Shizuku, Portland’s Significant Japanese Restaurant


Four years ago, I lunched at Chef Naoko Bento Café, a Japanese restaurant on the edge of Portland’s downtown district. The storefront was unremarkable like the surroundings. Interstate 405 was practically its western border. On my visit, a semi-truck parked just outside blocked sunlight from lighting the interior. The atmosphere inside was a lot more pleasant. The interior was cramped though. Customers sat at the few tables spaced close to each other. At one of them, a diner sat near enough to my wife and me to be almost sitting at ours; we wound up having a nice conversation with her. But the food sang, made by the creative mind and skillful hands of owner and chef Naoko Tamura using organic and natural, mostly locally sourced ingredients. It was here I had my first taste of food (chicken) marinated in shio koji.

In 2016 Tamura-san engaged the services of world-famous Japanese architect Kengo Kuma to redesign and expand the interior to something more formal. The result was a complete transformation. Officially opened in December 2016, the restaurant was renamed Shizuku. Gone is the feel of a neighborhood cafe. There is a minimalist makeover, the most striking additions being ceiling hangings made to look like sudare (bamboo screens) and a raised platform with a table where diners could sit seiza-style (legs folded under one’s thighs), surrounded on two sides by a rock garden (top image).

‘Sudare’ ceiling hangings

With renovation came menu changes. Dinner is now prix fixe omakase-style, Thursdays-Saturdays only. The makunouchi (bento box) meals that used to be served at Chef Naoko for lunch and dinner are no more, replaced by lunch trays, donburi and udon, served at lunch only, Wednesdays-Saturdays.

My wife and I were in Portland for three days for family reasons. One of our dining stops had to include Shizuku. We chose lunch over dinner because of economy.

The quality has not changed. Popularly a chicken dish, Shizuku’s tatsuta-age was made with battered and fried Oregon rock cod. The fish, tasty enough from marinade, perked up with an untraditional dipping sauce of bird’s-eye chiles and lemon juice.

Oregon red rock cod tatsuta-age lunch tray (shredded cabbage, wakame and green onions)

Udon has always been one of Chef Naoko’s specialties. It’s probable that the then Chef Naoko Café and now Shizuku has the best in the city. The noodles are freshly made with perfect substance and chew. Chicken, dried bonito and kombu form the basis of the broth. The one that filled Prawn Tempura Udon was subtly flavored with hints of lemon peel. A superb batter, light, crispy and not in the least greasy, coated the tempura, served on the side.

Prawn tempura udon with kale, wakame and green onions

It’s gratifying to experience firsthand that Tamura-san is still at the top of her game. Based on the menu changes for Shizuku, she has the opportunity to demonstrate her creativity and skill even more, especially with omakase. Her calling card is the imaginative and deliberate use of fresh, unadulterated, untreated and vetted local ingredients in traditional Japanese cooking (for example, visible rolled oats from Bob’s Red Mill, based in nearby Milwaukie, fleck the tonkatsu batter). She’s a bold experimenter, like when she makes miso from ingredients other than white soy beans. Aside from Ota Farms tofu (also in Portland), she makes her own from hazelnuts. Tamura-san reminds me of our own local Japanese chef, Mutsuko Soma, who’s made quite a reputation for herself in Seattle, not to mention being named a 2018 James Beard Award semi-finalist. Her soba is the stuff of legend.

As for that lone raised platform and table in the corner, you won’t find me sitting there, beautiful as it is in its Japanese austerity, not only because I can’t sit with my feet beneath my butt for very long but more importantly, I don’t like to stand out as if sitting on a pedestal. Still, I’ll be back at Shizuku again whenever I’m in town.

Shizuku by Chef Naoko
1237 SW Jefferson St
Portland, OR 97201
(503) 227-4136

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Wow, Vegan Ramen? You Betcha!


OG Ramen (image from ramenhoodla.com)

Any pretensions I had that a good vegetarian ramen could never be made was dashed recently. The revelation happened when my sister-in-law had me sample her OG Ramen from Ramen Hood, a completely vegan stall in Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market. Visually, it looks like a ‘typical’ ramen, broth like milky tonkotsu, slices of chashu floating on top, a square of nori poking up along bowl’s edge, a pinch of chile threads sprinkled on top. It lacked for nothing in presentation. Yet, as I was ready to taste the broth, I had serious doubts that it would be remotely interesting. So imagine how stunned I was, not that it was anything like meat-based ramen broth but that it was in and of itself so savory, complex and substantial.

How in the world did the chefs pull this off? This from their website:

Our broth is made by simmering kelp and shiitake mushrooms to extract their maximum umami. Then we roast sunflower seeds with white miso and combine that mixture with the kelp/mushroom stock. Then it is all pressure cooked to release the natural oils and starches from the seeds. What’s left is a rich, creamy, broth that rivals it’s non-vegan counterparts flavor and texture.

Never underestimate the genius of creative chefs. The ramen tastes genuine. Recent converts to vegetarianism might be moved to tears, genuflect at the feet of its creators. I still prefer tonkotsu or miso ramen, more because slices of king oyster mushrooms would never replace slices of tender chashu, and vegan ‘eggs,’ though they’re ingeniously made at Ramen Hood (including yolk that oozes), can’t substitute for perfectly made ajitsuke tamago. But, as a change of pace or to take a break from animal products, I wouldn’t hesitate to devour a bowl of OG ramen. A wondrous achievement.

Ramen Hood
(Grand Central Market, Stall C2)
317 S. Broadway Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013

Ramen Bushi-Do: Noodle Making at Its Best


I think it’s fair to say that the ramen craze in the Seattle area started not in Seattle, but on the Eastside, on the other side of Lake Washington. Sure, there were several restaurants that served ramen before Kukai (now Kizuki) opened its doors in Bellevue, preceding the arrival of Jinya and Santouka within months of each other, also in Bellevue. But, 2013 was the watershed year when ramen became hot locally and generated enough traction to spawn ramen shops throughout the region.

Hot on the heels of the expansion comes the first ramenya in Issaquah, Bellevue’s neighbor to the east. Ramen Bushi-Do has been quietly doing business as a soft opening, serving only 20 customers per day to iron out kinks and get honest customer feedback, until it officially opens for business on July 1. The operation is run by the folks who own Dough Zone, also of Bellevue (and now, Redmond), that rivals Din Tai Fung for its outstanding dumplings, including superlative xiao long bao. To get things on the right footing, several chefs went to Japan to get instruction from a ramen master, who was also retained to guide Bushi-Do’s development. Furthermore, a noodle-making machine was brought back from Japan and installed in back of the restaurant where fresh noodles are made daily in the morning. This is a rare practice because most ramenya, including highly praised ones in the U.S., more than likely get their noodles custom-made by Sun Noodle (Honolulu, L.A., NYC). For this, Bushi-Do deserves a pat on the back.

Noodle-making machine

Noodle-making machine

To improve texture, one of the master’s recommendations was to use soft (purified) water in the noodle-making process, which the restaurant does. Our party of four, even though we each ordered different ramen using different sizes of noodles, was enthusiastic, the noodles having a springy and firm texture that we all thought was outstanding.

The wait staff was plentiful and enthusiastic, if not particularly knowledgeable in our case. Additional training is clearly needed. There was also a flub in my order.

Our very good appetizer of steamed spinach (horenso no miso ae) was different from most presentations, little mounds of spinach mixed with toasted sesame seeds, dressed with miso sauce and surprisingly topped with a slice of tomato (heirloom tomatoes on the menu).

spinach

Spinach appetizer

This was the first indication that the kitchen wasn’t going to just follow convention. Case in point, one of the cold ramen is topped only with fresh seasonal fruit, the first I’ve ever seen prepared in this manner, though the concept doesn’t personally appeal to me. Another is Curry Tsukemen, which one of our party ordered and really enjoyed. Thick-cut whole-wheat noodles are dipped in a tasty curry broth, a non-traditional pairing, kept bubbling over a Sterno burner. Accompaniments included pieces of pan-fried salmon, chicken and pork, one shrimp battered and fried, seasoned egg (ajitsuke tamago), grape tomatoes and broccolini. To me, the proteins didn’t seem to have been prepared with the same care as the noodles and broth.

Curry tsukemen

Curry tsukemen

Curry dipping broth

Curry dipping broth

Another of our party chose Shio Ramen. This preparation was the weakest of the four we ordered. Despite the great noodles, the broth was thin and the toppings were not to her liking, wedges of tomato and orange, when she would have much preferred savory ones, like a square of nori and menma. In addition, the chicken pieces were dry and chewy.

Shio ramen

Shio ramen

My wife’s Tonkotsu Miso Ramen had the thickest broth among all our ramen, a combination of tonkotsu broth and white miso, the latter lending the bowl a slight sweetness and fermented flavor. Medium-cut noodles were topped with very finely sliced green onions, soft-boiled egg, corn and broccolini. The pork sample she gave me had an off-taste but the others were fine.

Tonkotsu miso ramen

Tonkotsu miso ramen

My tonkotsu broth was quite milky, the result of long simmering, but pork flavor was milder than I like, still a good ramen accompaniment. My noodles were thin-cut and, like everyone else’s, excellent. Mine was the only bowl to have menma, which is house-made and tasty, a shame that it wasn’t standard with other ramen. Other toppings included wood ear fungus, egg, green onions and finely shredded daikon. The egg in all our cases was nearly properly cooked with a semi-congealed yolk but the complex marinade flavors of soy sauce, sake and mirin was barely noticeable. Kizuki makes the exemplary egg locally.

Tonkotsu ramen

Tonkotsu ramen

Ramen Bushi-Do obviously wants to make its mark first and foremost with its great noodles. It also is serious about broths. The kitchen’s experimentation with unusual toppings may not agree with traditionalists’ palates but I imagine many customers will find them likable. The head chef is bold, I’ll give him that. The test menu did not give diners any choices for adding or substituting condiments. And I found the prices to be on the high side for ramen, topping out at $12.50 for both tonkotsu and miso broths, exceeded only by Hokkaido Ramen Santouka. If there’s any area that the restaurant needs improvement, it’s the meat/seafood proteins that accompany the noodle bowls. We’ll give them a little time to work out some of their service issues and to settle on a menu before passing final judgment.

Ramen Bushi-Do
5625 221st Pl SE, Ste 120
Issaquah, WA 98027
425.391.9999

Soba, So Good—Is the Noodle’s Extinction True at Miyabi 45th?


It had the effect of a Trump speech, a shocking announcement on seattlemet.com that Chef Mutsuko Soma would be leaving Miyabi 45th on February 13 to enjoy motherhood, with no definite plans for her return. By the end of the piece, pursuant to the Donald’s pronouncements, I felt despair. Okay, so the simile is as thin as hand-pulled noodles but, hell, handmade soba would disappear maybe forever, it turns out not only from Seattle but the ENTIRE West Coast, according to Seattle Met. One would think that the Bay Area, Southern California, Portland or Vancouver would produce SOMEONE of equal caliber. Faced with Chef Soma’s imminent departure, my wife and I decided to head to Wallingford today for one last soba meal.

It was natural to bring up the soba question with our waitress. It turns out the Seattle Met piece was not as dire as its first reading sounded. Yes, it’s true that Soma would be leaving Miyabi 45th and that her soba would be leaving with her. It’s also a fact that she is not scheduled to return. But, soba will continue to be offered at the restaurant, although not in its many variations. A new chef from the Southcenter Miyabi, Masa Ishikura will be taking over. If it’s so difficult to identify another soba master on the West Coast, where will the soba come from? Seattle Eater says that sous chef Joey McGregor will apprentice at a restaurant in Japan.

In any case, I enjoyed the chyashyu seiro soba again (here’s my previous review), as deeply a satisfying noodle dish as anything I’ve had, without doubt the best soba I’ve eaten ever. This time though, the pork slices (chyashyu) were quite chewy, a chore to cut into smaller pieces with only mouth and chopsticks, a huge lapse in quality control. But the noodles and broth were as legendary as ever.

miyabi - 2

We also ordered chicken karaage. Right off, I’ll say that this is a superb version (☆☆☆☆). The chicken thigh pieces were succulent, made tastier by having spent time in a marinade. What catapulted the karaage to super-stardom was the thin, light-as-a-feather crispy and virtually greaseless batter, most likely made with potato starch (katakuriko). An unconventional but inspired aioli came on the side.

miyabi - 1

Will Miyabi 45th continue to attract devoted fans? Only time will tell.

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

Spicy Umami Miso Ramen at Jinya Ramen Bar


For me, few things are an antidote to cold weather than hot ramen. Over a week ago, the Seattle area experienced temperatures in the low 40s, a good excuse to hop into Jinya Ramen Bar for a hot lunch while my wife and I were running errands in the Crossroads area of Bellevue.

Though my favorite bowl there is the Jinya Tonkotsu Black, what caught my eye was Spicy Umami Miso Ramen. The description reveals Chinese influence of ground pork and chile oil (rayu/layu). It’s also the only ramen on the menu to include bok choy. Kudos to the kitchen for eliminating the pebbliness that often typifies ground pork. The mince is very fine. Instead, the pork plays second fiddle to the noodles that are thick and curly, good foils for the spicy pork broth. Jinya isn’t kidding about umami, which the broth has in spades. The noodles were perfect. The only complaint I had was the saltiness, not surprising for a sturdy, thick miso broth. Otherwise, this is a terrific choice for those who love robust ramen. (☆☆☆½)

IMG_20160106_122838427

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

Seiro Soba at Miyabi 45th, Green Lake


Today promised to be such a nice day that I convinced my wife to take a drive out to Wallingford, get a bite to eat at Miyabi 45th and go for a walk around Green Lake.

Our first order of business was finding a parking spot around Miyabi. Much of Seattle near major commercial areas has strict parking ordinances that understandably favor residents. Get caught parking “illegially” and you get an expensive ticket, which we did when we had a wonderful omakase dinner last October. It was raining pretty hard, so we parked just around the corner and hightailed it to the restaurant, not noticing the parking hour restrictions posted on a nearby telephone pole, which turned out to prohibit street parking after 5pm. It wasn’t until a couple weeks later that we received a notice by mail for failing to pay the fine. What happened, I figured out when thinking about it, was the ticket under the windshield wiper dissolved in the steady rain and became unrecognizable lumps of paper. OK, cry me a river.

I so enjoyed the chyashyu seiro soba the last time I lunched here with my daughter. I recommended that my wife get it, while I ordered curry seiro ($12), with a side order of katsu (fried pork, $2). The dipping broth came promisingly dark, filled with bite-sized pieces of cauliflower, carrot and green bell pepper. So as not to taste thin on the dipped noodles, the broth has to be concentrated. Sipping it alone will seem too assertive and salty. This was a satisfying broth with excellent Japanese curry flavor, deep and not harsh. After finishing the noodles, pork and vegetables, there is enough headroom in the bowl to pour in hot water that the pasta was cooked in, served in a teapot-like pouring vessel. It’s when the broth gets diluted thus that it becomes more drinkable, straight from the bowl. Unfortunately, the pork slices were tough and hard to bite through, the only drawback in an otherwise very fine soba (☆☆☆). As good as it was, it doesn’t quite measure up to the superb chyashyu seiro, which I reviewed previously. My wife loved hers.

Curry seiro soba

Curry seiro soba

Chyashyu seiro soba

Chyashyu seiro soba

I was intrigued by the foie gras “tofu,” which I noticed on the menu the last time. Looking like a slice of freshly made tofu (cheesecake even), topped with a dollop of wasabi and honey roasted grape, it instead is a mousse-like cake of foie gras essence, floating in a pool of umami-rich dashi. It’s as if goose liver fat was whipped and combined with custard and truffle oil. How this bit of kitchen wizardry was performed, I’ll never know, but it was outstanding (☆☆☆☆), light yet rich, and at $9, an infrequent indulgence for sure.

Foie gras

Foie gras “tofu”

Miyabi 45th’s zaru soba caught the attention of food critic Mimi Sheraton in her popular book, 1000 Foods to Eat Before You Die.

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

Green Lake

The path around Green Lake is used by walkers (with and without dogs), bikers, skateboarders, skaters, scooters and others on any number of wheeled contraptions. It took us about an hour to make the complete circuit, with a brief ice cream sandwich break in between. At almost 3 miles, it arguably is the best urban pathway in the city of Seattle, certainly the most heavily used. Among the numerous mature trees within the park, quite a few of them are coastal redwoods. At this time in spring, yellow irises were in full bloom.


Do Kukai, Jinya and Santouka Have the Best Ramen in Seattle?


A Hawaiian food blogger once asked me about Seattle’s ramen culture. Knowing how robust it was in Honolulu where the blogger lives, I was apprehensive about answering him. Here was the Seattle area, having as much claim as any big West Coast city to strong economic and cultural ties to Japan, a history of Japanese immigration and community, a good-sized population of Japanese nationals, a respectable ensemble of Japanese restaurants—but, no thriving ramen scene. He asked me at the same time what my favorite ramen restaurant in Seattle was. Well…uh…let me see…hmmm. The email exchange had that flavor. That was three years ago.

Mine wasn’t the only lament. Between the Bay Area and Vancouver, B.C., there really hadn’t been much to get excited about.

Then, serendipity struck. Three high-profile ramen restaurants opened almost immediately since that email conversation. Two of them had Japan connections, the other came up from Southern California.

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