As much as the Japanese cherish it as one of their own, ramen has no allegiances. The dish easily sheds any thin outer skin of nationality wherever it goes, a fact Japan knows only too well: The noodle soup, after all, is Chinese in origin.
Even within Japan, ramen assumes different personalities, whether the miso broths of the north or the salt-inflected soups of the south. Ramen is a conformist, eager to adopt regional flavors to better curry local favor. The soup remains true to form at Oki Bowl DC, a tiny, subterranean shop on the fringes of the Dupont Circle neighborhood, where the chef hails not from Japan, but Thailand.
Some of chef and co-owner Metinee “May” Lieppert’s ramens channel the aggressive, fermented flavors of her homeland in northeast Thailand, where the chili pepper heat rivals the sun’s during those unforgiving Isaan summers. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say her soups attempt to channel the tastes of her youth: Lieppert may be a rookie chef, but she already knows her audience well enough not to mistake Washingtonians for the hotheads of northeast Thailand.
Her menu offers only four ramens, three of which suggest locales other than Japan. Her tom yum bowl starts, as they all do, with a chicken broth infused with the buttery funk of dried shiitake mushrooms. Lieppert then doctors the broth with a few essentials from the hot-and-sour Thai soup: lemongrass, kaffir lime, chilis, shrimp paste and a bonus tom-yum-goong addition of fried prawn head, which bobs on the surface like a buoy. It’s the crustacean that transforms this spicy, semi-thin broth into something more complex, as the prawn gradually releases its fishy flavors into the soup, intensifying the ramen with each slurpy spoonful.
I sampled the tom yum ramen on my fourth and final visit to Oki Bowl, and the soup served as both entree and precognition. It was proof Lieppert was learning her craft at an exponential rate, her dishes improving with each passing week.
A former bartender at Cafe Milano in Georgetown, Lieppert has been a chef only since October, when she opened Oki Bowl in the space formerly occupied by Sala Thai (which, Lieppert says, is a partner, providing advice on the million and one moving parts of a restaurant). You may snicker at Lieppert’s brass, but her career echoes one of a recent James Beard Award nominee: Taiwan native Erik Bruner-Yang is a musician-turned-chef who similarly infuses ramen with the flavors of his homeland. Let’s see where Lieppert stands four years from now.
The Oki chef is a late-but-passionate convert to ramen. She briefly visited Japan last year and fell hard for its soup culture. The name of her shop is a truncation of “ooki-i,” the Japanese word for “big,” which seems about right. Lieppert has dreamed big from the start of this project, assuming chef duties without the standard toil of working her way up the chain of command. Her dishes sometimes bear the marks of someone flailing in the kitchen.
The broth for her curry ramen, served with fried chicken, candy-coats the tongue before irradiating it with chili pepper heat; the soup has more mood swings than a pre-K day-care center. The fried octopus appetizer, perhaps a day past its fresh-by date, tastes mostly of fry batter. And the chashu rice bowl groans with rolled slabs of pork belly, each stained a lip-smacking shade of brown from soy sauce. The pork is accessorized with pickled ginger, wilted scallions and a soft-cooked egg, its runny yolk the bowl’s only source of liquid. Personally, I ached for more moisture, and not just because of the dish’s salt levels, which were almost sufficient enough to cure bacon.
The last three dishes, curiously enough, landed on my table during the course of a single lunch, which could signal a worrisome fragility in the kitchen or indicate nothing more than a bad day at the office. Subsequent meals hinted toward the latter conclusion.
Perhaps because her own Thai-inspired bowls are, essentially, major league prospects and not time-honored stars with impressive stats, I prefer Lieppert’s take on traditional white miso ramen over her other options. Her almond-tinted miso broth conceals a broad spectrum of pleasures — a corn sweetness, an umami savoriness, a bean sprout crunch, a polite scallion bite, a dense noodle chew. This is a soup with plenty to say, each utterance worth committing to memory.
When I finished the miso soup — under the protective branches of a scrapyard tree built by designer Wirat Assawamahasakda in the middle of restaurant, which itself looks like a junk store preserved in amber — I felt as if all the bird houses affixed to the walls could read my thoughts. The next thing I heard over the sound system was Pharrell Williams’s “Happy.” Had the model train hovering over the bar tooted its whistle at that moment, I might have found religion.
That kind of transcendental meal rarely happens anywhere, of course, let alone at Oki Bowl. But a few other plates here will pique your curiosity and maybe sate your appetite, even if they won’t bring you to your knees in praise. The cool, sumptuous monkfish liver appetizer leaves behind an unexpected tingle on the lips. The tako wasabi clears any lingering winter head cold with its delicately crunchy pieces of raw octopus treated with the concussive condiment. Conversely, the kara age chicken rice bowl skimps on the heat, but the cutlets prove crispy and succulent, a sign someone knows a thing or two about deep frying.
Along the same lines, the chef’s kimchi ramen doesn’t light you up like a pagan ritual, although Lieppert offers an easy fix. It’s an additional topping that she dubs a “spicy ball,” this Naval mine of Thai chilies, Korean chili paste and other fireworks. It’s her version of Thai tabletop condiments, the kind used in noodle dishes in her native land.
1817 M St. NW. 202-750-6703. www.okibowldc.com.
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 a.m.; and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Nearest Metro: Dupont Circle and Farragut North, with about a 0.3-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $10-$13 for ramen and rice bowls.