There’s something about a restaurant located below street level that instantly makes it feel special, as if the simple act of descending a flight of stairs has transported you to another world.
My first encounter with such a space was one town over from where I was raised in South Amboy, in the basement of a non-descript home in a non-descript neighborhood. It was called the Hideaway. According to local legend, the Hideaway was originally a Prohibition-era speakeasy, giving the joint an almost mythic aura that still evokes fond memories. Closer to home, the mere mention of the late, lamented Annex conjures up its own special feelings of nostalgia in long-time Princetonians.
Since the end of January there has been a new player in Princeton’s dining underground. LAN Ramen has taken over the space at 4 Hulfish Street formerly occupied by infini-T Cafe and Spice Souk. A flood in July, 2016, forced infini-T’s closure and necessitated the gutting of the location’s neo-hippie decor.
LAN Ramen opened for business in January of this year, following a nine-month renovation. The result is a handsome, inviting space, realized through an artful blend of diverse design elements. The use of industrial and natural materials is carried throughout the dining room to good effect, the look a subtle fusion of Asian, industrial, and mid-century modern that come together to evoke a warm, sophisticated contemporary look and feel.
Industrial elements include the ceiling — exposed ductwork and conduit painted flat black — and the use of black pipe to form the railing at the bottom of the steps and the footrest at the counter. Industrial-style metal stools face the open kitchen and offer seating for eight at the counter, a beautiful slab of lacquered wood. A vertical divider of bamboo shields diners at the counter from the entry door.
The space also offers table seating for 44 on comfortable high backed chairs and low, mid-century modern banquettes, all covered in a tranquil, muted shade of green. A wall sporting the look of whitewashed, rusticated brick is a welcome contrast to the dark wooden slats on the opposite wall and the stone tile floor.
Touches of whimsy are present as well. Water is served in mugs with the look of mason jars, and the choice of background music on the night of our visit included the Stones (Gimme Shelter) and Paul Simon (Me and Julio…), played at a reasonable volume.
Speaking of volume, the acoustics permitted conversation at normal volume, despite the hard surfaces, and with the exception of that one person seated with the group across from our party. You know the one, the one with the voice that pierces your eardrums like a hot poker and seems to turn up everywhere one dines these days.
As one might gather from the name, LAN Ramen features ramen noodle dishes, more precisely the hand-pulled ramen of Lanzhou, in Gansu Province, China. That’s not surprising, when you learn that the owner of LAN Ramen, Jessica Xiao, hails from Lanzhou. An accomplished pianist and piano instructor, LAN Ramen is Xiao’s first restaurant.
“Those were the best years of my culinary life,” she said. “Most of the people in my community were excellent cooks, taking advantage of the fresh, seasonal, organic produce to prepare healthy meals. I wanted to bring that same spirit and approach to cooking to LAN Ramen.”
To that end, we were told that nearly everything on LAN Ramen’s menu is made to order, including the sauces. The only exception is “Big Plate Chicken” ($15) a bone-in chicken and vegetable dish that requires a time-consuming three-step process to prepare.
Drawing on her experience as a pedagogue, Xiao also realizes that one of her roles at the restaurant is to educate her customers about a cuisine that may be unfamiliar, and to help diners overcome culinary expectations that may have been forged solely by the consumption of Cup-O-Noodles.
“I get really excited when discussing authentic Lanzhou Ramen with my customers, because most people do not know what it is supposed taste like,” she said. “The worst thing that could happen to a bowl of Lanzhou Ramen is to use too much salt. It is also much lighter than Japanese ramen.”
Xiao was true to her word on the night of our visit, table hopping and explaining, not only the preparation of the ramen and rice dishes ($12 to $14), but of many of the other items on LAN Ramen’s menu.
On the evening of our visit, appetizers ($6 to $14) included Rock Shrimp Tempura, Mini Buns (beef, chicken or shrimp), and a selection of house-made dumplings. Beef, pork, lamb and fish mains ($14 to $27) include the aforementioned Big Plate Chicken and a Sweet and Sour Whole Fish (striped bass). Veggie offerings ($14 to $18) include offerings that may be unfamiliar to Westerners like celtuse, a lettuce prized for its flavorful stems, and baby lily bulb, characterized by a subtle perfumed scent, crunchy texture and slightly sweet taste.
A small selection of non-alcoholic beverages completes the picture, including a generous pot of jasmine or green tea ($4.50).
It’s still early days, and online reviews of LAN Ramen range all over the map. To be fair, the noodle chef has just recently come on board, and witnessing the preparation of your hand-pulled ramen is quite a show. Service on the night of our visit can best be described as a well-meaning work in progress.
But our conversation with Jessica Xiao was a delight. If you’re seeking a hands-on crash course in Lanzhou Ramen, simply descend the staircase on Hulfish Street. Classes begin every day at 11 a.m.
LAN Ramen, 4 Hulfish Street, Princeton. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. 609-356-0383.