Tonkotsu White at Jinya Ramen Bar (Bellevue, WA)


I was seriously thinking of not going in. I stood outside for a minute or two, but decided to give Jinya Ramen Bar a shot anyway.

A little background. Our good friends ate there after it soon opened in Bellevue in March, along with so many other eager rameniacs that the two of them had to sit at the bar. They ordered Tokyo Yatai Ramen, which had several problems, among them being a soft-boiled egg (tamago ajitsuke) that was too salty, chicken chashu (which my friend called an “abomination”) that had a chemical taste and subpar marinated bamboo shoots (menma). Furthermore, another friend went twice, the first visit not being particularly impressed with the noodle quality, the second visit worse than the first. With reviews like these from people whose opinions I value, it was all I could do to forgo my reluctance. But, in the interest of evaluating a highly regarded ramenya, I walked in.

I was seated immediately. There was only one other couple toward the back and a lone diner at the counter. Jinya has a minimalist interior, like most Japanese restaurants. Along the back wall is the open kitchen, the counter artfully decorated with alternating red and black ramen bowls. Each table has a quartet of condiments: ichimi togarashi, red pepper paste, gyoza sauce and something called seasoning sauce, which was quite salty and garlicky.

I ordered the Jinya Tonkotsu White, the restaurant’s signature ramen. Besides, I love tonkotsu. It arrived ten minutes later, nicely presented in a black bowl. Two squares of toasted seaweed (nori) were nestled along one arc, an egg half-peaking out of the broth along with two slices of roasted pork belly, spinach, green onions, fried onions and slivers of cloud ears (kikurage). The tonkotsu broth was practically perfect, milky, thick and seasoned properly. It also coated the mouth with gelatin, which feels sticky on the lips, indicating the hours of extracting it from pork bones. The thin noodles were likewise perfect, exhibiting the best kansui property of being springy without the use of eggs. The egg had no excessive saltiness, which my friends noted from their visit. The yolk was ever so slightly congealed yet managed to ooze its bright yellow yolk out into the broth. Finally, the pork belly chashu could not have been better roasted, supremely tender and unctuous. In short, this was a ramen that can take its place among the best (☆☆☆½).

Jinya Tonkotsu White

Jinya Tonkotsu White

Could the same be said for the other ramen that are not pork-broth-based? I doubt whether my friends who tried them will ever come back after their terrible experiences.

You may have caught the fact that I was immediately seated with only a handful of customers inside. This does not typically happen at a highly regarded ramen restaurant. Kukai Ramen still has enough customers throughout the day that waiting to get seated is still pretty common. My only explanation for Jinya is that the rocky start took its toll. It’s possible that problems did not get fixed fast enough that the damage became almost irreparable.

“Did you like the ramen?” the waitress asked when I was done.

“Yes, I did.”

“Would you come back?” she followed.

“Yes, I would.”

“Please bring your friends and family.”

Did I detect some concern? There absolutely is no excuse for a restaurant of Jinya’s caliber, having garnered many awards and citations for its excellent ramen at other venues, including a glowing review from Los Angeles food critic-extraordinaire Jonathan Gold, to have had quality-control issues from the start. None, whatsoever. Management clearly dropped the ball. It will take time to repair its reputation. Jinya can only hope it’s not too late because other ramenya are moving in.

Update (6-24-14):

At dinnertime, the patronage was way up from what I experienced above. There was a slight wait of ten minutes before my wife and I got seated.

I had expected Jinya Tonkotsu Black to be almost ebony like the Black Garlic Oil Ramen at Setsuna, but there was hardly a resemblance. The tonkotsu broth was as light-colored as the Tonkotsu White (see above). The difference was in the broth, which is entirely pork-based for the Black, while the White is derived from pork and chicken. Not surprisingly, it had a noticeably porkier flavor with a touch of gelatinous stickiness and more flavor from garlic chips. The broth was quite good, milky and lower in sodium than, say, Kukai’s. The thin, straight noodles were perfectly textured, firm and springy, qualities that lasted a surprisingly long time. The roasted pork belly slices were the tenderest in recent memory with an equally impressive pork flavor. Fried onions, nori squares, kikurage and green onions rounded out the condiments. The notable shortcoming in the ramen was a half-congealed soft-boiled egg that was very salty, which my friend KirkJ also criticized when he ate here. This makes me wonder if there is any quality control on making ajitsuke tamago, which was perfect during my last visit. Nevertheless, the tonkotsu black was an impressive ramen (☆☆☆½).

Tonkotsu Black

Tonkotsu Black

The egg in my wife’s Hiyashi (cold ramen) wasn’t salty at all, but had a milder flavor more suited to the tare sauce. Cut in half, her egg too was partially set. The noodles were thicker and curly with substantial chew. The remaining ingredients included pork chashu, cooked spinach, cucumber, bean sprouts and ginger. The hayashi ramen is on special for the months of June and July, along with a non-traditional cold ramen soup with diced tomatoes, cilantro and lime. Like my pork belly slices, the chashu was equally tender, cut into cubes. Made with soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, sesame seeds and sugar, the tare sauce was sweeter than it needed to be. Otherwise, my wife said she’d order this dish again (☆☆☆).

Hiyashi (cold ramen)

Hiyashi (cold ramen)

Jinya Ramen Bar
15600 NE 8th St
Bellevue, WA 98008
425.590.9548

Barbecue Choice at The Boar’s Nest (Seattle, WA)


It has been getting warmer in Seattle. Warm weather tends to stimulate my appetite for barbecue. Only a few blocks from my daughter’s condo, maybe The Boar’s Nest would fit the bill.

BBQ sauces at every table

BBQ sauces at every table

Opened in 2011, The Boar’s Nest specializes in pulled pork and ribs, though there are also chicken and links on the menu. Looking through the Yelp reviews, I gather that beef brisket used to be offered, but is no longer. The two guys who run it are from Tennessee, thereby laying claim to a pedigree of Southern cooks who churn out some of the nation’s best barbecue, the Midwest being the other region. So, what regional style does The Boar’s Nest adhere to? None, it seems, though a diner could reasonably expect Memphis. The pulled pork sandwich does come topped with cole slaw. Instead, the restaurant offers a choice of eight different barbecue sauces, running the gamut of the barbecue belt (Kansas City, Memphis, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas, Alabama and Kentucky, with a house-made roasted habañero tossed in for good measure). The meats are slow-roasted only with a dry rub; the customer chooses the sauce. At each table, five of them are in squeeze bottles, a worn-out outline of the state identifying each (except the habañero); the other three (North Carolina, Alabama and Kentucky) are presumably available when ordering.

Sides include not only the standard slaw, fries (including sweet potato), baked beans and collard greens, but also a couple of unusual items: fried pickles and fried mac and cheese.

Several meats can be had as sandwiches—pulled pork, fried chicken, smoked sausage and links. I decided on the pulled pork plate, which includes cornbread, Texas toast and a choice of any two sides. I had to try the pickles and mac & cheese to satisfy my curiosity.

As I was waiting for my order to be served, I sampled each of the five sauces in the squeeze bottles. Overall, I preferred the KC.

South Carolina — mustardy and sweet with a bite
Texas — very sweet and tangy, tomatoey
Memphis — spicy, mildly sweet, tangy, a little heavy on dried thyme
Kansas City — sweet, vinegary
Habañero — spicy, fruity, balanced

Lunch arrived on a tray with generous portions of everything, clearly more than I’d be able to finish at one sitting.

Pulled Pork Plate with fried pickles and fried mac & cheese

Pulled Pork Plate with fried pickles and fried mac & cheese

Let’s start with the sides. Who ever thought of frying dill pickles? They were pleasant enough (☆☆½), crispy from cornmeal batter, tangy, boosted by dipping them in the remoulade, served in a little plastic tub. The fried mac and cheese was unremarkable (☆☆), big balls of fried cheesy pasta that are just crunchier versions of the popular combo. There was little cheese flavor. As many a Yelp reviewer opined, the cornbread was flavorless (☆½). The pulled pork was smoky and moist, oddly watery (☆☆½). It didn’t outdo Stan’s version closer to home on the Eastside.

The Boar’s Nest wants to appeal to a broad range of BBQ preferences. I’m not sure this is a good strategy because barbecuing in the States is so regionally specific, encompassing several kinds of meat and cooking styles. It’s easier to get away with it here in the Pacific Northwest far removed from the meccas.

The Boar’s Nest
2008 NW 56th St
Seattle, WA 98107
206.973.1970

Happy Hour at Golden Beetle (Seattle, WA)


Maria Hines is a celebrity chef around here. She was recognized with a James Beard award (Best Chef Northwest in 2009) and had beaten out Chef Morimoto on Iron Chef. Her restaurant that she opened in 2006, Tilth, is noteworthy not only for its fine cooking but its use of mostly organic and sustainable ingredients. In 2011, she opened Golden Beetle and, the following year, Agrodolce.

Golden Beetle is in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, on NW Market toward the eastern edge of Ballard’s commercial core. The food is described as Eastern Mediterranean, which includes the Middle East, Turkey, Greece and Egypt. Italy is apparently not represented; Agrodolce fills that bill.

It was the dinner hour when I was looking for places to have happy hour. As luck would have it, Golden Beetle offered one.

The happy hour menu has a good selection of Mediterranean items, including a serrano chile and orange zest hummus and mixed marinated olives. Chicken wings combined with harissa, ginger and peanuts, and pizzas also make an appearance, as does a stew of chickpeas, lemon, walnuts and yogurt. But two items struck me immediately: fried pistachios and spiced french fries. The latter includes among its ingredients sumac and harissa aioli. It is also fried in beef fat, which many of you may recall McDonald’s used to do before public concerns about cholesterol forced them to switch to vegetable oil. Whatever side you take on this debate, there is no argument that fries cooked in beef fat are tastier. While they can be ordered separately, I also noticed that the HH mini burger came with said fries, which would let me sample them. Done. I also got the raw winter greens salad.

At 3 ounces, the burger was small enough that I could manage the fries and salad at one sitting. It was a respectable one (☆☆½), garnished with pickled onions and tomato-garlic sauce. Somewhere was a hint of tarragon, which is not one of my favorite herbs. On the other hand, the fries were terrific (☆☆☆½). Looking overly browned, they nonetheless were wonderfully crispy and fluffy, sprinkled with flaky Mediterranean sea salt and, of course, savory from you-know-what. Accompanying the fries was an overly small dipping dish of excellent harissa aioli (I had to ask for another one), much more subdued than the equally first-rate harissa paste on every table.

Mini Burger with Spiced French Fries

Mini Burger with Spiced French Fries

The sole defect of the salad was its saltiness. Otherwise, the chard, pickled chard stems and feta, dressed in a cumin vinaigrette, was quite good (☆☆☆).

Raw Winter Greens Salad

Raw Winter Greens Salad

Golden Beetle
1744 NW Market St.
Seattle, WA 98107
206.706.2977

Reawakening of Spring


I look forward to Spring because, of all the seasons, it symbolizes growth and regeneration.

Seattle’s Restaurant Week, Monsoon’s Catfish Claypot


It was the Spring run of Restaurant Week again earlier this month. Over 130 Seattle area restaurants offered three dinner courses (a starter, main and dessert) for $30. Some restaurants also had a lunch menu for $15. Monsoon East in Bellevue (and its sister restaurant, Monsoon, in Seattle) always seems to participate in this and the similar October festivities, which is great news to those of us who love this restaurant.

One of their signature dishes—and one which we practically get every time—is the Catfish Claypot (cá kho tộ). Even if it is one of their most popular dinner items, it was fantastic to see it on the Restaurant Week menu. It is a delicious entrée of catfish (☆☆☆☆) braised in a thick, savory and caramelized sugar sauce and served piping hot in a claypot, with shallots, ngo òm, morning glory stems and sliced jalapeño to wake up the taste buds. Fish sauce lends this dish its savoriness and balances its sweetness. Despite the dish being a little spicy, no less so because of cracked peppercorns, my wife devours it, as I do, as if there were no tomorrow. On steamed rice, the sauce is ridiculously tasty. Unlike most other places we’ve had it, the catfish has no hint of muddiness, a testament to the kitchen’s prowess.

Caramelized Idaho catfish claypot

Caramelized Idaho catfish claypot

The other Restaurant Week items we had were no slouches either, including a sautéed calamari dish that boasted perfectly cooked squid, and their cocktails are some of the best in town, but the catfish claypot stays in our memory. Perfection.

Monsoon East
10245 Main St.
Bellevue, WA 98004
425.635.1112

 

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Of Koalas, Kangaroos and Penguins


I expected to see lots of them when we set foot on Australian soil. Kangaroos, kangaroos and more kangaroos. Maybe not in Melbourne, but surely along the Great Ocean Road and other parts of undeveloped Victoria. “Kangaroo crossing” signs along the roadways didn’t lessen the expectation. Yet, we never saw a single one.

I should have realized that the no-show isn’t really all that unusual. After all, I can count on less than one finger the number of times I’ve seen Bigfoot here in the Pacific Northwest. Humans have a way of scaring off wildlife. If we don’t spook them, we take away their habitats. Roos are not likely to be waving at us as we roar by in our automobiles and trucks, in my mind the single worst noise polluters in any urban setting, let alone a natural one. And, regarding those signs, the last thing I wanted to happen was striking a kangaroo, risking both its life and mine, never mind forking over a fortune to the car rental agency since I opted out of collision and damage insurance.

Still, if we had wanted to, we could have gone down to the Anglesea golf course to see the grey kangaroos cavorting there, a short drive from Torquay where we were staying. We just couldn’t find the time, it seems.

Kangaroos on Anglesea Golf Course (image from greatoceanroad.info)

Koalas, on the other hand, are impossible to find in the wild. Could we catch a glimpse of a wombat, echidna, Tasmanian devil or dingo? Not likely.

So, the next best thing was to see koalas in a controlled habitat (a.k.a., captivity) on a half-day bus tour from Melbourne to Phillip Island. The tour included a stopover at the Koala Conservation Centre. My daughter had her picture taken cuddling a koala at the Sydney Zoo two years ago, so my wife was hoping to do the same here. Aside from the possibility of being peed on or clawed, Victoria does not allow humans to handle koalas. We had to be content with seeing them in the manna gum trees from the boardwalk. At first, it was discouraging because the critters were high up in the canopy. All we could see were furry balls—their bottoms, their faces if they were turned just right. Further along the path, they were much closer, enough to utter our “awws” and take pictures. The irony is that man’s intervention was required to see them.

Koala as seen through my camera’s telephoto lens

Phillip Island is a major tourist attraction that features little penguins, the smallest of the world’s seventeen penguin species, endemic to Australia and New Zealand. Aussies refer to them as fairy penguins, a reference to their diminutive size, no more than a foot tall. Kiwis call them blue penguins for their blue and white feathery coat. The “penguin parade” happens right after dusk when the penguins return to their nests after spending the day foraging at sea. Their homes are no more than burrows in the ground. Grandstands built right on the beach let visitors watch them waddle by, as close as a few feet from the boardwalk. Photography is no longer allowed. The inimitable Richard Attenborough shows us instead.

Fortunately, these penguins don’t seem particularly perturbed by human presence, but they are much more wary of predators introduced by Europeans, particularly foxes that can feast on as many as 40 chicks in a day. Tally ho!

As we approached the reserve before the program as well as while we waited in the grandstand for the penguins to come ashore, we finally caught glimpses of wallabies, which have naturalized in this area, hopping along the tussock and beach. So, I might’ve been a little disingenuous when at first I said that we saw no roos, technically speaking.

wallaby

If, at some point in our travels, we decide to trek into the Australian bush, I’d wager that our chances would be good at spotting indigenous marsupials. But, not so much in the comfort and isolation of the Grayline bus to Phillip Island with on-board wi-fi so we can watch YouTube videos of them on our tablets, smart phones and laptops. Isn’t it grand to be out in nature?

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Is It Autumn in the Northwest?


No, we’re still enjoying Spring. But, the Bellevue Botanical Garden has these nice Japanese maples with reddish foliage: a laceleaf (Acer palmatum ‘Garnet’, above) and tree (Acer palmatum ‘Burgundy Lace’, below).

maple-bbg