Mutsuko Soma, who was known for her soba noodles at Miyabi 45th, has her own Wallingford restaurant now, and it shines.
“A duck comes along carrying a leek on its back” is a Japanese proverb that connotes a stroke of luck, one good thing bringing another. In everyday usage, “kamonegi” sums up the proverb’s meaning. It’s a perfect name for Mutsuko Soma’s new Wallingford restaurant.
When Soma first came to local prominence four years ago at Miyabi 45th, her handmade soba noodles were one reason, but so were her inspired small plates and snacks. When she departed Miyabi two years ago to have a baby, she hoped someday to return to making soba noodles, but opening a restaurant wasn’t at the top of her to-do list. Then along came a duck with a leek on its back, so to speak. She learned that Art of the Table was moving on up to Stone Way, and she leapt on its former home, a cramped, crooked little space that reminded Soma of neighborhood soba restaurants in Japan. The remodel didn’t change the basic layout, but it brought a little Zen to the interior, emphasizing clean, simple lines. She reconfigured the bar and lowered counter seating a few inches to make slurping noodles easier.
Soma’s noodles have gotten even better, which I didn’t think possible and is especially impressive because she’s not the only one making them now. She has trained her sous chef Stephen Waite and prep cook Satomi Mira in the art of soba-making. Both were with her at Miyabi 45th.
The soba noodles’ remarkable agility and toasty buckwheat notes show best when you have them dry (seiro), dipping them into a separate bowl of broth. But in winter, the wet or nanban style is understandably more popular. The dark broths originate from two “mother sauces,” their flavor variations dependent on the type of dried bonito flakes. Soma sources several kinds from Japan. For cold broths (zaru) she uses a two-year-old aged bonito. Several different bonitos go into the simplest hot broth (kake). A blend of zaru and kake becomes a dipping sauce for chilled noodles. Add-ins like duck and leeks (kamonegi), clams and black garlic (fukagawa), or Japanese vegetable curry and mozzarella (karèe) round-out that robust umami base. The kitchen takes the extra step of warming the bowls before ladling in the soup. Each one arrives hot and steaming.
1054 N. 39th St., Seattle
Hours: dinner 4-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Prices: $$ (snacks and apps $7-$14, tempura $7-$14, soba $11-$22)
Drinks: a dozen or so sakes; some wine (red, white and bubbles), a few beers; sodas and tea
Parking: on street
Credit cards: all major
Access: a couple steps up to the dining room; bar and restrooms accessible
A third noodle option is bukkake: cold noodles in a chilled broth. To my regret, the restaurant was out of uni one night, but the combination of sea urchin and spicy cod-roe aioli is one I remember enjoying mightily at Miyabi. (Natto, a notoriously pungent fermented soybean paste, not so much.) They can run out of soba, too. (The noodles have only a 48-hour shelf life.) So if you don’t see Soma cooking or running food to tables, you can bet she’s making more soba.
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Five counter seats afford an up-close view of the kitchen action. (The downside: They are opposite the front door, which can mean regular blasts of cold air on your back.) The small bar is more sheltered and includes a few cozy two-tops. Larger tables in the trapezoidal dining room are close and kind of catawampus. You may be sitting elbow-to-back with strangers.
Servers skillfully wend their way through this maze. Ply them with questions and you’ll discover they are well-versed on the menu, though not as sage about sake as Soma. That’s another plus to sitting at the counter: You can ask her advice on what to drink. Most sakes are available in 4-ounce or 8-ounce chilled carafes, which makes them easy to sample. At the top of the list — and my favorite — is the barrel-aged Yoshinosugi Taru. The sole hot sake on the list is infused with blowfish fin. It’s Soma’s winter favorite. She takes it with a pinch of salt.
Beyond noodles, the menu offers tempura, a handful of small plates and a few specials. Most achieve a striking balance of textures, precisely tuned flavors and often surprising juxtapositions
For tempura, Soma makes a dredge of low-gluten flour, egg and ice water in small batches and keeps them chilled. The result is a light, airy casement for the vegetables and proteins. Black truffle salt may have found its ultimate mate in sweet parsnip tempura. Buckwheat honey and finely crumbled Gorgonzola was just as brilliant a match for satsuma yam. Dashi-braised root vegetables (nimono) were duller in comparison. The mix included burdock, lotus and taro, capped with bonito flakes. They had no dipping sauce. Fortunately we’d also ordered the eggplant tempura. They come in a shallow pool of dowari, a soy-based dipping sauce boosted with chanterelles and garlic that improved the nimono.
As a prelude to noodles and tempura, dig into chawanmushi. The silky egg custard hides bits of matsutake, fishcake and shrimp. Sesame vinaigrette dressed a hearty salad of haricot verts, rainbow carrots, pear, red grapes and pine nuts, served over sweet tofu tahini. Daikon, beet, cucumber and cabbage are among the array of tsukemono, subtly pickled vegetables.
Bone-marrow sukiyaki is currently among the specials. Prepared Kyoto-style with sugar and caramelized yellow onions, it is forthrightly sweet and unabashedly rich. A sous-vide cooked egg releases its liquid yolk into the inky, vegetable-laced broth, and torched marrow melts down the hollow of a hefty bone that pokes from the pot. A dash of the house-blended seven-spice seasoning give it a finishing jolt.
Wrap up your meal with something even sweeter. Desserts include a pot of fluffy, yuzu-topped cheesecake, or tempura-fried Oreo cookies that taste better than a gimmick should. Or end on a luxurious, savory note with foie gras tofu. It’s not actually tofu; it’s more like foie gras panna cotta, made with cream, a little gelatin and a drop of truffle oil to enhance the duck liver. It doesn’t really need sake-poached shrimp on top, but when foie gras comes along with shrimp on its back, I’m inclined to view it as a good thing.