Omakase Dinner at Miyabi 45th


A five-course omakase dinner for two at Miyabi 45th for $60? Yessiree, Groupon. I was motivated because of an excellent soba lunch that I had there recently.

The Groupon special is not the only way to have this kind of dinner. A party can otherwise decide how much to spend per person and the Miyabi kitchen will do the rest, though it won’t have Groupon’s value. The five courses were either four appetizers and soba or three appetizers, soba and dessert. We chose the former.

The waitress first asked if we had any allergies or dislikes after we looked over the regular and specials menu. When we answered no, this turned out to mean that anything from the menus would be fair game for omakase.

Dinner started with an amuse-bouche of Castelvetrano olives with a light touch of sesame oil.

The first course was a shared plate of pork paté studded with gorgonzola cheese (☆☆☆½). This was substantial stuff, full of pork flavor, dense and fatty. The coarse country-style spread easily broke apart the thin, baked pita-like triangles. It was easier to eat paté, dipped in whole-grain mustard, and cracker separately, still a winning combination. The incorporation of yuzu was difficult to detect. Served on the side was a salad of arugula, Japanese pear and roasted yellow beets, tossed with a very good dark vinaigrette.

Country-style pork pate, Japanese pear and roasted yellow beet salad

Country-style pork pate, Japanese pear and roasted yellow beet salad

Next arrived a shared plate of raw oysters. Neither my wife nor I are oyster fans. What I mean is that we have never been head-over-heels enamored of their briny essence, what samples we’ve tasted thus far. But they were placed before us, having told the waitress we didn’t have any dislikes. The oysters were not served plain but topped with fermented black garlic. Simply stated, they were delicious, surprisingly sweet and savory with barely a hint of garlic. But for bits of shell, they were outstanding (☆☆☆½), readjusting our attitude toward oysters.

Oysters with fermented black garlic

Oysters with fermented black garlic

Grilled sardines were next. These weren’t tinned small fries but were in the neighborhood of 8 inches. We each got our own fish. Sardine is mildly fishy with trout-like flesh texture and lots of pin bones, most of which can be carefully avoided. Again, this was a dish we normally wouldn’t have ordered on our own. To enhance flavor, the sardines were coated in shio koji before being grilled, resulting in another fine appetizer (☆☆☆).

Grilled shio koji sardines

Grilled shio koji sardines

Next was braised pork belly (☆☆☆☆), another shared appetizer. The fat-averse, which includes my wife, would shy away from this dish, meat comprising more or less half of each slice. But even she admitted these were pretty special. The bellies were braised in a concentrated broth of dashi, soy sauce and sugar to be sure, with other secret ingredients. A small amount of it pooled at the bottom. The pork was topped with a generous pinch of Korean chile threads. On the side were two halves of perfectly cooked ajitsuke tamago.

Braised pork belly, ajitsuke tamago

Braised pork belly, ajitsuke tamago

The main course was soba served nanban style, meaning the soba noodles are mixed together with hot broth, like ramen. In keeping with the season, the soup featured sliced matsutake mushrooms and leek, both contributing their unique flavors. When served nanban, soba takes on a soft texture yet keeps its slightly springy integrity that wheat-based noodles (like ramen) can’t. Although I liked the chyashu seiro soba better, this was still a great bowl of noodles (☆☆☆½).

Matsutake soba (nanban)

Matsutake soba (nanban)

Omakase is an opportunity to try things you might not ordinarily choose, as we can attest. It ends at Miyabi with soba, the restaurant’s specialty. Chef Mutsuko Soma trained with a master in Japan to make it from scratch, which she continues here. There isn’t a better place to try it, while at the same time sampling the creative dishes that come out of the kitchen.

Related post

Miyabi 45th
2208 N 45th Street
Seattle, WA, 98103
206.632.4545

Bellevue Demonstration Garden Dahlias


The King County Master Gardeners manage the Bellevue Demonstration Garden, also known as the Lake Hills Greenbelt Urban Demonstration Garden. Among the many plots is a section devoted to dahlias. There were two varieties that stood out. One of them had cream and ivory petals tinged mauve on the outer edges (top image). The other had peppermint candy colors where an individual flower contained red and white pigments in proportions different from other flowers on the same plant, as if unveiling Mendel’s concept of genetic variation before our eyes.

One peppermint candy color variation

One peppermint candy color variation

Flower on the same plant

Flower on the same plant

Bellevue Demonstration Garden
Near the northwest corner of 156th Ave SE and SE 16th St
Bellevue, WA

Dinner at Setsuna Japanese Restaurant


The intriguing black ramen that I enjoyed a year ago at Setsuna Japanese Restaurant & Bar got me to wonder whether there was a hidden gem of a ramenya in the Northgate area. Opportunity knocked when we went with friends for dinner there.

Setsuna’s ramen menu offers four kinds: white, sakura, black and red, roughly descriptive of their colors. White ramen is shio-flavored (salt). Normally, shio ramen is associated with assari (clear, light) broths. Setsuna’s is one exception that leans more toward the heavier bone broths (kotteri), though sea salt is the only seasoning used. (Santouka also has a shio ramen that is a variation of tonkotsu.) It was milky enough in appearance and feel that it could be mistaken for miso. The broth was rich and, in accordance with Japanese preference, fatty. Bean sprouts and slivers of yu choy were the extent of the vegetables. Condiments included so-so menma (seasoned bamboo shoots), chile threads and a cold ajitsuke tamago (extra cost) with a nearly totally congealed yolk. At least, the cubes of roast pork were flavorful and tender. What about the ramen noodles themselves? Sad to say, they were a tad pasty, which got worse as they sat in the hot broth. This bowl was not top-notch by any means, just good enough (☆☆½).

White Ramen

White Ramen

So, the answer to my year-long question is that Setsuna does not produce consistently good ramen to make it a destination for rameniacs.

My wife ordered the gyoza-tempura combination dinner (☆☆½). Here again, there were some miscues. The gyoza skins were fried to a distractingly super crunchiness like crackers, though the pork filling was very tasty. The tempura batter was a little too greasy and tasted of old oil. Quantities of tempura and gyoza dipping sauces were so skimpy that more had to be requested.

Combination Dinner with Gyoza and Tempura

Combination Dinner with Gyoza and Tempura

Our friends had the hamachi dinner from the specials menu. The comment was that the yellowtail steak was dry, mirroring the evaluation that my wife made of her salmon on our last visit.

The opening of Kukai Ramen in Thornton Place for me may be a glimmer of hope in the culinary wasteland that is Northgate.

Setsuna Japanese Restaurant & Bar
11204 Roosevelt Way NE
Seattle, WA 98125
206.417.3175

Botanical Ordnance: Cannonball Tree


A more fascinating tree I’ve never come across. It’s more commonly known as the cannonball tree because its russet-colored fruits are shaped like and almost as heavy as cannonballs and give off an explosive sound when they fall and hit the ground. The fruit pulp inside is bluish-gray and attracts wild animals which eat the seeds that get propagated through droppings. The balls are attached to woody extrusions from the trunk. In big clusters around the tree trunk, they look odd.

The other surprise is the strangely beautiful flower. The petals have a magenta and peach color. Some of the stamens, blue-violet with yellow tips, look like sea anemone tentacles that protrude from the tip of a hood-like structure, while less showy and shorter stamens line the inside in a ring pattern. Unlike the fruit pulp which give off a stench, the flower has a pleasant perfumy aroma.

For obvious reasons, these trees are generally not planted where people are expected to be walking below. I saw this specimen growing in Foster Botanical Garden in Honolulu and another one at the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden in Papaikou near Hilo.

Both fruit and flowers grow from woody appendages

Both fruit and flowers grow from woody appendages

Fallen cannonball tree fruit

Fallen cannonball tree fruit

Fish n’ Chips at Wally’s Chowder House (Des Moines, WA)


Fish and chips restaurants abound in the Pacific Northwest, not surprising when there’s nothing but the Pacific Ocean to the west. Perhaps the most well-known fish-n-chippery in the Seattle area is Ivar’s, once owned by Ivar Haglund whose image and personality in local circles rivaled those of Colonel Sanders. His corporation also used to fund a big fireworks show on July 4th in Elliott Bay, during its heyday one of two big shows (the other being on Lake Union). Less self-promotional and popular in the area is Spud Fish and Chips on Alki Point, though lately the quality of the Juanita franchise has definitely declined.

There are many opinions on what constitutes the best fish and chips. Some prefer thick batters, while others prefer a light coating. Should the batter be flour, cornmeal, cornstarch or a combination? Then, there’s the choice of fish. It goes without saying that the fish has to be fresh and it has to be adequately seasoned without being salty. My daughter and son-in-law swear by the version served by Nordstrom Grill (of department store fame) in Seattle, which I have yet to try. Otherwise, my wife and my favorite place is not in Seattle at all but in Christchurch, New Zealand (Coppell Place Seafood).

Last weekend, good friends of ours invited us to accompany them on their boat to the Quartermaster Yacht Club’s annual potluck, this year at the Des Moines Marina. A few of the club members mentioned Wally’s Chowder House, only a half-mile walk uptown, as an excellent place to get fish and chips. Waiting to get seated was common. When we went for lunch last Saturday, a hand-printed note at the entrance announced that Wally’s was again nominated in the Best Seafood category in the 2014 King 5 Best of Western Washington. Furthermore, a placard proudly proclaims that the fishing boat Golden Alaska catches and flash-freezes 50,000 pounds of arctic cod for Wally’s every year, which works out to be about 135 pounds daily. With this much brouhaha, why have I not heard of this place before?

On the specials board was fried razor clams, which gave us pause. But we were here to sample the fish and chowder, the two menu items that put Wally’s in the hearts and minds of followers.

The New England clam chowder (☆☆☆) could not have had better flavor but it was excessively thick. So much flour could almost have held up a spoon without moving.

New England clam chowder

New England clam chowder

On the recommendation of a couple of diners who were in our party, my wife and I split a one-piece large fillet with fries. When it arrived, I saw it was good advice. You can also order 2-, 3- or 6-piece quantities. There was likewise a good-sized portion of fries. It made no difference that they were in fact bottomless, because they were mealy (☆☆). Neither were we impressed with the fish (☆☆). It was dry and rubbery. I’ve never been fond of fish that had been previously frozen because it cooks, well, dry and rubbery. In addition, there was no discernible seasoning; the fish tasted flat. It might’ve been wiser to get the fresh local ling cod or halibut. We wondered what the fuss was all about regarding Wally’s. We won’t be returning.

Arctic cod fish n' chips

Arctic cod fish n’ chips

Wally’s Chowder House
22531 Marine View Dr S
Des Moines, Washington
(206) 878-8140

Moon Jelly


While cruising in Puget Sound waters on our friends’ boat, I couldn’t help but notice scores of jellyfish floating by. I’d never seen jellies in the wild, so it would be an understatement to say I was pretty excited. Even as we returned to the Quartermaster Yacht Club’s dock, there they were again around the Burton Park peninsula on Vashon Island. I started snapping photos of them as best as I could from a moving deck. It wasn’t until the boat approached the marina that I noticed even more of them. Better yet, there were tons of moon jellies drifting around the dock, waiting for their portraits to be taken. The image above is one such snapshot. They look like UFOs in the water, strangely suggestive of the famous Maury Island incident of 1947. Maury Island is attached to Vashon by a causeway.

Max’s World Cafe: Rapture in Issaquah


It’s easy to miss, even as you’re driving slowly along Front Street in Issaquah looking for it. The storefront is just a sliver, which also describes the very tiny space inside, taken up by four small tables and a skinny counter with stools. Don’t let any of that fool you. Max’s World Cafe is world-class cuisine. The food would befit the finest restaurants of Seattle, but Issaquah is where Chef Edna Noronha has chosen to serve her customers. The restaurant has been in operation since 2010, collecting a loyal clientele ever since. The menu is broad but there is a definite influence from the cuisine of Goa, India.

Chef Edna, as her customers like to call her, judging from the cards and letters posted on a bulletin board, hails from Goa. She also graduated from the Culinary Institute of America as valedictorian of her class in 2006. She is the one who takes your orders and, once served, will gladly talk about the provenance of her food, none of which has touched additives or preservatives of any kind. Everything is made from scratch, including three hot sauces and spice blends, the former available for sale and the latter, likely soon. The cooking of Goa is represented on the menu by its distinctive Indian, Portuguese  and Arabic influences. The menu is small and the prices are somewhat high, no doubt because of the quality ingredients and careful and labor-intensive preparation that she invests her food with.

My wife and I decided to eat at Max’s after a musical performance at Village Theatre, directly across the street. Because I had eaten and loved the African Portuguese Chicken on a previous visit, I recommended to my wife that she order it. The chicken, deboned with skin left on, is marinated for days in a piri piri marinade before being grilled. The result is nothing short of perfection (☆☆☆☆), as moist a chicken breast as I’ve ever had. The chiles in the piri piri sauce sneaks up on you, complemented with flavors of smoked paprika, red wine vinegar, garlic and spice blend. Perfectly grilled, the chicken is an exceptional combination of crispiness and succulence.

African Portuguese Chicken

African Portuguese Chicken

I order lamb only when I eat out because I don’t make it at home. Today’s special was Lamb Shanks. Bar none, it was the best lamb entrée I’ve ever eaten (☆☆☆☆), the kind of lamb that falls off the bone with the slightest nudge, the result also of days of marination and slow roasting for 8 hours. It was topped with cilantro pesto. The lamb itself is grass-fed and hails from Australia. Amazing, incredible stuff.

Lamb Shank

Lamb Shank

Normally, we don’t get dessert except on special occasions. But, with our incomparable meals just completed, we wondered if the magic could strike again with something sweet. Chef Edna suggested Sticky Date Cake served with vanilla ice cream. To think of it as cake in the usual sense would be a mistake for it was more like a cake pudding darkened with date sauce. It appeared to be dense at first sight, but it was moist and just sweet enough. On top was poured a most delicious caramel sauce, intensely buttery, a perfect complement to the cake and two small scoops of exquisite vanilla ice cream. This was an outstanding dessert (☆☆☆☆).

Sticky Date Cake

Sticky Date Cake

Chef Edna told us that she plans to move the operation to a new restaurant around the corner, possibly next year, that will seat many more people and serve breakfast besides. She’ll change the menu at the current location to serve food at a lower price point. If the quality of her lunch and dinner menus is any indication, I venture to say the new Max’s should contend for the best breakfast place on the Eastside.

I’ve never given the highest rating to everything we’ve eaten at one meal. This is the first time. The food was, in a word, rapturous.

Max’s World Cafe
212 Front St N
Issaquah, WA
425-391-8002

Sunflower


This year, a fine stand of sunflowers appeared for the first time along an urban path in Bellevue, attracting many admirers, myself included. But, beyond the attraction to humans, there was a beneficial attraction of another kind.

Chyashu Seiro Soba at Miyabi 45th (Seattle, WA)


Amid the current craze to start ramen restaurants, it’s refreshing to find a restaurant that serves only soba. Sobaya (restaurants that specialize in soba) are not common in the States, though many Japanese restaurants have it on the menu among their other offerings. Seattle has a sobaya (and izakaya) in the form of Wallingford’s Miyabi 45th, which began business in early 2013. Diners expecting to find ramen will be disappointed, but the word is that Miyabi will sponsor a pop-up (Onibaba Ramen, not surprisingly operated by Miyabi’s own Chef Mutsuko Soma) that will serve different styles of ramen for lunch on Wednesdays as early as next week. I went to Miyabi with my daughter for lunch.

Perhaps the most popular way to eat soba noodles is cold on a plate, unembellished with seasonings. Dipping broth is served on the side either cold (zaru) or hot (seiro). The broth (like tsukemen for ramen) is made more concentrated to flavor the briefly dipped noodles. Dip and slurp. Buckwheat noodles retain their integrity longer, thus avoiding the gumminess and stickiness that all-wheat pasta develops. Nanban is the third soba style, prepared like ramen, noodles in hot broth.

The interior is a little odd for a Japanese restaurant because of Victorian/European decorations, most notably lamp shades that hover over the bar and service area worthy of a bordello. This kind of Euro-Japanese interior design seems popular in certain parts of Japan.

Chef Soma makes her own soba from Washington state buckwheat and wheat. And while her soba is deeply rooted in tradition (she trained in Japan), her apprenticeship at fine local area restaurants (including Harvest Vine) inspires her experimentation with non-traditional ingredients and inventive menu items. Karaage is not reserved for chicken but cauliflower. Hamachi collar is smoked over mesquite, served with daikon oroshi (grated radish). “Tofu” made with foie gras is unmistakably for carnivores, goose fat somehow shaped into its soybean surrogate, but pooling in dashi broth and garnished with honey-roasted grapes. How about an eggplant dengaku where instead of slathered with miso paste, the eggplant is scooped out and filled with shiso duck, shishito peppers and Tillamook cheese? And so it goes.

Lucky for my daughter and me that we were faced only with the lunch menu, a short list of soba dishes, small donburi and some sides.

Opting for nanban for the first time is a cop-out if you want to find out what soba dipping is all about. For my family, it’s a tradition to have soba on New Year’s Eve, lines being drawn between “dippers” and “soakers.” Our selections: chyashu seiro (me) and truffle seiro (daughter). We also wanted to try a couple appetizers: cauliflower karaage and uni shot.

The cauliflower dish was tasty enough (☆☆½), but not so much that it would supplant the real McCoy, namely, chicken thighs. The label karaage is used to convey a resemblance to the chicken dish.

Cauliflower karaage

Cauliflower karaage

To Western sensibilities, eating the gonads of sea urchins might be off-putting, but uni is highly prized in sushi circles. I’d never had uni before, and the thought of it did mess with my mind at first. Combine it with a raw quail egg, garnish with a touch of wasabi and yuzu (juice of a type of citrus fruit), and you have the uni shot, served in a ceramic spoon-like dish. Just pop the whole thing in your mouth. smoosh it around, savor and swallow. My daughter didn’t want any part of it. My verdict? It was surprisingly good (☆☆☆), custardy in a congealed bone marrow gelatin kind of way, briny, sweet and at $7, pricey.

Uni shot

Uni shot

The soba portion size is not large, no more than a cup and a half of noodles. Although Miyabi’s soba is 80 percent buckwheat, it has none of the gritty texture I remember from my childhood. Smooth, firm, chewy and slippery, they were a challenge to keep clamped between chopsticks while being dipped.

The chyashu seiro (top image) broth was a highly concentrated, umami-rich reduction of dashi, soy sauce and mirin, with pleasant nuttiness from toasted sesame seeds. Drinking it straight was potent and salty. Its job is to coat the noodles to overcome their blandness. I’ve never had more tender pork slices, their fat releasing porky flavor and unctuousness. I could have eaten a whole plate of these things. The half soft-boiled egg was perfect, the whites firm and the yolk slightly congealed but still runny. For a crowning touch, the waitress brought us a teapot-like vessel of hot pasta cooking water. It’s used to dilute the dipping broth which can be drunk at meal’s end. And what a difference it made. I gulped down all the delicious broth. I give this soba my highest rating (☆☆☆☆).

My daughter’s truffle broth (☆☆☆) was also quite good, though it didn’t have the impact of the chyashu’s. Aside from its truffle-ness and a bright tang, reconstituted dried shiitake were meaty and lent the broth their smoky essence.

Truffle seiro soba

Truffle seiro soba

Returning to Miyabi 45th at dinnertime would present decision challenges, but no doubt pleasant ones.

Update: As of February 13, 2016, Chef Soma no longer heads the kitchen. She is enjoying motherhood. A new chef has taken over. What this will mean for soba dining is unclear.

Miyabi 45th
2208 N 45th St
Seattle, WA 98103
206.632.4545

Tonkotsu Kara Miso Ramen at Santouka


Major construction on the northwest corner of Main Street and Bellevue Way prevented a friend and me from having lunch at La Cocina del Puerco because of the lack of parking spaces. So as I drove up to Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, I noticed no one standing outside waiting to be seated. Friend was agreeable to stopping there for a bowl of ramen.

We got immediately seated at a tiny two-person table at the entrance along a partition. Feeling cramped like that is not a pleasant dining experience, made worse by so narrow a space to the next table that a customer has to move sideways carefully to get through. Once we sat down, we forgot the unpleasantness and decided what we wanted. Both of us had tonkotsu kara miso ramen, a variation of regular tonkotsu miso with a spicier broth and garnished with threads of dried red chiles (silgochu).

Service was so fast that I began to wonder how the noodles got done so quickly. I admit though that boiling fresh noodles takes only minutes, but it just seemed fast. Regardless, the noodles had nice bite, firm and springy, was a little weightier than thin noodles and curly rather than straight. Halfway into the bowl, they became noticeably softer but still nicely textured. Condiments included kikurage (wood ear fungus), menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) and scallions.

The chashu was chewier than it should have been, duplicating the experience I had on my last visit, certainly not the buttery, meltingly tender legends I read about of other Santouka outlets.

The broth was exceedingly salty. The menu describes the broth as having salt added, but you have to wonder if that’s necessary when miso already has enough sodium. The combination of miso and chile paste (the agent I’m assuming is responsible for spiciness) does mask any subtleties the pork and seafood tonkotsu broth is trying to reveal. Even if this is a well-made ramen (☆☆☆), I should stick with the tonkotsu shio.

Hokkaiko Ramen Santouka
103 Bellevue Way NE, Suite 3
Bellevue, WA 98004
425.462.0141