins. My porridge was the best at our table, but I was never tempted to go back. I loved the ramen at Ippudo but not the tedious “no reservations” wait, and almost fainted with joy a few years ago in a Tokyo fast food ramen joint. Still, I am more likely to be lusting for hot and sour soup at Shun Lee or the lush harira at Boulud Sud or whatever seasonal soup is on the menu at Bâtard.

Tonight’s shrimp toast from the “Specials” list is topped with a wonton skin and sautéed.

          My friend Belle, a regular here, is our guru tonight. She comes by when it’s quiet at lunch and there’s a $10 special of ramen and a tempura dish. We must order the chef’s smoky chili beef broth ramen, she says. We divide it into four bowls. With its nest of slippery thin noodles, bean sprouts, arugula, garlic chips, hot chili oil and the creamy beef broth, it’s more compelling than the pork rib ginger special of the evening. As a ramen amateur, I had no idea that beef ramen is rarely offered, till I googled around a bit. Miyamoto cooks 60 pounds of beef bones for 13 hours every day for this personal ramen tweak.

I‘d come crosstown anytime just for Meijin’s fabulous fried chicken with spicy mayo, pepper and salt.

          But the truth is, I would come back to Meijin just for the fried chicken, $8 on the Sea & Farm Small Plates list. It’s juicy inside a delicious crust, with spicy mayo to dip it in and sansho salt to drag it through. A lemon squirt is optional. Three or four of these izakaya offerings -- $4 to $12 but mostly less -- could be dinner for me. Why didn’t we try the soft shell crab tempura? Or the spicy pepper chicken wings?

Tuna with ponzu glaze, smelt egg, chili oil in creamy mayo on wonton chips with basil sauce dribbles.

          The tuna “tar tar” is a must, too. Cubes of raw tuna in a ponzu glaze are layered on wonton chips and surrounded by not-quite-enough chili oil in chive aioli. Asian shrimp toast with green onion is sautéed, topped with a crispy wonton skin. A honeyed jalapeno sauce comes alongside.

Tonight’s pork rib chili ginger ramen with vegetables and garlic chips has a creamy miso base.

          But then we’re here for ramen. If I were in charge, I would suggest we each order a ramen or a Japanese-style curry, but Belle insists two big mixing bowls of soup will be more than enough. And it is. She portions it out with tangles of noodles into small bowls -- filled twice.

Clutches of skinny Asian women in black line up along the wall waiting for a table.

          No need to move into the dessert bar for sweets. We debate creamy vanilla custard au caramel with a brownie or the Japanese Hoji-tea crème brûlée before deciding on yuzu cheesecake with almond crumble, a green apple crisp and a small scoop of raspberry sorbet.  It seems to be taking forever and I suggest we just leave without dessert.

Belle’s guy sneaked off to arrange the surprise birthday cheesecake for Rich.

          “No, we can’t leave,” Belle cries. Just then our server approaches with the cake, a birthday candle flaming on top. “Happy Birthday Rich” is written in chocolate on the plate. She joins in a chorus of our salute to Rich, who makes a wish and wipes up the chocolate “Happy” with his finger. It’s a New York moment that reminds you your friends are your family.

          Add in two Absolut martinis, three glasses of white wine and three cocktails. It works out to $60 for each, tip included.

1574 Second Avenue between 81st and 82nd streets. 212 327 2800 Lunch from noon to 3 pm. Dinner 5 to 10:30 pm.



Mountain Bird Pop-Up

Chef Kenichi Tajima does his own pastries and desserts too. We order all three choices.

          Restless in exile after losing their beguiling lace-curtained dollhouse in Central Harlem to a rent hike, Kenichi Tajima and his wife Keiko landed their avian-centric Mountain Bird as a pop-up last week on East 110th Street.

As before, Keiko is everywhere at Tastings, greeting, seating, taking orders, delivering, clearing.

          Installed in the narrow dining space of Tastings catering, where the French-trained, Tokyo-born chef once cooked, the Tajimas -- who did it all with just a dishwasher uptown -- now have the luxury of a bartender, an extra server, a liquor license and the welcoming flames in a gas-fed fireplace.

Something as everyday as ratatouille reveals the chef’s French training and sensibility.

          I’d been totally smitten with the charming eccentricity of their delicious madness. Click here to read "Mountain Bird Sings in Harlem". And I was shocked to discover it had ended so rudely. Keiko confided how difficult it has been to find an affordable new home with an existing kitchen. So for now, this pop-up at Alexandra Morris’ Tastings.

Chicken hearts stewed à la Bourguignonne to pile on toasted bread.

          The flutter of lace doilies that didn’t quite make up for paper napkins uptown -- are much in evidence here and so are the paper napkins. But we can sip a chilled rosé with the warmed pumpernickel baguette that arrives with a ramekin of vanilla butter, waiting for our mostly head-to-toe starters. Heart à la Bourguignonne on toast, frisée with gizzard confit, fingerling potato and sunny side up quail egg, and the luscious silken whip of liver mousse under intense gelée to spread on toast.

Shrimp bisque makes a super rich macaroni and cheese, served piping hot.

          The small pasta elbows in shrimp bisque baked to a mellow crisp are too hot to eat, just as I remember, and too good to share. (Well, I haven’t evolved.) Of course, I pass the macaroni along after burning my tongue. The menu ranges from ostrich to turkey as before, plus smoked salmon, crab salad and a properly cooked filet of daurade that I don’t recall. It comes propped on white asparagus with yellowfoot chanterelle purée alongside and an especially dark and intense sauce antiboise.

The cassoulet delivers duck leg and gizzard confit,chicken sausage, smoked turkey and tarbais beans.

          Does the cassoulet still have cock’s comb? I forgot to ask. Either way, it’s a warming stew of duck leg and gizzard confit, with chicken sausage, smoked turkey and tarbais beans, for this unseasonably chill spring evening. A chicken duo of roasted breast and braised leg with English pea puree, local ramps, and morel sauce shows spring at least trying.

Crumbed chicken schnitzel is clean and crisp, served with potato salad and a duo of sauces.

          The chicken schnitzel is as crisp and clean as remembered, with dilled potato salad now and a duo of sauces, tartar and tomato.

Daurade rides in on white asparagus with chanterelle puree and wildly flavorful sauce antiboise.

          The chef bakes too. We’ll have all three desserts. Very sweet apple tart a la mode. The chocolate brownie with coffee ice cream. Best is the sticky toffee fig cake with a wave of sour cream -- but it was even better on that evening of first discovery, layered with cream cheese.

Gizzards confit with fingerlings and quail egg sunny-side-up served on frisée salad.

          We collect ourselves, untangling feet from the metal chair rail. Our friends from Bandol, still excited by so many classic French moves, are reserving for the following week. It’s almost ten, and a late wave is just arriving. How long will the birds nest here? Presumably until they find a new home, Keiko tells me.

251 East 110th Street, between Second and Third avenues. 212 744 4422. Dinner only Tuesday through Saturday from 6 to 10 pm.



Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.

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