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

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Dinner at Huê Ký Mì Gia (Kent, WA)


Despite the name’s association with businesses Chinese, especially with 99 Ranch Market its anchor store, The Great Wall Shopping Mall in Kent also houses restaurants of other Asian nationalities. There are Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese restaurants inside, besides Chinese ones. Among them is a Vietnamese, or more accurately, a Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant, Húe Ký Mì Gia, that also calls itself a Chinese noodle house. A quick glance shows separate menu sections for egg noodle soups, rice noodle soups, bún (rice vermicelli salads), chow mein, chow fun and stir-fried rice vermicelli. There are also appetizers, stir-fried dishes and rice dishes. A restaurant like this one would expect to find in Little Saigon, and sure enough there is a branch there. But, there are lots of Southeast Asians who live in the South end—Renton, Kent, Federal Way and Auburn—and the growing number of restaurants that cater to their tastes is a reflection of this demographic. We had an early dinner here with friends.

The Fried Wonton (☆☆½) had the thinnest of skins. While crispy, light and somewhat oily with ground pork filling, they were unremarkable.

Fried Wonton

Fried Wonton

To have at least a semblance of ordering something relatively healthy, we ordered a simple stir fry of BBQ pork and vegetables (baby bok choy, carrots, broccoli, snow peas, onions and cilantro). The sauce was flavorful enough but the dish failed to impress (☆☆). The sauce was too watery, pooling at the bottom rather than coating the more than adequate amount of vegetables.

Stir Fried BBQ Pork with Vegetables

Stir Fried BBQ Pork with Vegetables

We had a choice of having our noodles crispy (Hong Kong style) or soft. The soft chow mein had much more vegetables than seafood, consisting of shrimp, squid, imitation crab and fish balls, but it was nonetheless tasty (☆☆☆), sauced very nicely. The fact that the vegetables were exactly the same ones in the stir fry leads me to wonder if the kitchen uses them in any menu item with vegetables. While they were perfectly cooked, it was monotonous. I’m of the opinion that bok choy is not a good vegetable for pairing with chow mein, or any other pan-fried noodles, because of its high water content. They are better suited for soups and stews.

Soft Seafood Chow Mein

Soft Seafood Chow Mein

The star of the show was Fried Garlic Chicken Wings (☆☆☆½), which our friends highly recommended. I can understand why. They were coated lightly with a garlicky and slightly spicy batter, sprinkled with salt and pepper. Simple and somewhat greasy yet delicious, meaty and addictive, the dish had a bonus of flavors in the little bits of batter that detached from the chicken and settled on the bottom of the serving dish, fried garlic mixed with green onions. Could the garlic stay put in the batter without making the batter too thick? Probably not, so I’ll have to content myself with nibbling on these tidbits instead. A superfluous sweet chile sauce was served on the side.

Fried Butter Chicken Wings

Fried Butter Chicken Wings

Huê Ký Mì Gia Chinese Noodle House
The Great Wall Shopping Mall
Suite 152
18230 East Valley Highway
Kent, WA 98032
425.282.1268

Lunch at Revel (Seattle, WA)


At around lunchtime, we were enjoying the Fremont neighborhood sights along Phinney Ave N. The question of where to eat was settled when we knew that Revel was just up the street. It is one of two restaurants operated by chefs Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi whose mission it is to fuse Asian and Western foods, with a particular emphasis on Korean. Their other restaurant is Joule, also in Fremont but on the other side of the Aurora Bridge and next door neighbor to The Whale Wins. We were seated immediately and chose to sit outside on the covered deck to enjoy the warm though overcast weather. The restaurant interior is decorated in minimalist colors of black and gray, suggestive of the modernization of traditional Asian offerings.

The lunch menu was divided into salads, pancakes, dumplings, rice and noodles with a limited selection in each category. What caught our eye immediately were a bibimbop and dan dan noodles.

Though not labeled as bibimbop, Rice with Albacore Tuna, Fennel Kimchi and Escarole (☆☆½) clearly was. Here was an example of classic fusion food where non-traditional ingredients were used to make a Korean preparation. Thinly shaved fennel was an interesting choice of material for kimchi. It was very sour from vinegar with no sweetness, garlickiness or spice normally associated with the most traditional Korean condiment. Was the kitchen afraid of offending or turning off some customers? A proper sear was applied to the tuna, which otherwise was not as fresh as it should have been, displaying a slight fishiness but coated with an interesting and tasty rub of fennel and coriander. Outstanding was the roasted escarole, charred and sweet, that gave me encouragement to try it on my own. The dish was topped by a raw egg yolk.

Bibimbop of seared tuna, fennel kimchi and escarole

Bibimbop of seared tuna, fennel kimchi and escarole

Dan dan noodles are served in almost every Szechuan restaurant. Revel’s version, Dandan Noodles with Smoky Pulled Pork and Peanut Crackling (☆☆☆), another excursion into fusion territory, was distinguished by fork-tender, delicious pork that the waiter revealed was smoked in their kitchen for over four hours. Another big plus were freshly made noodles, wide and thin, that had an eggy consistency. The dish was sprinkled with ground peanuts that had kochujang paste flavors, a nice touch, and sautéed chard. The only drawback was a more than subtle sweetness overall that did not appeal to me.

Dandan noodles, smoked pulled pork, peanuts

Dandan noodles, smoked pulled pork, peanut crackling

Revel
403 N 36th St
Seattle, WA 98103
206.547.2040

Back to Pestle Rock


I pondered whether to submit yet another review of Pestle Rock, the outstanding Isan Thai restaurant in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, but a couple of unusual dishes (unusual for us who live thousands of miles from Thailand) tipped the balance in favor of it. The original post was a lunchtime meal; the other a post about their noodle soups. I’ll just get down to the two dishes, both of which were listed as specials on the blackboards.

The special noodles were Mee Ka Ti (☆☆☆), a very popular lunchtime meal in Thailand. It gets thickened by a combination of coconut milk, green onions and palm sugar. Tamarind added its unique tartness, earthiness and slightly smoky taste. Despite its “one-chile” rating, these savory-sweet noodles were surprisingly spicy, which wasn’t derived from any visible chiles. The noodles tended to clump together, but this is the nature of vermicelli-thin rice noodles bathed in a thick sauce. Bean sprouts and shreds of egg and chicken rounded out the flavors and textures.

Mee Ka Ti

Mee Ka Ti

More a salad than entrée, Mu Kham Wan (☆☆½) featured grilled pork, cut into small pieces and dressed with a vinaigrette of lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, garlic and chiles, mixed with minced cilantro and mint and slivered red onions. Accompanying the salad were crudités of raw carrot and cucumber. Though the pork was flavorful, it was well past tender, the only defect in an otherwise delicious dish.

Muu Kham Wan

Muu Kham Wan

The menu item was one we enjoyed before, Khao Phad Phu (☆☆☆½), (described in the first post), one of the best fried rices anywhere, bar none. It also happens to star Dungeness crabmeat, a favorite among seafood lovers on the West Coast.

Khao Phad Phu

Khao Phad Phu

Pestle Rock
2305 NW Market Street
Seattle, WA 98107
206.466.6671
Lunch menuentrée menu
 

Back to Jimbo (Honolulu, HI)


One of the under-appreciated Japanese restaurants in Honolulu has to be Jimbo, which specializes in udon. The buses and people lining up in Waikiki suggests that Japanese tour companies favor Marukame Udon, which features make-your-own udon, a concept that has been picked up by U:Don in Seattle’s University District. Jimbo is located in a part of town north of Waikiki (McCully-Moiliili, on the other side of the canal) that is somewhat worn, certainly without Waikiki’s glamor and glitz. But locals know about it and could very well be glad to keep this place to themselves.

We were here before in 2010 and were looking forward to a return visit. My wife got her ume wakame udon that she had been dreaming about ever since the last visit and wasn’t the least bit disappointed this time around.

Ume Wakame Udon

Ume Wakame Udon

For me, the memory of their wonderful nabeyaki udon tugged at me, but one of the chef’s specialties on the menu was Japanese curry nabeyaki udon, which I felt I at least had to try. I like curry udon in general, but was hesitant about ordering it tonight for one big reason. It would overwhelm Jimbo’s wonderful broth. And it did. Yet, Jimbo’s was a very good version, served in a very hot iron bowl with shiitake, baby bok choy, nappa, broccolini, shredded carrot, snow peas, kamaboko and a raw egg that gets cooked by the piping hot liquid. A good broth is hard to keep down; it shone through the curry with its substantial umami. On the side came single pieces of excellently made shrimp and sweet potato tempura, a welcome change since our last visit when they were served in the bowl, the batter soaking up and softening in the broth. Any respectable udon restaurant should have excellent noodles. The udon at Jimbo is made in-house by a dedicated chef and it shows. They have a unique al dente texture, having a slippery and soft surface but firm interior chewiness that characterizes the best of them. To make their dashi, Jimbo imports its dried bonito (katsuobushi) directly from Japan.

Curry Nabeyaki Udon

Curry Nabeyaki Udon

Our dinner at Jimbo was a happy return visit.

Disappointment on My Return Visit (March 2016)

I hate when the food changes at your favorite restaurants. I’d been to Jimbo twice before, and I loved their nabeyaki udon. The noodles were wonderfully chewy and the broth soul-satisfyingly rich and flavorful. The current disappointing version consists of oddly cut noodles (thinly rectangular in cross-section) and while starting out firm, they quickly became soft. These were not the noodles I had in the past. And the broth? It had none of the smoky and umami-deep flavor of my memories, having transformed into a thinner version of the original. I’ve discovered since that other recent reviewers apparently felt the same. Something has changed in the kitchen. I will not be going back. Marukame now has a better udon.

Jimbo
1936 S King St # 103
Honolulu
808.947.2211
 

 

Dinner at Shanghai Café (Bellevue, WA)


We’d been going to Shanghai Café for a long time, shortly after it first opened in (I believe) 1998. So that’s almost fifteen years that we’ve patronized what has become our go-to Chinese restaurant. Over the years, we’ve brought friends here. Almost without exception, they too have enjoyed the food. My daughter and son-in-law, both vegetarians, love this place, though their visits unfortunately (for them) are limited to when they’re in town. So, for inexplicable reasons, it’s surprising that I haven’t submitted a post on this restaurant until now. To make up for sins of past omission, this review will be longer than most.

The interior is not very large, an L-shaped dining room that seats no more than 50 people, I’d say, located in a strip mall in Factoria that has limited parking space. It is a family-run operation.

If available, we will often start off the meal with an appetizer of Spicy Cucumbers (☆☆☆½), thinly sliced and marinated in a sweet vinaigrette with red pepper flakes. The cucumbers are addictive, a nice balance of texture, sweetness and tartness.

Spicy Cucumber

Spicy Cucumbers

One of their specialties is hand-shaven noodles (dao xiao mian), of which there are two kinds: wheat and barley green, the latter which has never registered a “green” taste to me and therefore more of a novelty than a distinct flavor. Chalk it up to my unsophisticated taste buds. Thicker than pulled noodles and irregularly shaped, shaved from a block of dough with a sharp knife or cleaver into boiling water, these noodles take center stage with their girth, chewy texture and wheaty taste. The hand shaven chow mein, in various combinations of meat and/or seafood, with generous amounts of vegetables, is really good. The vegetarian version (☆☆☆) is surprisingly savory with two kinds of mushrooms, eggs, napa cabbage, green onions, carrots and snow peas.

Vegetables with Hand Shaven Chow Mein

Vegetables with Hand Shaven Chow Mein

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Bún at Saigon Restaurant (Albuquerque, NM)


Pork and shrimp bun

Pork and shrimp bún

For dinner, we headed over to Saigon Restaurant and ordered bún (☆☆½). It would have been a very good version if the noodles had been drained adequately after being removed from hot water. The result was a pool of water at the bottom of the bowl that diluted the nuoc cham that we like to pour over the noodles. This was a grievous oversight in our opinion that disproves the idea that it’s impossible to screw up a bún. Too bad because the pork slices were lean, flavorful and tender and the shrimp was good, too. The devil is in the details.

Saigon Restaurant
6001 San Mateo Boulevard Northeast D4
Albuquerque, NM 87109
505.884.0706