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If you wanted to do something cool in the food scene at the moment, you could have a tasting menu, make doughnuts, hold a pop-up, or offer ramen. But the only person it occurred to to do all of those at once is Iliana Regan, whose Elizabeth will continue with its new chef de cuisine (as reported yesterday) while she prepares her "microbakery" Bunny for a spring opening in Lakeview—and she'll use Bunny's space after hours for a pop-up space called Wunder POP, which will host a variety of different concepts and formats over time.
Regan, who has acquired a lot of food-world contacts since opening Elizabeth, mentioned to me some of the impressive guests she's working on bringing in for a pop-up event at Wunder POP—but until they're completely nailed down, she doesn't want to name them publicly. But she invited me last Friday to check out what will be Wunder POP's first pop-up: a casual ramen bar serving (probably) four different broths, house-made noodles, pickles and other standard accompaniments, plus some special, only-from-her-menu types of accents to enhance your ramen.
The idea for doing a ramen pop-up came from one of her cooks, Mikey Mudrick, who noted the (surprising) lack of ramen places in Maui when he lived there. Watching David Chang make it on the TV show The Mind of a Chef, he thought, "That's really cool, I wonder why we don't have ramen shops here. We had them, but they weren't homemade at all. So I just started doing it at home. I looked up different recipes, trying new things. Soups and noodles, that's one of my favorite foods."
On the day I visit, they've made a tonkotsu ramen, a thick pork stock; the plan is also to offer shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), and miso ramen (go here for more info about all that), the primary ramen broth types. Everything will be made from scratch—even down to the miso, which can be fermented pretty quickly. They've pickled their own burdock, made kimchee radishes, and puffed their own shrimp chips for today's lunch, not to mention a roasted pork shoulder crusted with bread crumbs, slices of which will go in the soup. And to represent their unconventional additions, there's a whole tray of little gelatins in the shape of owls, to add a note of yuzu (citrus) to the bowl, as well as the additional body of the gelatin.
The test is promising, no question: the stock has great pork flavor, if not as silky-thick as some (like that at the city's hot new ramen spot, Furious Spoon). The pickles are a standout, bright-tasting, and so is the pork shoulder. But there's just too much sweetness and yuzu flavor in one gelatin owl for the size of the bowl; it throws the bowl off balance, and they talk about how to scale it back, so it's an accent, not a dominant flavor. Anyway, they have plenty of time to tinker.
I sat down with Regan to talk about Wunder POP and what it will be like to join the city's ramen craze, even if just for a month or two.
Michael Gebert: So you don't know exactly when you're opening, but you do know that you'll be offering ramen right from the start, alongside the baked goods during the day.
Iliana Regan: When we do open, at the same time we want to open both concepts in the same space. That way, when we have people coming in to prepare for Wunder POP, whatever the theme may be, the people running the bakery—and we'll have some overlap, because they'll all be employees of the bakery—I want them to get used to each other.
For the first one I thought we'd jump on the bandwagon of ramen. That's what everybody's excited about in Chicago right now—or maybe we'll catch the tail end of that before it's not cool any more. Mikey, who has worked here since November, expressed some interest in it, and started making some things that we eat for staff meal. I said, are you interested in doing this thing with me and looking at recipes and eating lots of ramen? We're going to keep it casual, just like Bunny will be casual. We'll make it kind of like a ramen bar where we have four different kinds of ramen and then a couple of different sets of items that people can choose from to put onto the broth that they choose.
So we're working on that. After that, we're going to set it up to have a break with some weekend bread classes. Give people a few recipes, help them learn how to maintain a starter and do some basic bread making. After that, I have some other things that I'm working on that I think will be pretty exciting. I'm meeting in New York next month with one possibility.
We'll run through themes, and have ticket sales for the shorter ones where somebody just comes in for the weekend. Those [ticket sales] might just be over the phone, we still haven't developed how that's going to work. I've talked to Nick Kokonas about doing it through Tock and how the system might look for events in that case. It's great for Elizabeth, but I don't know if that would be the best thing for all the changing up we're going to do, just financially. So it might be something more along the lines of El Ideas, where people just call and we book it out.
But the ramen isn't short term like that—I assume you're going to do it for a while.
Yeah, we'll probably do like two months, about three or four nights a week. And then when we do the bread one it might be two consecutive weekends. If we bring someone in, it might be a collaboration where we do it for a month, the same number of nights per week and focus on one thing. I mean, they're all focused on having fun.
Have you made ramen before?
We have worked on a couple of recipes and several noodle recipes, and tinkered with [whether] we want egg in it, do we not want egg in it. So we're still really in the baby beginning stages of it. We're experimenting with making our own misos, everything we're going to be putting on top of it will be homemade, so if there are little shrimp chips or whatever, everything will be from scratch.
So I think that's a fun little part of it too. I'm sure that a lot of other ramen places are doing that, especially some of the people who are doing high end or chef-driven ramen—Shin Thompson [Furious Spoon] or Matthias Merges [Yusho], theirs are very much like that. But we're keeping it small, like a ramen bar—having a simple, straightforward menu but complex technique.
And I think that area [on Broadway in Lakeview] has a lot of traffic, but I don't think there's that concept going on over there. I know there's a lot of Asian and Thai, but I don't think there's a ramen shop.
I don't think we're doing one of those things where we're trying to say this is going to be the best ramen shop ever, we're just trying to do it really well and have fun with it and also be able to service the neighborhood. It's going to be casual, it's not going to be a superexpensive ticket price. I would expect on the higher end to be paying 12 bucks a bowl for something with seafood or a nice cut of meat. Anywhere from eight to 12 bucks.
Even so, ramen is something that's big right now—are you doing anything that's going to be unique to you? Or is it just something you felt like playing with?
I think that we'll give people some fun little twists on it from our end. We'll still bring to the table a little bit of wacky flavor combinations, and the technique will still be very refined but for this product that is way more casual. The other part that will be fun and that is unique to us is that it will have this quaint atmosphere of Bunny.
We're going to have it largely available to go because of the fact that we're tiny. We're going to focus on some of that where people can come in, and if we're packed and there’s a little wait, then people can take it to go. Because ramen is difficult for takeout with the noodles, that's the kind of thing that you don’t want to do—
Right, Shin Thompson was just saying in an interview why he won't do takeout, period. Are you going to give them the noodles separately?
Yeah, we'll probably do it on the side. And say, you probably want to take this straight home and eat it, and if you don't . . . don't Yelp about it!