Add ingredients to your heart’s content.
The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi refers to an aesthetic and worldview that’s all about embracing the beauty of imperfection. Think of it as the opposite of opulence; an approach that favors the simple, the austere, the natural — and the flawed.
It’s a fitting vibe for Morris Ramen, the new ramen shop that opened mid-December at 106 King St., the former home of Red Sushi. Co-owned by former Restaurant Muramoto chef Matt Morris, his wife and former 43 North chef Francesca Hong and Madison restaurateur Shinji Muramoto, the cozy little eatery is the latest addition to Madison’s growing ramen scene. During its first month in business, Morris Ramen has proven popular — a bartender tells me they’ve even been running a wait during the lunch hour. And it’s easy to see why. It’s new, it’s novel, impressive people are involved. Plus, what could be better during the freezing Wisconsin winter than a big, steaming bowl of noodles in a spicy-savory broth?
In renovating the space, Morris and Hong transformed the sleek look of the former sushi bar into a warm, inviting izakaya setting with space for about 40 diners. The lighted wood paneling on the walls and ceiling is elegant and minimalistic, and handmade light fixtures resembling bird’s nests bring in a touch of nature. The tables are so close that you might bump elbows with a neighbor, but it actually gives a pleasant, communal feel to the place.
The menu is small, but focused. There are four types of ramen, plus a rotating chef’s special ramen. I tried the Morris ramen, as it seems to be the restaurant’s flagship bowl. It comes with chashu (slow-braised) pork belly, ajitama (marinated soft-boiled egg) and menma (fermented bamboo shoots). I loved the flavor and richness of the egg, but the pork belly seemed a bit waterlogged. The noodles themselves are outstanding, cooked to a perfect al-dente.
Those ingredients come standard, but diners can also add toppings. The proteins are self-explanatory (pork, chicken, beef), but the vegetarian options are listed in Japanese, which makes for some fun pre-dinner Googling. There’s nori (seaweed), moyashi (bean sprouts), kikurage (mushroom), aburaage (tofu pocket) and ajitama. Friendly servers are also happy to explain and make recommendations.
I added mushrooms to my Morris ramen and was pleased with the subtle flavor and crunchy texture they added to the dish. The broth, which takes several days to prepare, is rich and complex without being too heavy or oily. I loved the tonkotsu flavor, but some might find it a bit too smoky. I flavored the dish with a “spicy bomb” throughout the meal — highly recommended!
There’s also a miso ramen, made with fermented soybeans. It’s a bit lighter than the pork broth, with hints of ginger and a satisfying nuttiness. On a return visit, I tried the spicy ramen, which comes with chashu chicken. The texture of the meat was on point, and the flavor was subtle, but the broth was not really “spicy” as advertised.
From the “not ramen” section of the menu, I loved the satsuma fries, which are like sweet potato, but denser and more crunchy than other versions I’ve tried. They come with gochujang aioli, which has the unique and almost indescribable flavor of red chili, fermented soybeans and rice. Be warned, it’s addictive. I also tried the donburi (rice bowl) with beef short rib (the best protein on the menu). It was okay, but let’s be real: You’re here for the ramen.
The kitchen also does steamed buns — large enough to share, but they fell a little short. The buns themselves were under-steamed. Pork belly was overpowered by pickles, although a squash bun was more creative.
Don’t skip dessert. A hidden gem (it’s not listed on the menu) is a homemade ice cream sandwich made of chocolate chip cookie bars and orange-vanilla ice cream. It’s charming and delicious — a description that applies to the overall Morris Ramen experience.
106 King St., 608-416-5547, morrisramen.com, 11 am-2 pm and 5-10 pm Mon.-Fri., 5-10 pm Sat., $3-$13