Serious Eats: Chicago
Knockout Noodles: Oiistar
When I was looking back on the year of eating noodles I had had in 2012, I couldn't help but peek a bit forward, as well, at the noodles 2013 had in store for me. In my late-December post on the best noodle dishes I ate last year, I singled out my excitement to try Oiistar, the now month-old ramen joint on Milwaukee Avenue helmed by Korean-born chef Sunny Yim. I ate some delicious ramen in 2012, and I have been eager to keep that trend rolling into the New Year.
The dining room at Oiistar is clean and minimally adorned with chunky, pale-colored wood tables, simple backless seating, and likewise pale wall paneling. A sizable glass jar perched on the bar greets you on your way in; it's filled with Oiistar's house sangria, which servers siphon out with a hose. (Speaking of greetings, when new patrons walk in, the staff all shout out a Korean hello to welcome them.) Toward the rear of the restaurant is the open kitchen, which is fronted by another bar setup (pictured), where you can sit and watch your ramen being prepared, not unlike at your typical Japanese ramen-ya. One of the best restaurant playlists I've ever heard—a connoisseur's selection of '90s hip hop—pipes through the speakers overhead. To whomever created this mix, you have a gift.
But do the silky lyrics caressing my ears foretell ouststanding noodles in my bowl? Sadly no. While I enjoyed aspects of the ramens I tried, I couldn't get behind Oiistars noodles. They're made in-house, which in and of itself is admirable, but there was something off about their flavor and texture. Compositionally, they're a straight-up wheat noodle (no egg), and wire-thin. They don't exhibit any starch-induced clumping, which is a plus. But there is a perceptible grittiness to their bite and a floury flatness to their flavor that keeps these noodles from being compelling. With ramen, questions of hunger and satiation should be rendered irrelevant by sheer deliciousness; in other words, a good indicator of quality ramen is its complete disappearance, and this just did not happen for me at Oiistar.
But like I said, there were components of Oiistar's ramens that I found myself digging. The tonkotsu-style pork broth that anchors the oiimen ($14) is milky, rich, and packed with flavor. A slick of spicy oil adds the welcome element of heat into the mix, creating a winning balance of spice, salt, and savory flavors. I stuck with the standard pork loin chashu (for $1.50 you can upgrade to pork belly) and was mostly happy with the meaty yet slightly dried out slices, what with their favorable ratio of lean meat to fat. And the soft-centered egg was a pleasure of richness and silky texture.
I have fewer good things to say about the spicy veggiemen ($13). The broth here has a tinge of vegetal sweetness (driven by some kind of sweet squash, perhaps?) that seems decidedly un-ramen-like. But then again, it's clear from chef Yim's menu that he's chosen to take liberties with tradition (there's also a ramen with pico de gallo). But before you can even reach broth, or noodles for that matter, you must first excavate through a layer of rough-cut vegetation including peppers, portobello mushrooms, and zucchini. The veggies had been very nicely cooked but seemed oddly oversized for consumption along with soup and these tiny-gauge noodles. The big slabs of tofu, well-seasoned and -grilled, were satisfying, too, but proved difficult to eat along with anything else, even in spite of the almost comically large spoon provided—practically a bowl unto itself. Surprisingly, I also liked the inclusion of avocado. Yes, there's avocado in this ramen.
I came away feeling like Oiistar is still a restaurant in transition, like the kitchen hasn't yet codified its playbook. In chatting with my server, she indicated that the housemade noodle recipe may be undergoing some changes. (There's also a gluten-free noodle on the horizon, apparently.) Given the promise of the stunning tonkotsu broth—and the killer jams on stereo—I expect I'll be wooed back to Oiistar in the near future to check in on its progress.