Restaurant review | Slurping Turtle
Takashi Yagihashi’s restaurant is the best kind of mess.
Things have become messy. Not incidentally messy, in the way of a bulging sushi roll or grease-slicked sandwich, but explicitly. The hair is tied back, desperate appeals have been made to the napkin, and this shirt? It’s a lost cause. No one need be concerned with the table, a glossy white rectangle that stretches the length of this room, a portion of which I’ve haphazardly converted into a child’s mildly repulsive splatter-art masterpiece. But I am concerned, although not convinced, that I have sprayed broth on the stranger kitty-corner from me at the communal table. If you’re reading this, sir, the lady with the tan tan men noodles all over her shirt is sorry.
But only a little. I would do it again. I would do most things again in the name of tan tan men, a reddish broth charged with the heat of chilies, pervaded with crumbled ground pork and weighted with herb-packed pork meatballs. In the midst of it all are masses of the crimped egg noodles that turn what would otherwise be merely a great soup into a dish that a certain breed of restaurant patron—more often than not male, more often than not very into David Chang—has elevated to cult status: ramen. But unlike the tan tan men, the tonkotu ramen will not meet these dudes’ somewhat technical standards: It came out lukewarm, which, for the ramenite, is a sin akin to the mainstream gourmand’s irritation at a burger cooked to the wrong temperature. But even non–Lucky Peachers may find, as I did, a lurking dissatisfaction with this particular soup, merely in that, aside from a few very meaty, tender slices of pork and a hunk of bok choy, it doesn’t have much going on. The menu gives the option to add things, such as a fish cake or an egg, to any of the ramen; however, when nearly all the dishes here seem so expertly composed, it’s only in hindsight that it would ever strike me to do so.
Another lesson from hindsight—as unintuitive as this one may be, given the restaurant’s name—is that we not fixate too much on the ramen. Slurping Turtle, with its minimal decor and River North address and pop music, could have been a very good, very fun ramen bar. But Takashi Yagihashi, who already has a ramen spot downtown (), not to mention a serene midscale restaurant in Bucktown ( ), has given us much more than that. Sure, most people here are ordering ramen, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But this is a full-fledged restaurant, and here’s how future visits—and oh, will there be future visits—will be handled.
It will begin with octopus salad. And ceviche of scallops, squid and cuttlefish topped with wonton strips. And hamachi tartare in delicate little taro root tacos. These are astoundingly balanced raw preparations, easy on the acidity that so often overwhelms ceviches. How hungry am I? Enough also to order crispy-on-the-outside, melting-away-on-the-inside potato croquettes bursting with curry. And who has seen fatter gyoza? But as for the duck fat–fried chicken: only if someone insists. (The dry nuggets aren’t as great as they sound.)
There are dozens of animal parts—gizzards, skirt steak, foie gras—you can get skewered on a bincho grill. Perhaps it’s because the menu offers so many paths, but this seems to me the one best not taken. Unless you’re making a meal out of the skewers, even luscious miso-marinated black cod and funky chicken gizzards and blistered shishito peppers seem flat compared to the dynamism of most of the dishes here, with a very strong exception to be made for the grilled rice ball, sticky and crunchy and coated with a miso flavor that elevates the dish from being merely a ball of rice.
At this point I’ll be drinking wine, or beer, or sake. (I’ll be drinking pretty much anything besides the cocktails, sugary concoctions that should be avoided.) And I’ll have drank enough of it to still have plenty of room for the tan tan men, and I’ll be eating with enough people that we can also order the Chiyan Pon and the harusame, two brothless noodle dishes that are among my favorite things on the menu. The Chiyan Pon is what you dream Chinese takeout will taste like, fried ramen noodles with stir-fried shrimp and scallops that you then toss with a big dollop of spicy mustard for a dish that is the ultimate comfort. Same goes with the harusame, a few powerfully marinated bone-in short ribs set on a bed of transparent cellophane noodles made of mung-bean starch.
That should about do it for the Slurping Turtle. But it won’t. I mean, who in their right mind could say no to a colorful kid-size sundae, to softball-size cream puffs, to big, chewy macarons sandwiching caramel or red-bean paste? These adorable, impeccable sweets, taken with the cartoony logo and casual service, toe the line of too cute. But any restaurant that takes its food this seriously can be as cute as it wants.