What do you get when you cross a Chinese owner with a Cuban-American chef working in an Asian kitchen for the first time to produce Japanese cuisine?
There’s no punch line. Ichimi is no joke.
The new ramen shop in Coral Gables — wedged in at the former site of Bread + Butter/Little Bread — is Miami at its most diverse. One look around the restaurant, filled with Asian diners on an average weekday night, is the first clue that this chef-owner pairing goes together as well as their Asian-style baby back ribs and milky cold sake.
Peihao “Peter” Xu had visited the United States only twice before leaving his home in Suzhou, China, to study business at the University of Miami. Just 22, he doesn’t consider himself a restaurateur, but a businessman at heart.
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And when he looked around Miami, he saw a void where a noodle shop should be.
Enter the talent.
Xu turned to a Miami boy who knows the local palate. Kosmo Sanchez, 33, grew up in Little Havana, a Miami Senior High graduate who attended Johnson & Wales before going on to sous chef at a diverse roster of Miami’s top kitchens. He learned Mediterranean cuisine at the Miami Herald three-star-rated Byblos in Miami Beach. Southern food at the three-star Swine in Coral Gables. And the secret to tender meat at Lincoln Road’s Meat Market.
His plates at Ichimi shows just how much he has learned.
With a new backdrop of a cityscape by local muralist Krave, Ichimi benefits from the cool exposed rafters, reclaimed wood accent walls, Edison lights and polished concrete floors that made its predecessor an inviting place to relax with a good meal.
Ichimi wants to be a Japan-style izakaya, a casual after-work spot with elevated bar bites to go with good drinks. Coral Gables is well acquainted with those: We call them gastropubs.
No matter the nomenclature, Ichimi dedicates a section of its menu to izakaya pub food, and it lives up to it.
Nothing showcases better what Sanchez does at Ichimi than the crispy pig ears. They are softened in a pressure cooker along with a host of aromatics to give them a deep flavor, then sliced thin and flash-fried to a curl and a crisp. Each bite manages to be at once crunchy, meaty and savory, tossed in a house sweet and sour sauce.
The baby back ribs served as a five-piece appetizer are deceptively complex. Sanchez marinates the ribs overnight and cooks them sous vide (vacuum-sealed and boiled without touching water) for 30 hours. He finishes them on the grill with a sweet soy glaze, and they pull beautifully off the bone without losing their texture. No one will notice if you lick the glaze off your fingers, promise.
Buns have their own place on the menu, pillowy soft with several choices of fillings. I can wholeheartedly recommend the fried oyster buns, three to a dish, featuring daily fresh Blue Point oysters, flash fried in panko batter, stuffed with shaved bok choy and finished with chili oil and a house-made tartar sauce. The soft shell crab, playfully dubbed “the kraken,” is straightforward in that it’s tempura fried and served with a yuzu aioli and scallion pesto, but there is satisfaction in that expert simplicity.
Ramen, though, is the reason for the restaurant.
Xu purchased a Yamato ramen machine directly from the motherland to help produce the kind of noodles he grew up eating while visiting cousins and friends living in Japan. Ichimi makes it fresh every morning, and both the texture and taste make it clear this is the real deal.
The menu distinguishes between traditional and so-called summer ramen, in which the noodles are served separately and meant to be dipped into a broth, a lighter, cooler alternative to a steaming bowl of liquid on a warm summer day.
But forget the temperature: You’re going to want that bowl of broth — and a lot of it.
Broth is the icing to ramen’s cake. Often ramen lovers judge a shop by its tonkotsu, or the broth made with emulsified pork fat in its pork ramen bowls, and Ichimi’s pork belly doesn’t disappoint. It’s rich, almost creamy, nearly a meal in itself. Look around and you’ll notice diners hurrying to finish their noodles just to tip the bowl back to slurp the last drop.
Ramen bowls are beautifully presented with bean sprouts, bamboo shoots and a nest of pepper strings artfully resting above a sliced soft-boiled, soy-marinated hanjuku egg.
The effect is enough to make you forget — and then marvel — at the cross-cultural team behind this restaurant.
Then again, Cuban chefs making dynamite Chinese food is a tradition that goes back to the alligator-shaped island to our south. Ichimi is proof they can handle the cuisine of islands in the Pacific with equal aplomb.
Follow food editor Carlos Frías on Twitter at @carlos_frias or on the Miami Herald’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/MiamiHeraldFood
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.
If you go
Address: 2330 Salzedo St., Coral Gables
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ (Very good)
Contact: 305-960-7016; https://www.facebook.com/IchimiRamen
Hours: Noon to midnight, seven days.
Prices: Small plates, $9-$16; Buns, $11-$14; most ramen, $12-$19.
FYI: All major credit cards accepted. Noise level low to moderate. Craft beer, wine and premium sake available. Metered and street parking, garage nearby.