Zutto is Dead, Long Live Zutto

| 17 Feb 2015 | 04:28

    The Tribeca stalwart is revived with a new chef and some new ideas If you serve ramen in a restaurant with none of the traditional trappings, can it still be considered a proper ramen experience? Zutto Japanese American Pub (77 Hudson St., zuttonyc.com) hopes so. No, not the Zutto you're thinking of, though Tribeca stalwarts may be forgiven. For some 30 years or so, that name was the domain of the first and, for a long time, only sushi restaurant in what was still an amenity-free neighborhood. While this erstwhile izakaya occupies the same address and bears the same name, it is very clearly Under New Management. In addition to a new real estate developer owner, the restaurant now has a kitchen run by a former wine director for Bouley and other fine dining landmarks in his first solo venture as chef. The resulting establishment shows some affinity with both sides of its heritage, though perhaps not enough in either direction to produce a coherent experience. In addition to the all-important ramen (more on that in a moment), there is a variety of steamed buns (nikuman), blistered shishito peppers whose occasionally overwhelming bell pepperiness is tempered by a sharp hit of citrus, pork katsu cutlets and edamame, also charred to better effect than the usual boiled blandness. There is a sushi menu that does not completely eradicate Zutto's baroque past, rather balancing the outlandish items like a foie gras roll and a short rib roll with a manageable list of pristine sushi and sashimi. Then again, those nikuman are stuffed with, in addition to the standard braised pork belly, portobello mushroom and arugula or a miniature Kobe beef patty with oven-roasted tomatoes, a nightmare for both steamed bun aficionados and hamburger purists. There is a Thai green papaya salad on the menu for no discernible reason. And the large-format dishes number exactly two: a miso-glazed cod straight out of another Tribeca Japanese stalwart's playbook and ? steak frites? Ultimately, the rest of the menu is window-dressing for what is the real star of Zutto's universe: the ramen. The moment it arrives, any remaining doubts dissolve quietly in the steam rising from the bowl. Here, the kitchen joins its two worlds seamlessly. As any true ramen-ya knows, the soup is only as good as its broth, and the 48-hour-simmered tonkotsu broth is easily on par with the city's widely acknowledged traditional best. The chicken-lightened shoyu base reads as pure chicken soup, in a way bubbies could only dream of replicating. Flavor combinations burst the boundaries of the traditional in a way that feels revelatory, never forced. Wasabi oil on the wasabi shoyu ramen isn't the full-frontal sinus attack it might be; the bite is barely present, allowing a floral grassiness to shine through instead. Briny clams in the kimchi ramen (not nearly as spicy as the caps-locked menu would have you believe) are an unexpected bright point in the deep, mildly funky soup. The only disappointment is in how sparingly toppings are handled, given how well they feature the kitchen's trickier maneuvers-the few tiny clams in a recent bowl teased more than they satisfied. Even for those who don't remember the dark days of Tribeca, when Zutto was a beacon of civilization, this new incarnation has already become a go-to neighborhood stalwart. Even the menu's more erratic moves allow it to appeal to a broader audience-cynical, perhaps, but if it keeps that ramen coming, nobody will take offense.