Every weekend when the clock strikes 11 p.m., Uni, the high-end sashimi bar tucked away on the underground level of the Eliot Hotel, morphs into something a little less Back Bay and little more Brooklyn. The music (usually some iteration of old school hip-hop) is cranked up, a line begins to form and, for the next few hours, steaming bowls of $10 ramen are scarfed down in dark corners.
“It’s supposed to be loud, it’s supposed to be fun,” says Uni chef Tony Messina with a grin. “Biggie’s on because I like Biggie. We do switch it up though — sometimes it’s Nas.”
For the past year-and-a-half, while ramen fever was sweeping the city, Uni managed to establish a perfectly executed homage that still feels like a secret, no matter how many times you go. We sat down with Messina to get a better idea of exactly what goes into each bowl.
For the traditional meat broth, Messina went for a riff on a classic Tonkatsu broth, which derives a large amount of its flavor from pork bones. He starts off with a basic chicken stock and adds a whole host of Asian ingredients like lemongrass, miso, ginger and soy. Pork bones, mirepoix, Parmesan rind and mushroom scraps are added next, and the whole thing is simmered down. Hello, gorgeous.
The vegetarian broth on the other hand is, as Messina describes it, an entirely different beast. “I basically went downstairs and grabbed everything I could find and threw it into a pot,” he says of the moment owner Ken Oringer suggested a sans-meat option. “We get a deep caramelization on a whole bunch of vegetables, and mix it with a little bit of kombu (kelp) to get some of that natural MSG in there.” Dried shiitakes and Parmesan rind are added for umami, and the result is a deeply satisfying full-bodied broth — no bones required.
Messina gets his noodles from Sun Noodle Company, known for being one of the top noodle suppliers in the country.
“I would make them myself if we had more time and more manpower,” he admits. “My name ends in a vowel. I love making pasta! There’s just not enough time since it’s only something we do on the weekends for fun.” They just made the switch to a thicker alkaline ramen noodle, with a bit more chew and al dente quality.
The morning of ramen, Messina rubs a couple of pork shoulders with salt and Sancho pepper, stuffs it with garlic and togarashi (chili pepper), then slow-cooks it for about five hours. The last half-hour or so, they jack up the temperature to get a crisp crust on the outer layer. That gets sliced right before service, very thinly, so it melts a bit when added to the noodles and broth. A slow-cooked Onsen egg — a nod to the Japanese tradition of cooking eggs in hot springs — is added next, followed by a bit of ginger purée, sambal chili paste, julienned Daikon radish, sliced scallions and maitake mushrooms sautéed in yuzu. Shredded nori (seaweed) is perched on top, and the whole production is drizzled with shallot oil.
The vegetarian option tends to change seasonally with regard to which vegetable plays the starring role in the bowl. You can always count on a bigger helping of mushrooms, skyrocketing the umami love per serving, and at the moment, Messina is featuring red kori squash, glazed with maple and soy. All other toppings found in the traditional are the same, and eggs come by request.
Rounding out the menu is the oddball selection: XO squid. The squid is sliced into rings and coated with XO, a traditionally spicy Chinese catch-all sauce. It’s kept raw, on ice, until Messina begins to compose the bowl. By the time it arrives, the hot broth has cooked it to perfection.
If you're somehow hungry enough to charge through a huge bowl of ramen and still ask for more, the shishito peppers and bao are not to be missed. Wash it all down with a Sapporo, Pork Slap Ale or sake in a can, and then tuck into one of pastry chef Monica Glass’s ice cream sandwiches.
“We go from super high-end, stylized, sexy-looking food, to a bowl of noodles. So it’s a different experience altogether,” Messina says. “Ramen isn’t just about the ramen; it’s more about enjoying the night and hanging out with your friends. You don’t have to think about it too much, it’s just slurp and eat, as opposed to, you know, 30 courses of fish.”
Late-Night Ramen Friday and Saturday, 11 p.m. First come, first served Uni, 370 Comm. Ave., Boston 617-536-7200 unisashimibar.com