All over Japan, you will see restaurants advertising noodles of all kinds, from ramen to udon and regional specialties. One noodle that evokes a soft spot in the Japanese palette of the Tokyo area is soba or buckwheat noodles. For them, the smooth crisp texture of soba noodles is a special treat. Some restaurants even have a wood table in the front window where you can see the noodle maker rolling out the dough, the more to ensure customers that the noodles within this establishment are freshly handmade.
Mutsuko Soma, a young, slender Japanese woman has brought real soba noodles right to our Northwest backyard. She is the head chef of Miyabi 45th, a branch of Miyabi, a well-regarded Japanese restaurant in Tukwila. Miyabi 45th opened last month in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood taking over a space previously occupied by Rain Sushi.
Chef Soma was born and raised in a neighboring prefecture of Tokyo, and loved to cook even since she was a teenager. She came to Seattle at the age of 18. When she turned 19, she decided to become a chef. First, she attended the Art Institute of Seattle, and learned French cooking, and then worked at the Spanish restaurant, Harvest Vine and French landmark, Chez Shea. In Japan, she studied under a soba master in Tokyo for more than two years. In recent years, she honed her craft, tested the waters and gained a reputation by serving up delicious noodles in pop-up restaurants all around the city.
At age of 30, she is in charge of a kitchen with several assistants. In the Japanese restaurant business, men traditionally have dominated in culinary arts. With her confidence, she claims that 20 percent of chefs are now women, and being a woman in the cooking industry is not a handicap, but she did acknowledge the labor of cooking requires heavy lifting. From skillets to pans — and even something as simple as a pot filled with hot water — it all has weight. Talking to her one night after an evening shift she conceded “that even scooping up a bundle of hot noodles can get heavy.”
She settled in Seattle because she found the local moderate climate fitting her temperament.
“I enjoy sipping a glass of wine or a cup of coffee at home on rainy day,” she said, laughing. She remembers one summer when she was in Los Angeles, and she just couldn’t stand the heat.
But it was actually in Japan while making soba noodles where she first encountered buckwheat from the state of Washington. This inspired her idea of starting a soba noodle restaurant in Seattle using byproducts from the local harvest. In addition, soba as a grain is healthy and full of vitamins. The essence of the best soba noodles is a smooth, chewy texture on the tongue and a pleasure in the way it slurps down the throat. In order to achieve this quality, soba grain must be ground, the husk must be separated from the flour through a strainer, and then the dough is made with soba flour and a small portion of wheat (80 percent soba flour to 20 percent wheat). After that, the dough must be kneaded and stretched thin on a wooden board and cut into thin, long strips.
For soba, another essential ingredient is the soup stock, which Soma makes from specially-ordered ingredients, including duck, bacon, curry and bonito. An old traditional noodle is fashionably mixed with a contemporary flavor. The soup stock and noodles tasted good, though perhaps not yet up to the gold standard of long-established traditional soba shops in Tokyo.
Given time, though, it may reach that goal.
Besides soba, there are plenty of other items guaranteed to poke your taste buds in a variety of subliminal ways. Texture, color and the refreshing fragrance of delicate herbs and spices keep your palette guessing. Some items on the menu are commonly found at any Japanese restaurant like edamame, tsukemono (homemade pickles) and tendon (tempura on the bed of rice).
But Chef Soma always adds a twist of surprise. The agedashi buckwheat tofu, which tasted quite different from regular agedashi tofu (deep fried bean curd covered by soup stock), had a unique texture. Instead of a common chicken, she uses monkfish for karaage (deep fried chicken).
One of the standouts was the sheer variety of light-portioned, eye-pleasing blend of delicious salads, which should make diet-conscious customers happy. And of course, there are typical menu items from the European side such as a cheese plate (with miso flavor), steamed crab and baked cabbage, pork belly and egg — all done with a light flourish. With a group of friends, we ordered different dishes, enjoyed all of them and thought the meal was as fancy as the price.
The restaurant serves dinner only with a specially-selected wine list supplemented with beer and whiskey.
Now Seattle can slurp down some real, local Japanese soba noodles with all the comforts of a trendy, Seattle restaurant.
Miyabi 45th at 2208 N. 45th in Seattle opens from Mondays through Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., and is closed on Sundays. Contact them at (206) 632-4545.