Bites from the binchō grill
Bites from the binchō grill Credit: Jeffrey Marini

“We got pegged as a noodle shop initially, but we’re actually an izakaya.” That was the hedge a server offered on a recent visit to Takashi Yagihashi’s Slurping Turtle, a bit off-message, since the chef himself disavowed a direct connection to the traditional Japanese pub in the preopening hype of his River North . . . whatever it is. Much of the anticipation for Slurping Turtle has centered on the prospect of a menu that channels Takashi’s signature bowl (served only during Sunday lunch at his eponymous upscale Bucktown restaurant) or an improvement on his noodle shop in Macy’s. That only confuses its identity further.

Ramen is, for a certain breed, the unattainable holy grail of soups—particularly in Chicago, where Second City insecurities are reinforced by the contention that most $13 bowls are never quite as good as those that can be had at New York’s Ippudo, or LA’s Mottainai Ramen, or that nameless street stall you stumbled across in Tokyo. For these soup nazis the Arlington Heights branch of the Santouka chain sets a grudging high standard. (I know one of these characters, who insists he can produce a better ramen from a seasoning packet off the shelf at Mitsuwa.)

In this climate Takashi was positioned as the Galahad of these iconic noodles. He authored a book on noodles, after all. So it’s initially disappointing that there are only three—four, if you stretch—dishes on the menu that can be reliably compared to any of Japan’s important regional ramen varieties. The rest is dominated by skewers from the bincho grill and small plates, categories that have already dominated the neighborhood for better and worse at Japanophilic reproductions such as Sushisamba Rio, Gyu-Kaku, Union Sushi & Barbecue Bar, Roka Akor, and Sunda.

The soups include the basic Tokyo-style, soy-based shoyu ramen, a salty broth, deep amber and light-bodied, swimming with a yolky hard-cooked egg, bamboo shoots, seaweed, thick slices of braised pork shoulder, fish cakes, and an unremarkable tangle of egg noodles (Takashi’s own recipe, executed and imported from California). It’s perfectly acceptable but nothing earth-shattering. Same goes for the southern-style tonkotu (aka tonkotsu). Ideally built on a milky pork bone stock enriched with collagen and rendered fat, this one is lighter and less lip-slicking than it ought to be, but it’s not a bad broth, teeming with snow peas, bok choy, pickled mustard greens, more pork, and more west-coast noodles. The tan tan-men—the Japanese version of Sichuanese dan dan mien, a mildly spicy miso-based stew thick with ground pork and bulging meatballs—is the most satisfying bowl on the menu, every bit as fulfilling as the Chinese-influenced chiyan pon is disappointing. A nest of dried egg noodles and seafood absorbs a bland, starchy sauce, brightened only by a dollop of spicy mustard—a small step above Ameri-Chinese takeout.

Beyond that, there’s a pholike soup with rice noodle and tiger shrimp and a couple of stir-fries. That’s it for noodles, a small offering relative to the charcoal-fired skewers, side dishes, “tapas,” and raw appetizers.

Fortunately, there’s plenty to like among those. A few items brought down from Bucktown or informed by Takashi’s cookbook make the list. It’s a blessing to make a smaller financial commitment in exchange for the crunchy chicken karaage blistered in duck fat, or the creamy cold house-made tofu dressed with chile threads, bonito flakes, and sweet seaweed marmalade. This is drinking food at (mostly) comfortable pricing. An octopus ceviche with pickled vegetables and thick fried noodles is a textural rampage. Cocktail-weenie-shaped curried potato croquettes are vegan and almost fatty in their richness. Luscious miso-dressed black cod is a miniature of the ideal. Grilled chicken hearts are plump and beefy. A charred mochi brick is glutinous and chewy under its girdle of crispy bacon. Chunks of duck are rimmed with fat and dripping with juices. Gyoza are pan-seared on one side, soft and pliable on the other. Honeyed quail thigh is skewered in the company of a species-concordant ovum.

A modest handful of desserts include an intimidating but ultimately rewarding coconut-and-condensed-milk quail egg shooter, the potential sliminess cut by the herbaceousness of mint and a squeeze of lime (someone needs to alchoholize this); a sea-salt ice cream that tastes almost caramelized, teetering on the edge of savoriness; and a handful of chewy Asian flavored macaroons (raspberry wasabi, oba, yuzu).

These little bites and plates, which make up about half of the menu, lend credibility to our server’s initial statements, particularly when they’re paired with something from the 17-deep sake list or a practically winey Hitachino Red Rice Ale. A tall ceiling, long communal tables, and big booths reinforce the illusion of space and chumminess even when it can’t contain the crowds lining up for it. It’s a loud and lively spot to hang out in, and a far more persuasive approximation of an actual izakaya or yakiniku than anything the nearby competition has to offer. Takashi wins. Let’s call a meat-on-a-stick moratorium, shall we? What we really need is a noodle shop.