The national ramen craze has reached Madison, with three dedicated ramen restaurants opening here in the past year.
At first, Shinji Muramoto, who owns two of Madison’s best Japanese restaurants, never thought ramen — which some say originated in Japan, others China — would have the staying power of sushi, but he was proven wrong. So wrong, that he helped two of his former chefs open a ramen spot on King Street.
Morris Ramen, with the tagline “Sip. Slurp. Repeat,” opened Dec. 12 where RED sushi used to be. It’s named for Matt Morris, who opened the restaurant with his wife, Francesca Hong.
The number of ramen bowls is kept to four. Interestingly, the signature Morris ramen was the weakest dish I’ve had at the restaurant. The Morris ($13) is simple with braised pork belly; fermented bamboo shoots; scallions; and two halves of a soft-boiled, soy-stained egg, which was the best part.
The slice of pork belly was particularly fatty, and I had to scoop it out to cut off the excess fat. Still, it added flavor to a broth that didn’t have much otherwise. The noodles were the size and shape of the ramen noodles college students subsist on.
The spicy ($12) ramen held thicker noodles, along with thin strips of wood ear mushroom, delicious bok choy, and a slab of chicken. The broth was too spicy for me, but I took the remainder of both soups home and mixed them together for the perfect ramen — one that had flavor and spice.
Both bowls would have benefited from smaller pieces of meat instead of the big discs that were hard to cut with a soup spoon or chopsticks. But kudos to Morris Ramen for its tender pork and chicken, and broth that wasn’t too salty, a common ramen pitfall.
Extra meat, including ground pork, is available for $2.50. Vegetable add-ons are $1.
We couldn’t resist ordering a couple of items from the “not ramen” category. The hearty satsuma fries ($5.50), named after a Japanese sweet potato, had such a faint sweet potato flavor, they were barely sweet, and that was a nice surprise. A bowl of tangy aioli made with the Korean condiment gochujang helped enhance them.
Brussels sprouts ($7) are blanched, then caramelized and tossed with a sauce made from miso, sesame seeds and honey. Given those ingredients, they could have had more flavor.
The small menu features four large buns ($4.50), and the vegetarian squash bun similarly needed some character. It was said to have yogurt and chutney, but they weren’t prominent. The squash had the same mushy texture as the bun, so it blurred together. I’d go with a beef, chicken or pork one next time.
For dessert, it’s hard to beat Morris’ thick ice cream sandwich ($6.50) with orange-vanilla ice cream and rectangular chocolate chip cookies both made in-house. It comes smartly wrapped in paper and tied with string.
We also fared well with drinks, particularly the Ozeki sparkling sake ($7), which our friendly and helpful server had the bartender split between two glasses. It was crisp and refreshing.
Cocktails are also a strong suit. The Smoking Jacket ($9) was a winning blend of tequila, Korean Jinro soju and peach liqueur. A couple of drops of scotch make it smoky. None of the ingredients came on too strong, making ordering a second one dangerously easy.
The same was true of the Starburst Sunrise ($8). An orange juice-based drink with lychee liqueur and orange-infused vodka, it would be a great brunch cocktail.
Another thing going for Morris Ramen is the room, which is strikingly different from its predecessor, but equally stylish. Morris and his father basically did the remodeling work themselves, making it even more remarkable.
“It’s not too bad of work for a retired middle school teacher and his son putting some stuff together,” Morris said, adding that at one time his father did freelance construction in the summers.
There are large, interesting wooden panels along the back wall and ceiling, above a long wooden banquette. Across the tables are attractive wooden cubes to sit on, and, without backs, they don’t make the most of comfortable seats. Maybe the idea is to turn tables faster.
At 7 p.m. on a recent Thursday, every seat was full, including all the seating at a sushi-style counter. Above it are lighted boxes, another cool design element.
The bar/counter at Morris Ramen is a great place to be, whether you are eating ramen, drinking one of the restaurant’s stellar cocktails, or just admiring the scenery. Sip. Slurp. Repeat.