Monday, January 02, 2012
I'm not very knowledgeable about ramen (or, let's face it, Japanese cuisine in general) but I am curious - so I was excited to try Underbelly, the new ramen-centric eatery in Little Italy recently opened by the folks behind Neighborhood and Craft & Commerce. It replaced the late Red Velvet wine bar at the corner of Kettner and Fir - on the west side of the same block as Bencotto and Influx.
The first thing you need to know about Underbelly, especially if you're planning to go at night, is that it's cold. Every surface in the restaurant is metal or glass, and the windows are kept wide open, even in the winter. It was sprinkling on the night we were there, and our table was actually one of the windows - so that half of our party was indoors and half was out on the sidewalk. They're also a little aggressive about their "rules." When I first walked in, the bartender/cashier/hostess/server barked at me that I needed to order before sitting down. I had to fend her off by explaining that my husband was already at the bar and we were meeting a larger party. The room is small and seating is limited, so I guess it makes sense that they would like for people to place their orders, eat, and get out relatively quickly - but it isn't a very welcoming approach.
We ordered almost every starter on the menu to try as much as possible. The "boiled peanuts" arrived first and I was afraid they didn't bode well for the rest of the meal. Soggy and strangely flavored, they were a definite miss. The "Ahi Tataki" was nice enough, sauced with a ponzu dressing and served over assorted bean sprouts - but I can't really say it was better than any other seared ahi I've been served in the past twenty years.
These rest of the starters followed in a similar vein - inoffensive, but nothing extra. The descriptions on the menu somehow made them sound much more interesting than they turned out to be. The little Kurobuta Sausages were ok - not too greasy - maybe they could have been hotter. The "house made kim chi" underneath seemed perfunctory. I didn't even remember it was there until I looked at the menu again just now. I liked the "Ginger Beef Brisket Mushu" all right - the sweet shredded beef wrapped in mushu pancakes tasted something like Japanese barbecue.
By far the best of the bunch were the Shrimp Gyoza. They had a nice crisp/tender exterior, good flavor, and the pea shoots on top were fantastic. I'm not sure why there are whole garlic gloves on the plate - I'm pretty sure nobody ate them.
The ramen options are a bit complicated. They offer several different set combinations, and you have the option to add just all of the toppings they offer - plus a few more - to any bowl. We tried three of their set combinations and shared them: the Underbelly, the Belly of the Beast, and Charred Kim Chi. The Underbelly was garnished with pork belly, bacon and the same sausage we'd had as a starter. The "Belly of the Beast" was topped with a brisket, and oxtail dumpling and short rib meat, and the Charred Kim Chi included shishito peppers, rainbow carrots and napa cabbage. I thought the Underbelly and Belly of the Beast were pretty tasty (and pretty similar, really) but I didn't much enjoy the Charred Kim Chi. I was expecting it to have some kim chi "funk" but roasted carrots were pretty much all I could taste in that bowl. Others enjoyed it more than I did. There were eggs in all three bowls and they were well cooked - runny and soft in the center.
You may have heard that Underbelly refuses to provide spoons to diners. This is ridiculous for four reasons that I can think of and possibly more. One, they should know their customers will want to use spoons to eat soup, simple as that. Two, you can't properly taste the dish using chopsticks. Trust me, you will want to pick up a little bit of meat, a little bit of egg, and maybe some scallions and take a bite with a little broth - but sorry, that's just not possible. Third, eating a soft egg with chopsticks is a pain. And fourth, the bowls are huge, and having to pick up the huge basin to slurp the broth is both messy and inconvenient. Underbelly has responded to this criticism by saying they wanted it to be "authentic." Get real. It's obviously not "authentic" in a thousand other ways. This is just a gimmick, like the "no ketchup" rule at their sister restaurant Neighborhood, intended to get people talking.
They do have a great tap craft beer selection (one diner in our party pronounced it the best thing they offer), and I did enjoy the meat based ramen bowls. I probably wouldn't make the cross-town trek for it again, but if I lived in the neighborhood, I could definitely see myself tucking a spoon in my purse and heading to the bar for a bowl of the Belly of the Beast or the Underbelly ramen. If you skip the starters you could easily get out of there for around $25. per person all inclusive - no mean feat in that part of town these days.
P.S. By the way, this thing about not being knowledgeable about ramen is something I plan to change this year - starting with a trip to Convoy for some groceries to try David Chang's recipes in the ramen issue of Lucky Peach. I'll let you know how it goes!
P.P. S. If you are also not as knowledgeable about ramen as you would like to be, there's a great primer here!
750 W Fir St (at Kettner)
San Diego, CA 92101