Hard as it is to fathom a reason to go to Jun that's not its award-winning sushi, now there is one — actually, two.
A costly overhaul of the entire Dublin Boulevard location — one that's produced a sharply modern space of black faux wood accented by a few lighter, recessed panels — has enabled Jun Aizu to add shabu-shabu and ramen to the menu, firsts locally as far as we know.
Do it yourself
Addressing the shabu-shabu (literally, "swish swish") first, the renovation has allowed for three special tatami tables. Two of them seat four, the other eight, so reservations are strongly suggested.
Commonly called "Japanese fondue," shabu-shabu first came to the States via Los Angeles' Shabu-Shabu House in 1991, and I was fortunate to have a friend who has frequented it to join me for dinner. According to her, Jun passes the authenticity test, while surpassing expectations with some stylized touches.
The service is only offered for two, with New York strip running $39.50, filet $47.50, and Kobe filet $89.50. We got the strip and cheaper filet, barely noticing a difference between the two. Coming months will likely bring ribeye and seafood options, and maybe even buffalo for a local tribute.
All shabu-shabu starts with a cake-pan-shaped basin of water and dashi (dried kelp and fermented tuna flake), a simple broth in which you boil the carpaccio-thin slices of meat, which are sliced frozen to achieve that delicate thinness. They take only seconds to begin browning, so I pulled my bites within 20 seconds.
From an accompanying platter, spinach, cabbage, enokitake (long white mushrooms) and green onion shoots can be cooked as you please between meat portions, and all placed over rice. But first, a dunk is encouraged in one or all of three delicious dips: a house-ground sesame sweetened by touches of honey and sugar; a salty daikon (radish) and soy Ponzu; and Aizu's own sauce, enhanced with Yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit).
Also, Jun provides a spicy sauce and miso paste that can be added to the pot for flavor; we did, and it's preferable. Lastly, rice and/or wheat noodles are tossed in to absorb the sum flavors, and either pulled then to eat, or in our case, left in as part of a loaded to-go soup for the next day's lunch. The whole process is interactive (hope you're good with chopsticks), customizable, filling and as fun as saying "shabu-shabu."
Do it right
Now, about ramen: Everything you thought you knew about it is probably wrong. Unless you've ventured to New York for David Chang's Momofuku or Japan for the real thing (which I was grateful to do eight years ago), you probably conjure images of the cheap, square packages found at every grocery store in America.
Let's talk about the real stuff. Ramen is originally Chinese, introduced in Japan a couple hundred years ago and modified in contemporary times. Versions of ramen differ according to Japanese region, mainly in broth structure but also in noodle. It's everywhere, though, to the degree that there's a dedicated ramen museum in Yokohama (raumen.co.jp/ramen) that serves styles from all over.
Aizu's mother, Mieko Wada, once ran a ramen shop in Japan's central Kanto region, and she's the one who now prepares the dish at Jun. Four options are currently available (more later, perhaps) ranging from $8.95 to $9.95, and each is as big as a giant bowl of pho at a Vietnamese spot.
The Chashumen is the basic ramen with added pork slivers, and the spicy miso ramen adds that fermented soy paste and extra spices to the pork base. (We didn't try a veggie version, basically a homemade vegetable stock with spices and more vegetables.)
The basic starts with pork bones cooked on low heat for at least 12 hours, often longer — to cook faster destroys the soup's clarity. Marrow lends to a fattier texture (ideally, but I found ours still a bit thin and weak) and inputs like green onion and seaweed add complementary flavor notes. Aizu orders fresh (not dried) wheat noodles twice weekly from Los Angeles, which hold a nice, firm texture. For garnish, an opaque fish-cake sliver (purchased elsewhere) with a decorative red swirl meets snow peas and a hard-boiled egg half.
I'd have preferred a soft-boiled egg (see ajitsuke tamago or onsen tamago), so the yolk's creaminess could bleed onto the other ingredients; the hard yolk just breaks into chunks ungracefully and does nothing for flavor. Oddly, for a man who deals in sushi, Aizu says he's concerned for the safety of the raw yolk.
By contrast, the spicy miso ramen (inspired by newer trends in Japan) is a complex powerhouse, delivering a measured back-burn in the throat. White onions sub for the green and when all the noodles are gone, you'll want to sip every last dreg of the fantastic broth. If you happen to slurp loudly, don't blush; Aizu encourages it, as part of Japan's customs.
For that matter, just pretend you are in Japan when entering the new Jun. Minus the cheery American staff, the food's authenticity makes it so that you might as well be.