Ramen is a staple in Japan (though it originated in China); recipes vary from region to region and are often closely guarded secrets. While many Americans are familiar only with the Top version, there is in fact a complex and varied ramen-verse out there, full of aromatic broths and flavorful variations.
When I asked Biwa's Gabe Rosen about his ramen recipe, I was hoping to hear a story about how the broth was developed under the tutelage of a Sapporo monk who forced Rosen to endure a brutal apprenticeship, maybe involving carrying buckets of pig entrails up steep flights of steps (I watched Kill Bill recently), before revealing the closely guarded secret of his soup.
Rosen's answer? "I came up with a soup that I like. We make it."
Oh. Well, that works too.
Biwa recently opened in the same Southeast building that houses Simpatica, the catering arm of Viande Meats (Rosen, in fact, used to work as a butcher at Viande). The unobtrusive basement restaurant is modeled on Japanese izakaya, which Rosen describes as "like Japanese pubs... basically, drinking places in a very traditional model."
Biwa's logo is a small chick, which seems incongruously cutesy given that half the menu consists of meat on a stick. In fact, though, the chicky is a sly homage to Japanese yakitori [grilled chicken] stands, another influence on Biwa: "There's these restaurant typologies in Japan: the ramen shop, the yakitori place. And the restaurant doesn't have to have a name—if you have a picture of a chicken up, people are going to know it's a yakitori place."
Following the chicken will provide rewards for adventure-seeking and comfort-driven diners alike. It doesn't get much more comforting than ramen—a steaming, greasy bowl of noodles and pork simmered in an onion-heavy broth. The noodles themselves are made in house, in a labor-intensive process that sums up Biwa's emphasis on quality, even in the simplest dishes. There's also a section of yakimono ("things from the grill"): skewered meats like pork belly, chewy pork cheek, chicken thigh, beef tongue for the brave, plus an assortment of grilled vegetables. Don't miss the onigiri: a nori (seaweed)-wrapped rice ball with a pickled-plum center; or the vegetable chijimi, a sort of savory vegetable crêpe. The menu emphasizes meat, particularly unusual cuts, while still welcoming vegetarian diners; nearly half of the items on the menu are marked with a tiny thumbs up, indicating that they are (or can be made) vegetarian or vegan.
"I'm trying to keep this place a restaurant that can be a lot of things to a lot of people," Rosen told me. "You can eat here really inexpensively if you want to, but I think I offer enough stuff that you could also have a more interesting and diverse and complicated dining experience."
And Biwa really is all about the experience. Hot towels arrive at each table before the meal for diners to wipe their hands, along with a Japanese-style amuse bouche: smoked anchovies on one visit, seaweed on the next. Dishes are easily shared; the best way to enjoy this menu is to bring a friend and order a number of dishes. Let your server recommend a sake from the short but well-informed sake list, get an order of gyoza (pork dumplings, hand-made of course), some yakitori, and a side of spicy kimchi, and prepare to have yourself a cultural experience.