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.
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.
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
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.
2208 N 45th St
Seattle, WA 98103