November 29, 2012
Downtown Brooklyn, you may have read, is booming. It's now home to The Barclays Center, The Islanders, The Brooklyn Nets, a collection of new residential towers flanking Dekalb and Flatbush Avenues, an Express, a GAP outlet, a shiny new Emporio Armani, a soon to open TJ Maxx/H&M Megaplex, and a Shake Shack (the ultimate indicator of the neighborhood’s arrival).
So it makes sense that restaurateurs with a keen eye for value and sharp sense of foresight would snatch up the real estate in this neighborhood in transition. And that’s precisely what Harris Salat did in opening his terrific new wood-paneled ramen hut, Ganso. Designed by the award-winning Super Paprika Corp with raw cedar, stone and glass, the restaurant is set off on a snug stretch of Bond Street between Livingston and the Fulton Mall. His closest restaurant competition is the IHOP. Seriously. He counts as his retail neighbors an eclectic mix of pawn shops, tattoo parlors, GOING OUT OF BUSINESS shops (that have been going out of business for the past decade), real thrift shops (where clothing is old, used, and cheap), sketchy wireless shacks, multi-story five-and-dimes, and bright neon wig shops. It’s the real Brooklyn, people.
And you feel that sense of Brooklyn in the room. This is not a restaurant with just ironically dressed white folks at the tables like many Brooklyn’s trendiest farm-to-table spots. Here you will find a collection of several different races and colors, tucked in at the ramen bar or at one of the tall backed booths, all happily slurping soup and sucking down squiggly yard long noodles from top to tip.
And to this Brooklyn in metamorphosis, Salat has brought a classic slice of Japan. He should know. The guy is something of an authority on Japanese food and culture. He has written for The New York Times, Saveur and Gourmet, trained in Japanese restaurant kitchens in Kyoto, Tokyo and New York, and co-authored three cookbooks: Takashi's Noodles, Japanese Hot Pots and The Japanese Grill. A few years ago, when Harris was served a special ramen dish by Chef Rio Irie at Matsuri restaurant, he made a note to himself, “open a restaurant with this guy.” That’s precisely what he did at Ganso, which means Japanese for “original” and “pioneering.”
I found much of the food quite original, even though I’ve had almost every dish on the menu at some point or another. Indeed, you’ll not find gyoza ($7) like the ones served at Ganso anywhere else. They arrive huddled together on the plate, connected like Siamese quintuplets by a lacy honeycomb crust made of fried gyoza skin. It crackles like a kettle cooked potato chip under the weight of a chopstick. Pierce through that crispy veil, and you’ll find crescent shaped dumplings, plump with the right mix of pork and green garlic chives, right and ready for a dunk-worthy chili-soy sauce. They are priceless at $7 for the set.
The agedashi tofu (a nightly special) is also exceptional. Squares of potato starch dressed tofu are deep fried then topped with caramelized nuggets of eggplant, and shaved scallions, and then submerged in a dazzling broth of soy, dashi and mirin, that’s hits all the sweet, salty, spicy and umami notes. It’s everything you’ve ever wanted in agedashi tofu, but were afraid to ask for.
There are two wonderful types of buns on the menu—the Kari Kari Buns ($9) sandwich panko breaded pork loin slathered with a tangy tonkatsu sauce, and the Buta Kimchi Buns are filled with braised pork belly, then topped off with a one-two punch of jalapeno kimchi and spicy mayo ($9). The least successful of the small plates is the Japanese fried chicken, which is nicely crispy and piping hot in ringlets that resemble fried calamari, yet strangely bland, served in cute little shallow baskets with wedges of lemon ($8).
But the ultimate Japanese comfort arrives in the form of deep, beautiful bowls of ramen. There are five varieties from which to and on several my visits I’ve had all but the vegetarian version (when given the option for braised beef or pork, I’ll never say no). The traditional Ganso ($12) is a classic soy broth stocked up with slow-braised pork, an egg, and seasonal greens, and it’s remarkably light and clean. You don’t get that heavy, sluggish, salted down, I need to drink a well’s worth of water feeling after you finish it. For a hot steamy soup, it’s almost refreshing.
The Short Rib ($15) offers a more heft in the broth, which is made from beef and soy, and arrives bobbing with slabs of fall-apart braised beef, a perfectly poached runny egg, and a tangle of greens and noodles. Debbie and I shared this one, as we had loaded up on too many small plates for a bowl each. I should say that the attentive and sweet staff is happy to help you share. They give you another bowl and spoon, and there’s no silly sharing fee. Which is great because the portions are really too big for one to finish when coupled with all the first courses you’ll be eatin’.
For those with a craving for something a bit spicier, you have a choice between the Spicy Miso ($13) broth with braised pork, an egg, and greens, or the “Stamina” (I suppose Japan’s answer to Viagra?), a thrilling chicken-soy-chili broth hit up with shrimp paste, with Napa cabbage, garlic chives and chicken ($14). This was my favorite. Running around after a strong-willed, hilarious little Energizer bunny of a three-year old most of my days, I need all the stamina I can get.
There’s not much in the way of dessert at Ganso, though you might like to have one of the adorable Ramune Japanese sodas that you self-carbonate in flavors like watermelon and yuzu ($4 each). They’re sweet enough. Ciao Bella ice cream cups are served, and the mango sorbet is a refreshing way to end a meal. So far, there’s no liquor license but wine and beer are expected shortly. That didn’t seem to be a problem for us on any of our visits, but a cold beer would be a nice accompaniment. It will be there soon enough.
After a meal at Ganso, on your way home or on your walk back to the Subway, stroll down the Fulton Mall and marvel at all of your retail options. You can pick up a $5 wireless plan, a hot pink wig, a couple of dollar t-shirts, and a new outfit from Armani. Gotta love Brooklyn.
Ganso is located at 25 Bond Street, 718-403-0900, www.gansonyc.com