Pizza Magic at Stoneburner

The recently opened Stoneburner has two meanings, our waiter informed us. Not only does it refer to the stone hearth oven in the kitchen but also to the namesake chef, Jason Stoneburner, who is also the executive chef at Bastille, only a block away in Ballard. The waiter added that the menu is Italian-inspired, much as Bastille’s is French. And like Bastille, the interior was designed to evoke a certain European ambience, including the actual interior of an Argentine Italian embassy which decorates the back portion of the restaurant. There a doorway connects to the Hotel Ballard, giving the impression that Stoneburner is a hotel dining room. One wonders if this was done in exchange for the customers’ use of the hotel restrooms. Just kidding.

The restaurant’s specialties are pizza and pasta, both of which are made from scratch. Small plates and seasonal vegetables are also prominent on the menu, as well as cocktails, local beers and wines, the latter in abundant supply along the southeast wall. The dinner menu offers proteins of various sorts, including an immense 60-oz steak that can (should) be shared by 4-5 people.

Three of us shared various items at lunchtime.

A nice beverage was the watermelon and mint shrub (☆☆☆), a seltzer acidulated with lime, but tasted unexpectedly of Chinese dried plum (li hing mui), complete with some saltiness.

Beef crudo (☆☆½), even when sprinkled with fried garlic chips, lacked distinction. Though the slices of raw beef were very fresh, the standard way of dressing carpaccio with lemon juice, olive oil and Parmesan cheese is my preferred preparation.

Grass-fed beef crudo with salt & pepper garlic chips

Grass-fed beef crudo with salt & pepper garlic chips

Categorized as a vegetable, Marinated Zucchini (☆☆☆) was more like a salad. Thinly shaved ribbons of zucchini were nicely dressed with lemon juice and sprinkled with mint, Italian parsley and tarragon. Toasted pistachios gave crunch to this tasty side dish.

Marinated zucchini with toasted pistachios, mint, parsley & tarragon

Marinated zucchini with toasted pistachios, mint, parsley & tarragon

Less successful were the Roasted Turnips (☆☆), partly because they aren’t the tastiest of vegetables, partly because the hazelnut accompaniment was unremarkable and partly because of under-seasoning. The larger bulbs were a bit fibrous. The smoked hazelnuts were tossed with a lovage gremolata that needed more inspiration, though they were tasty enough.

Roasted turnips with smoked hazelnuts and lovage gremolata

Roasted turnips with smoked hazelnuts and lovage gremolata

The crowning glory of the meal was unquestionably the pizza special of the day (☆☆☆½). Crumpled slices of mortadella—which is beyond me how they did it—were combined with a wonderful sauce, with potent tomato flavor, and savory cheese, dotted with slices of Castelvetrano olives. With its intense heat sources from above and below, the stone oven crisped up the pizza shell and mortadella nicely. A bit longer of an exposure could turn into a scorched disaster, which some early reviews complained about. Stoneburner pizzas are on the thinner side, though not as thin as Delancey’s, according to my daughter. It was possible to hold  a slice horizontally without the middle sagging down, despite its relative thinness.

Special pizza of the day

Special pizza of the day

Reviews of Stoneburner’s pastas have been positive. That will be on my list of things to try next time.

5214 Ballard Ave NW
Seattle, WA ‎

Ramen Fujisan (San Gabriel, CA)

Tonkotsu ramen (image posted by Charlie C on Yelp)

“Thick noodles or thin?”

“Heavy, medium or thin broth?”

“Lean pork or pork belly?”

“Firm, medium or soft noodles?”

“How much oil do you want?” (more on this below)

These are the battery of questions you get asked by the wait staff when you order ramen at Ramen Fujisan in San Gabriel. On top of that, you have the option of adding extras for an additional cost: green onions, nori, sliced tree ears, chashu, bamboo shoots, corn, bean sprouts and egg, the first four simply more of what already comes standard. As a reviewer on Yelp carped, “I came for ramen I didn’t come to play 20 questions.” To me personally, they represent a great, if verbose way to customize your order for no extra cost. The trend of tailoring ramen (like udon) to your preferences seems to be popular nowadays.

My father-in-law was in search of another ramen restaurant since the demise of Ton-Chan, also in San Gabriel and soon to be replaced by another ramenya, when he read about Fujisan.

The ramen (☆☆☆) was pretty good served with a rich, milky tonkotsu broth that wasn’t heavy on sodium. Having gone once before, my wife and her sister remarked that the “heavy” broth was practically indistinguishable from “medium” strength. The difference between “firm” (or al dente) and “soft” noodles is more obvious. I ordered mine firm. “Thick” noodles, which we all ordered, have more girth than standard (thin) ramen noodles that can withstand softening in hot broth longer.

And now, about the oil that you get asked about when ordering. An obvious euphemism, it’s really pork fat that to many rameniacs (to borrow a word coined by a popular but now inactive blogger) is part of the ramen-eating experience. Many a ramen where one doesn’t have a choice come with a layer of it on top, unnoticed by many but definitely there. It adds flavor and also keeps the ramen hotter for a longer period of time. The process of making genuine tonkotsu broth naturally results in a fair amount of rendered fat. So, in order to cater to customer concerns, the grease must be skimmed off afterward and left up to the diner to add back in.

The difference between the “lean” pork and “pork belly” option is a matter of degree. The label of lean in my book is a misnomer because of the generous amount of fat still attached. Regardless, both cuts are flavorful and tender.

Yet another choice is the degree of spiciness you want, anywhere from none, normal, spicy and extra spicy. The capper is an even hotter level, wryly called Eruption of Mt Fuji. Why would anyone risk forever blistering one’s taste buds? For one thing, you don’t get charged for the ramen ($7.50 with no extras) if you finish it in 20 minutes. Secondly, you’ll receive a $10 restaurant gift card. There is a downside though: if you lose, you get charged $30 for the ramen, which means you don’t enter the challenge lightly. For the victor, your name and photo gets added to the winner’s list on the wall. Once you win, you can’t throw down the gauntlet again. I can’t imagine a serious ramenya sponsoring such a challenge, apparently a relatively recent phenomenon to satiate a growing interest in ever spicier foods. It seems more suited to theater even if it adds an element of fun and suspense to an otherwise straightforward eating experience.

Ramen Fujisan
529 E Valley Blvd, Ste 138-B
San Gabriel, CA 91776

View at the Top: Christchurch Gondola (NZ)

My son-in-law pointed out the earthquake rubble below us. To my untrained eyes, they just looked like rocks littering the side of Mt Cavendish, but from the gondola car making its way to the top, you could see that many rocks were not covered in lichen, signifying recent movement from their original spots. So many rocks came tumbling down after the February 2011 quake that they damaged roads and guardrails leading to the summit and forced the closure of the gondola tourist attraction. The danger of rockfall and cliff subsidence also led to the declaration of red zone status on properties below.

Mt Cavendish is part of the Port Hills, an east-west range of hills lying between Christchurch and Lyttleton and part of an ancient volcanic rim that can be seen from Christchurch.

In April, the gondola re-opened to much fanfare, another symbolic step toward the recovery of Christchurch after two major quakes (and their numerous aftershocks) damaged the area’s infrastructure and, it seemed, the psyche of the local Cantabrians. The gondola is a major tourist attraction for the city. Not only are there the steep climb and descent, but once at the summit, numerous hiking and bike trails and launch points for paragliders present adventurous opportunities. If nothing else, the panorama affords spectacular views of Lyttleton Harbour to the south, the Southern Alps to the northwest and the city of Christchurch situated on the Canterbury Plains to the north.

At the summit, a trail outside the restaurant led us down the hillside, in spots scattered with sheep dung, which my 4-year-old grandson was petrified to walk around. After days of gloom (being winter in the southern hemisphere), the sun made an appearance today. In fact, because of a common temperature inversion phenomenon, it was warmer at these higher elevations than below, easily 15oC.

Southern Alps

Southern Alps

Lyttleton Harbour

Lyttleton Harbour

Phoenix Rising: The Optimism of Christchurch

Yesterday’s news that a large 6.5 earthquake hit Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, following a 5.7 rattler only two days before, was yet another reminder that New Zealand remains seismically active. When I was here earlier in the year, Mt Tongariro on the North Island erupted. Volcanic activity and sudden earth movement are alive and well here and throughout the entire Ring of Fire, which includes my own home state of Washington. Residents in my neck of the woods talk matter-of-factly of expecting The Big One.

Christchurch was famously struck by two big earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, separated by a mere 6 months. Tragically the latter resulted in 185 deaths. These were followed by the horrific Sendai earthquake in Japan later in 2011. Both quakes did significant damage to NZ’s second largest city, especially to the Central Business District (CBD) where a large number of older buildings was concentrated, including the iconic Christchurch Cathedral. After the first quake, safety concerns led civil authorities to close down the CBD to public access. It remained inaccessible until about two months ago, after all unsafe buildings were razed, inspections completed and hazardous areas fenced off. Visible evidence of the destruction still remains, prodigious piles of rubble behind chain-link fences that will take years to clean up. The cathedral is a shadow of its former self.

Despite all this, as I walked through the area, I was really impressed with the positive spirit reflected in the downtown area, the optimism that comes from a people looking ahead rather than dwelling on the misfortunes of the past. Re:START’s project of sponsoring the construction of the container mall was a welcome, affirmative and symbolic gesture. Even if the CBD is mostly unrecognizable from what it had once been, there are indications everywhere that the phoenix is rising from its ashes. Whether it was temporary topiaries in the shape of animals, potted plants, decoration on chain-link fences, the fencing around the cathedral punctuated in front by a planter-box representation, or amateur entertainers performing for the public, these small signs signify hope for the future. With no motor vehicles, a big part of the CBD is for the moment a pedestrian zone. People were out in force today, many recalling with family and friends the former pre-quake landscape.

Kukai Ramen & Izakaya

The biggest Asian restaurant opening to hit the Eastside since Din Tai Fung has been that of Kukai Ramen & Izakaya. Kukai is a highly successful ramen chain in Japan. The Bellevue branch is the first in the States. No sooner had Kukai opened its doors than the lines started forming. For weeks, you could never get immediately seated, exacerbated by its limited weekday hours when their doors close for 2½ hours in the afternoon. And forget about weekends. You need to have the patience of Job to get a seat. About a month and a half ago, we attempted to go but were confronted by a line outside. We skipped it and went elsewhere.

Today, we were in the area and decided to give Kukai another go. This time, we got seated immediately.

The first thing that we noticed upon entry was the noise level. I’ve ranted before about restaurant cacophony; Kukai is right up there with the worst. We got seated at a two-person table, barely inches away from diners on either side of us. Our waiter informed us that the most popular ramen in Japan is the tonkotsu and the most popular izakaya item, the takoyaki.

For me, the choice was obvious—the tonkotsu. My wife wanted cold noodles to temper the hot weather we’ve been having lately. Her choice was the tsukemen, cold noodles and accompaniments that are dipped in a broth served on the side. Her choice of the broth was tonkotsu, the others being shoyu (soy sauce) and chicken. You would think that the tonkotsu of both our dishes would be the same, but you’d be wrong. I’ll comment on this later.

The tonkotsu ramen (☆☆☆½) broth was delicious, salty, not as porky nor milky as the most genuine versions, but tasty nonetheless. The ramen noodles were perfectly cooked, al dente, and kept their toothsome texture almost to the end. Virtually a hallmark of a great ramen accompaniment is a seasoned half-cooked egg (ajitsuke tamago) with a firm white and creamy yolk, the way the Japanese prefer it. Served whole, Kukai’s was almost perfect with a yolk that was a half congealed. Also included were bean sprouts, pork chashu, shredded green onions and rings of dried red chile. At $11, tonkotsu ramen is not an inexpensive noodle soup.

Tonkotsu Shoyu Ramen

Tonkotsu Shoyu Ramen (Note: egg cut in half with chopsticks by me)

Diners have the option of choosing a “traditional” or low-sodium broth. Even though I like to watch my sodium intake, the issue of ramen’s saltiness (both fresh and packaged) really comes down to the broth where almost all of it is concentrated. The obvious strategy is not to finish the broth once everything else is eaten, though the temptation might be great to polish it off.

The noodles of the tsukemen (☆☆☆) were flat, cut like a thin fettucine, an interesting variation that worked quite well. They were accompanied by menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) and yu choy, all topped with finely shredded dried seaweed. They also came with slices of pork chashu, like my tonkotsu ramen. The meat was from a larger cut than usual, tasty but the texture somewhat dry. A surprising twist in the dipping broth was a citrusy zing that turned out to be really appealing with this style of ramen.

Tonkotsu tsukemen

Tonkotsu tsukemen

Additional toppings are available for $1.50 each, which in some instances is excessive. Seriously, additional bean sprouts or scallions for $1.50? An egg is not included in many ramens.

Both these ramens were quite good, among the best in the entire region. Based on Kukai’s success here, there’s little doubt that the chain will open more restaurants elsewhere. For next time, an intriguing option to try is the Yuzu Shio Ramen. For small plate snacking or a lighter meal, there is the izakaya menu.

8-23-13: On a return visit, I ordered the shoyu ramen (☆☆☆½). Again, the noodles were perfectly cooked. The broth, again salty, was nonetheless delicious with a slight sweetness. I will have to try the low-sodium broth next time. Gyoza (☆☆☆), clad in a thin skin, was nicely browned and flavorful.

Shoyu ramen

Shoyu ramen

Kukai Ramen & Izakaya
14845 Main St
Bellevue, WA 98007