Living in one of the country’s biggest cities has its fair share of grandiose rewards. (Honestly, why else would we put up with muggy summers, long winters, sticky subway benches and steep rent?) It’s on these streets that cultures crash into each other over decades and dinner tables. That’s why a place like Dassara Ramen strikes us as one of those only-in-New-York type spots. While the traditional Japanese-style noodles receive top billing at this Cobble Hill restaurant, the supporting players are uniquely Brooklyn at heart.
Dassara opened its doors back in August 2012. Looking at it, you would never guess the idea for the restaurant was spontaneous – prompted by a craving for a local bowl. The interior of the place is equal parts Brooklyn past and present: exposed brick and rustic salvage get a sleek modern polish, like the wood-lined light panels hanging from the ceiling. Together with the menu, it feels like something that was thought out over many late nights and hot bowls of broth.
“My wife [Lana Yang] and I came up with the idea at a presentation for the Japan Society about ramen,” says Justin DeSpirito, one of Dassara’s owners. “We thought a ramen restaurant in our neighborhood would do well, and we decided rather than wait for someone else to open one, we went ahead and did it.”
To be sure, this isn’t your classic Ippudo or Ivan — but that’s not the goal here. Rather than aim for historic approaches to cooking the dish, Dassara pitches a different ball game. “Japanese cooking and preparation underlies a lot of it, but it’s about putting our own influences on top of it and making it our own,” Justin says. “For us, it’s Italian, Taiwanese and Jewish.”
But, first things first, what makes a truly good bowl? “To me, what makes good ramen, it’s a couple things,” Justin says. “For one, it’s the broth. I like a broth that’s both light and deep with flavor. You take a bite of it, and the flavor goes on and on. The other thing is the noodles, something that has a slight chew to it but is not rubbery.”
To take these necessities and design the whole cross-cultural menu at Dassara, Justin and Lana teamed up with Josh Kaplan, an avid ramen fanatic and professionally trained chef. From the fall of 2011 to mid-spring of 2012, the brainstorming began flowing with the noodles. “If Brooklyn were a prefecture of Japan what would it be like?” he remembers asking while the trio meditated on the menu’s first dishes. “Josh would make a couple dishes and we’d try them. It was a lot of eating out and making things in our kitchen, but it also meant seeing if we could reproduce [each recipe] a 100 times a night.”
One of the signatures here is the Deli Ramen, which offers the comforts of a homemade chicken soup, paired up with matzo balls, diced celery, locally-sourced Canadian-style smoked meat and a soft-poached egg. The "Kamo" Duck Confit Ramen also starts with a classic chicken broth, but ups the ante with a duck tare and a mirin and seaweed infusion with sliced duck confit, fried shallots and a soft-poached egg. Whoa there.
The White Clam Mazemen, on the other hand, is mostly brothless, and according to Justin, aims at letting his own Italian heritage shine through. It’s similar to a long-established New York bowl of linguine with white clams, substituting ramen for the former. The noodles get a rich coating of buttery clam sauce, along with a helping of littleneck clams, parsley and Japanese milk bread croutons.
For bigger fans of turf than surf, the Cubana Mazemen is one of the most packed bowls on the menu. “It’s a Cuban sandwich, but in a bowl of noodles,” Justin explains. It’s also a brothless ramen tossed with pork, roasted garlic butter and lime, then garnished with a relish of house-made pickles and salted chilis, along with strips of ham, chunks of Cuban roasted pork, cracklins (aka crunchy pork rinds) and cilantro.
But seeing as a hot bowl of food isn’t always what we want on a stuffy summer day, the Chilled Green Tea Ramen is one of the most intriguing come warmer weather. It’s served (duh) cold in a green tea broth with shrimp paste, a bit of chili oil and poached chicken.
Ready to slurp some for yourself? Head over to 271 Smith Street (between Degraw and Sackett). Dassara opens Monday through Wednesday for dinner, Thursdays and Fridays for both lunch and dinner, plus special brunch options on Saturdays and Sundays. Shelsky's Smoked Salmon Mazemen on a hazy weekend morning? And of course, it wouldn’t be Brooklyn without their backyard opening up on sunny days for events with local artists and filmmakers. So spring for an extra $2 add-on of matzo balls to your favorite ramen, and dig in or a borough-rockin’ meal.