Ramen Fever: Seattle’s Push Toward a Higher Profile

It’s been a particularly curious phenomenon that the Seattle area, claiming as much connection to Japan as any other major U.S. city, has had a mediocre track record as far as having great ramen restaurants. As any ramen fanatic can tell you, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver, B.C., are several steps ahead of Seattle (and Portland) on the West Coast to having anything close to a notable ramen scene. This is not to say that Seattle is a ramen armpit. Far from it, because there are a few—and I mean few—places that serve up a pretty good bowl of noodles. But, earlier this year, the introduction of Kukai Ramen changed the local landscape. Its first operation in the U.S., the respected Japanese chain opened a restaurant in Bellevue to much praise and long lines.

As if tapping into some kind of cosmic mind-meld, suddenly the area will see several more ramenya open their doors. It is well known that Eric Stapleman, who owned and closed Shibumi in Santa Fe (where I’ve eaten and liked), relocated to Seattle and will start the ramenya-izakaya concept in Capitol Hill. Exactly when is not clear. I also learned only today that Mighty Ramen will pop-up at The Dish in Green Lake on Monday, December 9, to offer its noodle bowls before settling on a more permanent space.

Possibly the most significant launch will be Jinya, a U.S. chain that will open its first Washington restaurant in the Crossroads area of Bellevue. The original Studio City (in California) restaurant has garnered praise from both Jonathan Gold (who lists it among the 10 best ramen places in the LA area) and rameniac, great endorsements both. From that location, additional ones have opened in other parts of LA, New York City, Las Vegas, Vancouver and Houston. The specialty will be tonkotsu ramen, which I’ve written about in other posts. Suffice it to say that I’ll be anxious to dive right in. I am holding out hope that their tonkotsu broth is thick—and I mean thick—like real tonkotsu is supposed to be, rather than the thin broth-y concession to American tastes. And really porky in flavor. The restaurant hasn’t opened yet, but the debut is imminent.

Time will tell if these restaurants measure up. It’s interesting that Kukai and Jinya, both brainchilds of Japanese entrepreneurs, decided to make their move not in Seattle, but across Lake Washington in Bellevue. Chances are it’s because most of the Japanese on temporary work visas live on the Eastside. Din Tai Fung did its own market research when it similarly started its first Washington venture in Bellevue, likely for the identical reason that the area’s Taiwanese American population is concentrated there. Is it any wonder that what many regard as the best Taiwanese restaurant in Washington (Facing East) is also located in Bellevue?

All this aside, it appears that the Seattle area is perched to make big strides toward ramen legitimacy. And it’s about time.

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Black Garlic Oil Ramen at Setsuna

When I started looking for a place to have dinner after a movie, my friend KirkJ suggested Setsuna Japanese Restaurant & Bar in the Northgate area of Seattle. As a restaurant to have ramen, Setsuna fell under my radar as it is not explicitly a ramenya. If I’d read the Yelp reviews carefully, I would have been duly informed, as KirkJ had. One look at the menu on arrival was enough to convince me to give it a try, especially one called black ramen, not particularly a descriptive name, but explained on the menu as having “rich soy sauce flavor with original blackened garlic butter dressing,” apparently a specialty of northern Kyushu. The other ramen were standard, one with a shio (salt) broth, another with shoyu, and one spicy.

The black ramen arrived not only in what appeared to be an inky broth but impressively clad in a dark green, almost black bowl served on a black plastic tray, a culinary Darth Vader. The stunning presentation was not entirely dark. Poking above the surface were slices of bright green yu choy leaves, starkly contrasting bean sprouts, slices of seasoned bamboo shoots (menma), pinkish pork (kakuni), the pale yellow and milky white of the half-boiled egg (ajitsuke tamago) and fine threads of dried red chiles that looked like saffron, likely borrowed from the Koreans. Underneath were lurking ramen noodles which when lifted up provided yet more contrast against the black surroundings.

The broth was made from pork, normally brownish in color. What gives this ramen its dark hue is mayu, which is made by slowly frying garlic in oil until it turns black, then puréeing it until smooth. There must be some art involved without making the garlic bitter. It lent the broth a certain powderiness that coated the tongue, not off-putting but interesting. As ramen goes, Setsuna’s was hardly salty, almost qualifying as low-sodium. The pork broth should have been richer and more flavorful to compensate, but it was good enough. The eggy noodles were excellent with just the right amount of springiness. Rather than being slices of pork belly, there were leaner chunks, quite tasty. The half-boiled egg was perfection itself: the white was firmly set but the yolk creamy as in the best ramen, with a surprisingly pleasant sweetness. Kudos to the restaurant for offering such a compelling bowl of noodles, one I doubt you’d find anywhere else in the Seattle area, but I give it simply a “good” rating (☆☆☆), mainly because of the understated broth, a significant component of a great ramen experience.

My wife’s salmon miso dinner wasn’t bad (☆☆½), mainly marred by previously frozen salmon that hardly had miso flavoring, tempura pieces (shrimp and vegetables) that were light and crispy but oily, good miso soup, fine salad with a wasabi dressing and sliced cantaloupe.

Salmon miso dinner

Salmon miso dinner



Setsuna Japanese Restaurant & Bar
11204 Roosevelt Way NE
Seattle, WA 98125

Airline Food Deconstructed?

I came across this interesting article on an experience that most of us would prefer not to think about too seriously: eating airline food. It posed the question whether it was truly horrible or is it that we expect it to be. It turns out that one big physiological problem to be overcome is the tendency for our sinuses to close because of the cabin’s very low humidity. Without our sense of smell, food becomes less enjoyable. Dry air also tends to dry up food, which is the reason why airline food tends to be more saucy to compensate. But, without question, the biggest problem is that meals have to be prepared way ahead of time and frozen since airplane galleys are not equipped to make food. All they have are convection ovens for reheating. Gone are the days when roasts used to be carved and salads tossed by the flight attendants, served on china with silverware and cloth napkins. Still, the article goes on to say, some airlines are trying to improve the food they serve.

And the article really struck a chord with me when it admitted that passengers look forward to eating only as a way to combat the extreme boredom of long flights.

Despite the sympathetic tone, there are too many times when airline food, especially breakfasts, like the one between Auckland and Honolulu on Hawaiian Airlines, is truly forgettable. There was little thought given to improving the quality or experience.

The entire article is here.

Grand Teton Reverie

I’ve already posted remarkable collision photographs taken by Jim Brandt, who happens to be the husband of my wife’s cousin. Last month, he and his wife visited Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. Any camera hound knows that these places offer infinite photographic possibilities. Among Jim’s photographs, I selected one that for me captures the essence and majesty of the Teton range. Even if the mountains have been photographed zillions of times, this particular image is remarkable because of the dramatic interplay between the rising sun and exquisite cloud formations with the meandering Snake River providing an interesting contrast to the jagged peaks. Jim remarked to me once that he loves clouds. I can certainly see his point.

grand tetons

Spicy Szechuan Chicken at Spiced

For authentic Szechuanese food in the Seattle area, I’ve yet to find a place that is more so than Spiced (a previous review here) in the Crossroads area of Bellevue. The menu seems to have gotten more extensive if that’s possible; there were plenty of items on the older one. New to the menu are helpful photographs to help the uninitiated decide on what to get. Today, what struck my fancy was a spicy chicken dish whose menu name I failed to record. It arrived sizzling in a mini-wok served over an alcohol burner. The entire dish is a feast for the eyes and nuclear heat for the tongue. Chicken thigh pieces were mixed with sliced baby yellow bell peppers, green onions and celery in a savory sauce pungent with loads of fragrant Szechuan peppercorns, dried red chile pods and sliced jalapeño peppers, underlain with a generous amount of mung bean sprouts. Herein lies a problem with these kinds of spicy dishes—the blistering heat of the chiles and mouth-numbing qualities of the peppercorns mask any subtle differences there might be among dishes that use them. In other words, what the Chinese call and , the numbing and spicy sensations, hit you fast and hard before nuances of flavor are detected. Despite Spiced’s use of MSG and copious amount of oil, I would still rate the chicken dish highly (☆☆☆).

Szechuan spicy chicken

Szechuan spicy chicken

On a subsequent visitSpicy Wujiang Fish Fillets is listed under Chef’s Specialties. It came in a large vessel. One look was all it took to know that this was going to be one helluva spicy dish. The broth was bright red from chiles, either paste or ground. Whole and crumbled dried red chile peppers sat menacingly on top. The intimidation didn’t stop there because pickled chiles were lurking in the broth. Add to that Szechuan peppercorns with their tingly, numbing properties, and you might be tempted to think nuclear accident. I sipped the broth and, through the hotness, there was quite a bit of savoriness. A generous portion of perfectly cooked fried fish fillets looked like they were occupying the whole tureen, but underneath was a bed of mung bean sprouts and a small amount of thin, flat starchy noodles (similar in texture to cellophane noodles). Adding to this complexity were pickled baby bok choy. Even if this was throat-searing and excessively oily, it was nevertheless an amazing dish (☆☆☆½).

Spicy Wujiang Fish Fillets

Spicy Wujiang Fish Fillets

Yamaki Jozo Soy Sauce

It has been several years now that I converted to low-sodium soy sauce. Not for health reasons but for the simple fact that regular soy sauce seemed much too salty. The brand that I’ve settled on is Kikkoman’s Milder Soy Sauce, made in Japan. Kikkoman’s Less Sodium Soy Sauce, made in Wisconsin, is not nearly as good, lacking the former’s depth and fermented flavor. The “milder” sauce may not be readily available in the U.S., though not impossible to find.

After reading about Yamaki Jozo‘s aged, organic and unpasteurized (nama) soy sauce (shoyu) in Nancy Singleton Hachisu’s Japanese Farm Food, I purchased a small bottle at a local Asian supermarket out of curiosity. The soy sauce is marketed in the U.S. under the Ohsawa label and is also available online here. At $12 for a 10-oz bottle, it isn’t inexpensive by any means, but as Hachisu remarked in her book, soy sauce is normally used in small quantities in cooking, so using a high-quality one is worth the expense.

Yamaki Jozo soy sauce (sold under the Ohsawa brand)

Yamaki Jozo soy sauce (sold under the Ohsawa brand)

I immediately did a taste test between the Kikkoman Milder and the Yamaki Jozo. The former is decidedly sweeter, bolder, strongly fermented and caramel-y with a short finish. The Jozo is saltier (though not nearly as briny as regular soy sauce), lighter, smoother, and refined with cedar notes. Kikkoman’s seemed harsh in comparison to Yamaki, though I never would have said so before. It may take me a while to get used to saltier soy sauce again, but I can appreciate Yamaki Jozo’s qualities, especially its most remarkable one—umami that lingers literally for minutes on the back of the tongue.

“Japanese Farm Food” by Nancy Singleton Hachisu

I saw it first at Kobo, an exceptional Japanese crafts store in Seattle’s International District. It was a beautifully bound book with stunning images of simple Japanese farm food, a subject that has lately caught my interest. Flipping through the thick, almost squarish matte-finished pages was like an invitation to eat at the table of Nancy Singleton Hachisu, who authored Japanese Farm Food, the object of my fascination. I got the book as a gift last Christmas; it helped that it was on my wish list.

I’ve never done a book review post before, but this book I had to write about, particularly as it relates to this blog’s theme of food and travel.

Nancy Hachisu is not Japanese by birth. She’s an American, born and raised in the Bay Area, who as a young woman decided to go to Japan for language study and sushi but wound up staying when she married an organic farmer. She has lived in Japan for over twenty years, in the process becoming thoroughly immersed in living on an organic farm, growing crops, raising three sons and, of course, cooking Japanese farm food.

This book is about seasonal cooking and eating what grows around you, as opposed to the approach of making meals from recipes. As she writes in her introduction, “You don’t choose the vegetables, they choose you.” The recipes are both those of her husband’s family and her and her husband’s creations. They are all about simplicity, the ingredients about unspoiled flavors and textures. Read her ode to freshly harvested edamame immediately plunged into boiling water (like just picked corn), drained and sprinkled with sea salt, served blisteringly hot with beer, and you’ll want to do the same. Or imagine tasting high-quality, small-scale-produced rapeseed (canola) oil that is far superior to flavorless commercial versions, or being bowled over by freshly shelled raw homegrown pecans. And when you read her description of her locally available tofu (Yamaki), you might want to take the next flight to Japan.

The recipes rarely use more than four ingredients. For example, the one for nasu no shigiyaki (fried eggplant with sweet miso) is straightforward and exemplary. It involves scoring the backs of Japanese eggplant halves in a crosshatch pattern (to look like bird’s feathers; shigi => sandpiper) prior to frying them in organic rapeseed oil, then topping them with sweet miso (which you make yourself from the highest quality miso, mirin and sake), slivered ginger and shiso (perilla) chiffonade.

I was fascinated by recipes for natto fried rice, kurumi soba (soba with walnut dipping sauce), tamago-kake gohan (raw egg on hot rice), zukkini no nukazuke (zucchini pickled in rice bran), tataki kyuri (smashed cucumber pickles with garlic), kaminari konnyaku (stir-fried konnyaku with shaved bonito), nasu no shiomomi (salt-massaged eggplant with ginger and shiso), okura no ohitashi (sliced okra with dried bonito), buta no kaku-ni (pork belly simmered in okara), tori no kara age (deep-fried ginger chicken) or kyuri momi (salt-massaged cucumber with miso and sesame), just to name a few. Perking my interest was one small section devoted to making Japanese pickles (tsukemono), an old tradition that is slowly dying out in Japan. These are condiments that I grew up with. Using only vinegar, salt, soy sauce, miso, nuka (rice bran) and kasu (sake lees), alone or in combination, you can pickle any number of vegetables.

Aside from the recipes, what makes this book more interesting than, say, another book on the same subject? First of all, it’s highly opinionated. She writes not as a Japanese native but as a Westerner who has adapted to the Japanese way of life, not altogether a smooth and successful assimilation but one done willingly, with compromise and no illusions. She balks at the traditional role of Japanese housewife but deals with expectations in her own way in order “to live out [her] whole life in this sometimes restrictive culture.” Hachisu still feels like an outsider in Japan but that hasn’t stopped her embrace of things Japanese. And embrace she has. Hachisu is passionate about using the freshest ingredients, organic or natural (what “natural” means is explained below) when possible, because of their pristine flavors. Her pick of soy sauce, for instance, doesn’t include Kikkoman, but rather a locally produced organic one (Yamaki Jozo, marketed in the U.S. under the Ohsawa brand) that is naturally and unhurriedly fermented (therefore making it pricier). She even advocates buying tofu from tofu makers (tofuya) instead of supermarkets, whose products have been treated for long shelf-life, or making your own. One of her recipes includes making tofu from scratch.

Her preference for organic and natural foods is no less influenced by her own inclinations or Chez Panisse than by her husband, who opposed his father’s insistence on modernizing farming practices with chemical fertilizers and pesticides and became an organic farmer. Natural farming, she explains, is a method of farming that doesn’t use animal or bird fertilizers, for practitioners feel they disturb the soil’s natural nitrogen balance and adversely affect the taste of vegetables, which suggests that in Japan’s case, the term is more restrictive than organic rather than being the nebulous, worthless one used here in the U.S.

Hachisu’s stories and anecdotes are another captivating element of the book. The personal accounts wrapped around some traditional foods like umeboshi and konnyaku are fun to read because they involve the farmers who grow them or the people who simply bring them by. Her description in a sidebar of close family friends, a Japanese farmer and his wife, who every year come to Christmas dinner (which always include gougères and sparkling wine), is a tribute to their tireless work ethic and dedication as well as a recognition that she can never be like them (“for me, farming will always be about playing a role”). And lest readers think that farming life is pastoral, Hachisu reminds us that even in her corner of the world, urbanization is rapidly taking over.

Nancy Hachisu’s passion for Japanese farm cooking shines through in the recipes with their cultural notes and the book’s engaging sidebars and chapter introductions. The book isn’t meant to be authoritative like Shizuo Tsuji’s, but a compendium of farm food that she and her husband have made through the years. Country cookin’. I highly recommend it.