I ordered the “Unfamous Deluxe Mixed Nuts” at Miyabi 45th mostly out of curiosity. They were delivered by a slight, serious young woman in a black apron who told me they are unfamous because almost no one orders them.
Why keep them on the menu, I wondered. Her mouth twitched: “We think they’re really good.”
My dinner companion dubbed them the natto of nuts. Bound with miso, they clung together, clammy and cold and a little sticky, like natto, the pungent fermented soybeans that are a Japanese breakfast favorite. Fame may elude those nuts, but I’m betting someday it will find that young woman, who turned out to be chef and co-owner Mutsuko Soma.
The 30-year-old chef opened Miyabi 45th in Wallingford this spring, partnering with the owners of Miyabi Sushi in Southcenter (reviewed here last month). The two restaurants are siblings, yet they are as different as, well, Wallingford and Southcenter.
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Soba noodles, not sushi, anchor Soma’s menu, which is an intentional merger of East and West, of tradition and invention. After graduating from The Art Institute of Seattle and honing her cooking prowess at Harvest Vine, Saito and Chez Shea, the Japanese-born chef returned to her homeland to learn the art of making soba.
The long, skinny, hand-cut noodles (80 percent buckwheat, 20 percent wheat, milled from Washington grain) are served cold with sauce or hot broth on the side (seiro), or together, like soup (nanban). Dipping cold noodles into hot broth may strike some Westerners as odd, but eaten that way, the noodles retain their integrity and stay just firm to the bite.
One darkly delicious broth (kamo) harbored bits of duck and leek. Curry brightened another, stocked with fresh vegetables and slices of tender, breaded katsu (pork cutlet).
Supple slices of braised, marinated pork chyashu topped Bukkake-style noodles, bathed in meaty broth. For extra oomph, stir in the dab of hot brown mustard (karashi) clinging to the edge of the bowl. To add zip to any of the plain boiled noodles, grab the red-lacquered shaker on the table filled with shichimi togarashi, or ask for some fresh Orcas Island wasabi.
Satisfying as the noodles are, don’t overlook the starters and small plates on the menu’s flip side. Fresh wasabi puts some woo-hoo in poached baby octopus dabbed with sweetened soy sauce and paired with tart cucumber. Matchstick-cut pear dusted with black pepper accompanied beef tartare “Gangnam style” that was a little tamer than expected, needing perhaps a bit more gochujang (Korean chili paste).
Ponzu-splashed sea urchin snug in a soup spoon next to a tiny raw quail egg fully deserves the title “Famous Uni Shot.” Foie gras tofu is surely headed for stardom, too. Smooth as custard and subtly earthy, it is sweetly crowned with roasted fig quarters.
Earthy meets sweet again as foie-gras butter melts into sautéed fresh corn and tiny chanterelles served in a mini cast-iron skillet. A similar pan held soft, gingery duck meatballs. They would be ideal inside a dumpling, but aren’t bad bedded on sliced zucchini and blanketed by a fried duck egg.
Mackerel gets the ceviche treatment. The marinade involves fish sauce, Cointreau and rice-wine vinegar, which mellows the strong-flavored fish. It’s served alongside a watermelon, cilantro and pickled corn salad, which gives the dish another dimension entirely.
Dragging blistered shishito peppers through mentai (spicy cod roe) aioli — a sauce reminiscent of a heavily anchovied Caesar dressing — was a treat; so was picking the hickory-smoked flesh from a hamachi collarbone and cracking into a perfect ginger crème brûlée at meal’s end.
Soma’s multifaceted drinks list complements her food. Along with sake, wine, beer and shochu, you’ll find cocktails constructed with house-infused spirits, creative mocktails and sodas flavored with house-made shrubs and syrups.
Beaded boudoir lampshades cast a sultry glow over the bar, where an antique silk kimono is pinned, like an enormous black-and-white butterfly, above tall tables. A sepia image of Ryomo Sakamoto, the 19th-century samurai who helped modernize Japan, dominates the dining room. Those decorative elements symbolize this modern young chef’s respect for tradition, as much as her soba noodles. She’s one to watch.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts “Let’s Eat” with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Listen to past shows at www.KIRORadio.com/letseat. Reach Cicero at firstname.lastname@example.org.