Constraints breed creativity. Right?
The king of arbitrary rulemaking is Lars von Trier, the Danish filmmaker who created the Dogme 95 film movement. Lars got fed up with Hollywood studios with their big budgets and elaborate effects and superstars, so he wrote a vow of chastity to level the playing field for the average Joe (average Johan?) filmmaker.
You know you are watching a Dogme 95 film if it looks like a home movie: no fancy sets, no genre, no special effects, no dramatic murders—in short, no Jurassic Park. You also know from the official certifikate. (Lars was a stickler for rules.) At its best, Dogme 95’s rules heighten the acting and storytelling to the level of Great Art. At its worst, it is just amateur porn without all the good scenes. (Armond’s words, not mine.)
So then, ramen.
Mazemen is the Dogme 95 of ramen, but there is only one rule: no broth. It is ramen without the very best thing about ramen. Absurd, I know, but stick with me.
During my early 20’s, the Maruchan years, I learned how soupless noodles can intensify flavor. Open the pouch, boil the brick, drain the water, sprinkle the chicken-flavor-powder-packet directly on top. Little clumps of sodium tingled my tastebuds like savory Pop Rocks. I am still thirsty.
Niche is a ramen shop dedicated to mazemen and all the creativity that comes from one big constraint. Chef Nakamura is not a Lars-von-Trierian dogmatist; he has a traditional ramen-with-broth shop next door (a brothel?). He is also a realist, who set the right expectations with the name “Niche” and seating for maybe 20. He clearly knows that mazemen isn’t everyone’s cup of noodle.
On the first warm spring day in New York, I didn’t miss the broth all that much. The Steak Mazemen was a standout hit, with a generous helping of ribeye and a flavor-punch of pork sauce. (Let the philosophers sort out where “broth” ends and “pork sauce” begins.). The Duck Mazemen special was more delicate and richer in flavor, and I never again want to eat duck unless it is sliced chashu-style. The noodles were just right—a perfect canvas to be painted with flavor.
Across the communal table, I spied a few of the dishes I missed. The Russ & Roe paid fishy, creamy, salty homage to its salmon’s origin around the corner at Russ & Daughters. The Mushroom Chili Tomato Mazemen looked like Japanese-Italian comfort food in the most delicious way, and the Indian celebrity chef sitting across from us agreed.
The Uni Toast deserves its own blog post.
The problem, if there is one, is the whole damn premise. Yes, constraints breed creativity, but remind me why we are constraining ourselves? Tiny houses are sometimes good, but I would rather live in a big house. Dogme 95 is sometimes good, but given the choice, pop me some popcorn and take me to see Jurrasic Park. And I have nothing against mazemen—really I don’t—but if you’re asking, I’d rather just have ramen, please and thank you.
I am not, in my heart, a noodle nudist, but I will not be dogmatic about it. I’ll go back to Niche. I’ll wait for another warm day. I’ll order another flavorbomb. I’ll love it. I’ll briefly question if it’s really ramen or if it’s just Japanese pasta. And then I’ll get over myself and keep eating.