It was about 10 years ago when Japanese “Iron Chef” Yuji Wakiya was approached by Rocky Aoki, the founder of Benihana.
Aoki had a prediction about the next big Japanese food that would hit the United States after sushi: ramen. He wanted Wakiya to create dishes for him. But Wakiya is a fine-dining chef—to eat at his restaurants in Japan, you need to be prepared to part with a few hundred dollars. A noodle dish wasn’t quite in his aspirations.
Aoki passed away seven years ago. Of course his prediction came to pass in a big way. To honor his memory, his wife Keiko Ono Aoki (also currently the CEO of Benihana) enlisted Wakiya, successfully this time, to create a noodle dish—and it’s offered right in the Flatiron.
Last year she opened the restaurant KOA (after her own initials). Wakiya makes a ramen dish that should be a game-changer in the ramen world, even if it is late coming to the game of ramen in town—and actually to differentiate it from the pack, they don’t even call it ramen. They call it sorba.
“I don’t know, maybe Rocky would say, ‘Oh Keiko, oh no this is not what I meant,’ but I try my best,” she said.
I tried one of the sorba dishes and it was nothing like I’ve seen before. We all know the long-simmered pork broth or chicken broth.
But here the broth was white. Along with the chicken stock, Wakiya uses a specially patented, exclusive soy cream that he imports from Japan. As a result there’s a gentle creaminess to the broth.
“By adding the two elements, it has umami,” Wakiya said. The soy cream, he added, is very nutritious.
To this dish, Soymilk Dan Dan Sorba, he also adds spicy ground beef (a take on the Chinese dan dan noodles, I imagine), and drizzles the dish with chili oil made with 10 different spices, including sansho pepper.
Wakiya is known for his haute Chinese cuisine in Japan, where he blends tradition with his own creativity. In Japan, chefs are looking to its healthy aspect. “There’s a saying in China that means ‘to eat and to heal.'”
The other difference with these sorba dishes is the ratio of the different elements. “Rocky said Americans need toppings, not only broth and noodles and a little scallion, a little seaweed, some little vegetables,” she said.
As a result, the sorba dishes have less broth, and more toppings.
Another signature dish is a take on a Sichuan classic, the onomatopeic Hehe-A-He Chicken, named for its spiciness.
It’s not as much tongue searing as it is flavorful, but the sight of the heaping amount of Sichuan peppers might well add to the sensation.
KOA will be debuting small plates soon.
Yuri Wakiya will appear for a culinary demonstration at the Taste Asia Food Fest in Times Square on June 26.
12 W. 21st St.
Monday–Friday noon–3 p.m.
Monday–Saturday 5 p.m.–10:30 p.m.
Saturday Noodle Brunch:
11:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m.