Josh Henderson’s winning streak—the major successes of Skillet, Westward, and Great State Burger—has lagged of late. South Lake Union, in particular, is giving the restaurateur some trouble. There was the recent closing (and reopening) of Vestal, while another SLU spot, Bar Noroeste, went belly-up this year. In its place Henderson has opened Kiki Ramen (2051 Seventh Ave., 775-7070), hoping perhaps to beckon Amazonians with affordable bowls of noodles ($13) and cocktails.
The choice strikes me as both smart and risky: smart in that Seattleites are ramen-crazed, risky in that they’re ramen-discerning. The five bowls of soup on offer at Kiki don’t try to reinvent the wheel; you’ll find classics like tonkotsu (the richest of pork broths), shio (the saltiest), shoyu (the soy-sauce-enhanced), and spicy miso (the fermented-bean-paste-broth-based), as well as a vegetarian miso. They come bearing the requisite ingredients: soft eggs, pork, scallions, mushrooms, and curly noodles. The shio adds the welcome bitter of mustard greens, while the tonkotsu gets a splash of black garlic oil.
For the most part, the soups are solid, though the shio is on the bland side. The tonkotsu, in comparison, is lush and milky, a testament to the long simmering of pork bones. All the soups are, unfortunately, skimpy on the pork (two slices per bowl, thin ones at that). But what’s probably best about the ramen menu is the intriguing selection of condiments you can add: almond chili sauce, mushrooms braised in soy and mirin, red pickled ginger, and the absolute winner, yuzukosho—fermented serrano pepper and yuzu, which delivers a blast of heat and citrus that is gorgeously addictive. One other noodle dish, a take on the Chinese Sichuan staple mapo dofu (a hearty tofu-minced beef dish that’s spiced up with numbing Sichuan peppers), comes without broth, the noodles coated in the meaty sauce and studded with tiny cubes of tofu. Though the dish does have the tingling Sichuan peppers, it’s definitely a lighter version of mapo dofu, and, though pleasant, lacks the rich oomph.
Besides ramen, there’s a small-bites Asian-hybrid menu available after 4 p.m. that includes a decent gyoza and a take on deviled eggs—ramen-boiled and topped with kewpie (sweet) mayo, toasted panko, green onions, and gojuchang sauce that unfortunately is just one messy bite of mayonnaise. More to my liking was the goma-ae, blanched greens served with a paste of toasted sesame dressing that you spread throughout, which gives them a toasty, sweet element. Dessert is one option: a deconstructed sundae that’s surprisingly satisfying, with vegan coconut ice cream, fried mochi dough, a hunk of not-too-sweet red bean paste, slices of fresh mango, and some purple yam chips for crunch.
The space itself is classic Henderson, which means there’s always a clear design aesthetic—in this case, a kind of playful take on typical Japanese restaurant decor. Paper lanterns above the bar are marked with abstract designs rather than calligraphy; a large post is wrapped in a black-and-white-printed Japanese mural; and orange and yellow swaths of fabric hang from the ceiling.
Seating, though, is sparse; there are just a handful of tables. The rest of the stools are at the bar, or at a counter that looks out onto bustling Seventh Avenue, right at the large, blue “Little Darlings” sign. That, as well as the cheeky decor, prevents the spot from feeling homey—and when eating ramen, I find that people tend to like to tuck into dark, cozy rooms that ooze warmth, like the soups themselves. So while I can’t find much to overtly dislike about the place, it’s not somewhere I’d seek when the craving for ramen strikes. It may be telling that when we went at 6:30 on a Wednesday night, it was far from full, which, given its proximity to Amazon headquarters, was surprising—particularly when spots on the other side of Doppler, like Skillet and Mamnoon Street, were packed.