By By Michael Philippi
Ungaretti & Harris . Restaurant Critic
When I was in college I didn't know what a foodie was, much less that I wanted to be one, but I did like to eat, so I tried to cook. Perhaps there is no greater staple of the late night, broke college student food pantry than the noble ramen noodle. Sure, you can boil up a pot of pasta, toss in a hunk of butter, sprinkle with garlic salt and tell your post-tavern closing roommates that it is linguine Alfredo, but nothing has fed generations of college students so cheaply and consistently as those little packages of ramen that go for about a nickel apiece in a variety of flavors.
The Slurping Turtle is to college ramen what a 1982 Marceau is to Strawberry Hill. It is one of the best noodle shops to open in Chicago since the last time top chef/owner Takashi Yagihashi opened a noodle shop in Chicago, but this one is a lot more. The Turtle offers Japanese soul food in a sleek but informal and approachable space on the ever-growing restaurant row on Hubbard. The name is fun and so is the place. The signature dish is shoyu, which is a steaming bowl of what we were promised were classic egg noodles with a broth served in the finest noodle joints in Tokyo. And it was great. Don't wear that special tie and you might want to practice with your chopsticks because the technique is to grab a bunch of noodles with the sticks and slurp them down, then drink the broth, but if you are with the right crowd and your tastes have classed up a little bit since you and your pals closed Kam's and the Apple on a Tuesday, then this might be the place for you.
Slurping Turtle is a lot more than just noodles. It is full of happy contradictions that made us want to go back. The first thing you notice in this white, angular, industrial space is a huge poster of two zombie children on the wall. The second is the R&B soundtrack playing in the background. No reservations, so get there early and try to grab a window seat or a spot in the very cool upstairs space. You will also notice forks on your table, without having to ask. But do ask because Rachel, the excellent waitress, is as excited and knowledgeable about the menu as Yagihashi must have been when he put it together. The sashimi is as fresh as it gets. The "small" chef's choice was at least nine generously sized pieces of melt-in-your-mouth ahi, hamachi and salmon. Sharing plates is the thing (they will even split up the noodle soup bowls) and with Rachel's steady encouragement, we moved to octopus salad — a thin plate of baby octopus, tiny cucumbers tossed in a spicy, but not ridiculous, bean sauce. Think Japanese ceviche. The seared bigeye tuna was perfectly charred around the perimeter.
Finicky about raw food or fish? You are still at the right place. This place for slurping could just as easily be finger-licking, lip-smacking because the dumpling and tapas selections include a half-dozen, duck fat-fried chicken wings and crunchy, curry croquettes, which are light, sweet, egg roll-shaped potato nuggets.
Then there is the Bincho Grill. Binchotan is a long-burning, nearly smokeless, traditional Japanese charcoal that sears and retains flavor so you taste the food, not the charcoal. Here it is well used with lots of fish, meat and fowl options, all for $3 to $5 a pop. The salmon was best in show — a candy bar-sized piece, moist, seared outside and with a light teriyaki flavoring — a good use of $5. Pork Belly Snack was good, not exceptional but hey, it's pork belly right? I'd say the same thing about the siren call of bacon-wrapped asparagus tips. Nearly impossible to pass up at $3 an order. The Harami Skirt Steak, which was OK, but with all the other options on just the lunch menu, I say venture further. The unheralded Rice Bowl lunch hidden away at the bottom of the menu is a must. On Rachel's suggestion we tried the kigiyaki — crispy skin on grilled chicken with a caramel soy, nori and just enough pickled ginger and sansho pepper over sticky rice to be very interesting.
Traveler's tip: The food options in Philly just keep getting better. South Philly, Passyunk Avenue, the home of Rocky, Paulie and Adrian — Americas's favorite naughty librarian — is becoming the new hot spot and I highly recommend that you wander into it.
Stop at Le Virtu — a tiny place where chef Joe Cicala's menu combines rustic and foodie with mostly success — although we did end up really liking the traditional dishes over the stuff that grandma never made (unless she made a lot of rare rabbit rolled in bacon with a chestnut and lentil ragout). Stay long enough and they might just ply you with Vicks VapoRub booze that Joe brought back from Abruzzo (here's a hint — it's a sipper, not a shooter). Keep wandering a few blocks to Pat's or Geno's for real deal cheesesteaks at Ninth Street and take the challenge — which are better? If you don't want to leave downtown, skip all the chain steakhouses and fish joints and go to the Parc Restaurant, Bistro & Cafe on Rittenhouse Square. This classic bistro fare just keeps getting better.
116 W. Hubbard St., Chicago
Verdict: 3 Gavels