A Conversation With Ramen Master Ivan Orkin

Ivan Orkin outside his restaurant at 25 Clinton St. Photo by Alex M. Smith.

Ivan Orkin outside his restaurant at 25 Clinton St. Photo by Alex M. Smith.

The following story was first published in the June edition of The Lo-Down’s print magazine.

Get ready for some ramen magic on the LES.  He runs two popular ramen restaurants in Tokyo and now Ivan Orkin is bringing his version of the tasty delicacy to New York, setting up shop at 25 Clinton St. on the former site of Ed’s Lobster Bar Annex. The 50-year-old ramen impresario, who created Ivan Ramen and Ivan Ramen Plus, grew up in Syosset, Long Island, and migrated to Japan after stints in the kitchens of Mesa Grill and Lutece, among others.

Orkin has won accolades in Japan for his shio ramen (one soup made from two broths) and homemade noodles. After several years in Japan, he returned to New York a little over a year ago with his young family. Orkin’s tie to the LES? His grandfather lived in the neighborhood when he first came to the United States in 1909. Apart from the family connection, Orkin fondly recalls eating his way through Chinatown and the LES in the ’80s and ’90s: “I’d start out eating Chinese food and then ended up with Jewish food.” Among his favorite stops were Kossar’s, Guss’ Pickles, Economy Candy, Russ & Daughters and Katz’s. When he was a kid, he’d go with his mother to one of the many fabric stores that lined the neighborhood. He says the gentrification of the LES kind of passed him by while he was living in Japan.

Orkin’s excited to be on Clinton Street in a corridor that offers so many choices.  “We’re joining some wonderful restaurants—Clinton Street Baking Company, wd~50, Yunnan Kitchen, Mission Chinese, among others. It feels like a really nice, tight-knit community,” he says, having met the owner/operators of neighboring restaurants. Orkin chose the LES for the simple reason that it’s a great destination: “What I’m making is very young and fun and the Lower East Side is a fun and young place.” Orkin projects Ivan Ramen to open by mid-July.

If Orkin’s timing is anything like it was when he dovetailed with the Japanese ramen boom in 2003, he’s likely to have a hit.  “Ramen has become very popular. I would say it’s happening,” Orkin says. While ramen has been in Japan since the 1950s, it exploded 10 to 15 years ago. Here, Orkin says, the idea of ramen is just beginning: “The fortunate thing is a lot of chefs are making it interesting, figuring it out and making it really delicious. It’s fun to be part of that whole movement.”

Orkin’s dining room will seat 40, with about 20 more seats in the backyard garden. While he’s not ready to tip his hand on the menu, Orkin says his restaurant will feature all the signature dishes from his Tokyo shop like Shio Ramen with pork belly, along with small plates like fried pork meatballs and crispy fried ramen. He’s had to redevelop all his noodles and craft new recipes that take into consideration New York water and American flour.

“Any time you bake or make pasta or combine flour and water, it just changes.” He’s using American and Canadian flour now; in Japan, he sourced his flour from southern Japan and Australia.  As for opening a restaurant in New York, Orkin maintains that it’s much more challenging and complex.  “There’s much less red tape in Japan and it’s easier to line up workers there. Believe it or not, I’m more comfortable opening a restaurant in Tokyo than in New York,” he says, laughing.

A second Orkin restaurant in a more casual setting is set to open in the forthcoming Gotham West Market in Hell’s Kitchen this fall.