Ki Ramen interior

What’s it like to see a line forming down the street on the first night of your “soft opening” before the doors are even unlocked?

“It feels a little scary,” says Chef Roger Li. “I want every ramen bowl to be the best, and at the same time, I’m very happy for the incredible support seeing everyone show up.”

Ki Ramen, the long-awaited new venture from Li (Umami) and chef Domenic Branduzzi (Piccolo Forno) finally opened its doors on Butler St. in Lawrenceville last night to a packed house. Many of the ramen lovers (including myself) have been eagerly anticipating this opening since the collaboration was first announced last year.

Li and Branduzzi are both veterans of the Lawrenceville restaurant scene, as well as long-time friends. Branduzzi opened Piccolo Forno in 2005 featuring traditional Tuscan dishes, wood-fired pizzas and fresh handmade pasta. He opened Grapperia, a classic Italian-themed bar directly behind Piccolo Forno, in 2015. Li, previously of Tamari, opened Umami above Round Corner Cantina earlier this year.

Chef Roger Li (far left) and Chef Domenic Branduzzi (far right) man the kitchen on opening night.
Chef Roger Li (far left) and chef Domenic Branduzzi (far right) man the kitchen on opening night.

“It’s so great to finally be open,” says Branduzzi as he busily expedites orders and puts the finishing touches on ramen bowls loading onto trays. Even with every table and bar seat full, the restaurant gives the appearance of running like a well-oiled machine.

That’s partly experience and preparation. A year spent hosting Ki Ramen pop-up events at different locations around town, including Market St. Grocery, DiAnoia’s Eatery and Livermore, helped the chefs fine-tune the menu as well as their cooking process.

A busy social media effort helped make these events successful, with long lines often forming at each pop-up.

Making house made noodles to serve in their ramen bowls has been a unique part of Ki Ramen’s concept since the beginning. It’s clearly a challenge that sets them apart from most other ramen houses, but all that practice is paying off—the noodles in my shoyu ramen last night were perfect.

Chef Roger Li on opening night at Ki Ramen in Lawrenceville.
Chef Roger Li on opening night at Ki Ramen in Lawrenceville.

In addition to a shoyu ramen with chicken and pork broths, the soft opening menu featured a vegetarian curry ramen. Ramen bowl “add-ons” include chili paste, nitamago (six-minute egg), and the porcini-chili butter bomb (I highly recommend this one). The cavolfiore (fried cauliflower) appetizer was also a highlight. A more complete menu will be revealed in the coming days.

Ki Ramen’s bright and airy space has three levels: a second floor kitchen area with a chef’s counter to take in all the action, a main dining room with tables as well as street view countertop dining, and an open bar in the lower back area of the building that looks out onto 44th Street.

“I’ve been waiting for them to open for a while,” says Lawrenceville resident Mary Moses. “I’m a big fan of their other restaurants and like that everything is homemade—you can’t ask for anything better than that.”

Local praise and a packed house filled with happy customers slurping away must be music to the chefs’ ears.

Ki Ramen is located at 4401 Butler St. at the corner of 44th St. and is open 5 p.m. to midnight, Monday – Saturday (closed Sundays). They plan to start serving lunch sometime in the future.

Ki Ramen on Butler St. in Lawrenceville.
Ki Ramen on Butler St. in Lawrenceville.

Tom O'Connor

Tom O'Connor is a photographer and writer currently based in Pittsburgh.