Buckwheat noodles making a splash in Seattle at Kamonegi.
Away from the raging ramen boom on Capitol Hill, Mutsuko Soma is quietly and diligently paying homage to a different type of Japanese noodle: soba.
Yes… Soma and her soba are back. After leaving Miyabi 45th and taking time off to have a baby, Soma has birthed a new restaurant, Kamonegi, in the Fremont space that formerly housed Art of the Table.
I remember attending perhaps her first soba pop-up event back in 2012 and sensing something special. At that time, she brought a stone grinder to show how much labor is involved in making flour from buckwheat seeds. I was surprised to learn that it takes two hours of grinding to produce enough flour for ten portions of noodles.
Another surprise: so much buckwheat is grown in our own backyard. Washington is the biggest grower of buckwheat in the States, though virtually all of it is exported to Japan. Soma is doing her part to inspire more soba consumption on this side of the Pacific, furthering her commitment to use as many local products as possible in her restaurant.
She prepares a “nihachi” (two-eight) flour, consisting of twenty percent white flour and eighty percent buckwheat. It’s possible to use one hundred percent buckwheat, but she prefers the texture of her formula, although she continues to tinker with the recipe. (To compare, cheap soba shops in Japan use a 50/50 formula to save money and add longevity to the life of the noodles, while dry noodles tend to consist of only thirty percent buckwheat.) After the grinding process, Soma makes noodles in traditional fashion, using a rolling pin and a soba knife.
“A lot of people ask if soba is hard to make,” Soma says. “It requires really paying attention to texture and what affects it, like the humidity in the air.” But she enjoys the rhythm of making soba, saying, “It’s meditative…it forces me to be quiet and put all my attention into this one thing.”
Diners can enjoy watching Soma prepare their soba bowls by sitting at the counter while snacking on delicacies like pickled herring and beet salad or foie gras tofu with sake-poached shrimp and wasabi. Bar seating is also available for sake sippers.
Zaru-soba is my favorite way to experience soba’s buckwheat flavor and aroma. A pile of soba noodles come on a bamboo tray (zaru). Grab some with your chopsticks and dip them in soy bonito sauce (tsuyu) with green onions and wasabi. After slurping all the noodles, add sobayu—the cooking broth of the soba—into the remaining tsuyu. The drink is delicious, and it recaptures the nutrients and vitamins that the soba leaves behind in the broth.
Also on the menu are a couple of bukkake-style options, featuring cold soba noodles “splashed” with cold broth and a variety of toppings. And then there are specialty soba items (served hot or cold), including Kamonegi’s namesake dish, which is soba with duck, leek, and a lusciously light duck meatball (tsukune).
Expect to pay a higher price for your top-quality fresh soba noodles. Zaru-soba without any tempura accompaniment costs $11. Adding two pieces of shrimp tempura, the classic combination known as tensoba, brings the price to $20 — a kamonegi bowl costs the same. You’ll likely want to add an appetizer (starting around $10) for the makings of a full meal.
Soba pairs perfectly with tempura, which provides deep-fried crunchiness to the meal. Soma has pared down her restaurant menu to specifically spotlight tempura with her soba, explaining, “We now have the chance to work with smaller farmers and feature more unique Japanese vegetables on our tempura list.” A recent treat: satsuma yam tempura with buckwheat honey and gorgonzola.
Still, soba is the main draw, with a lot of people just learning about it. “I think when people try handmade soba for the first time, they are surprised by the earthy, nutty buckwheat aroma and the freshness,” she says, adding, “Most noodles are about chewiness, but soba is about lightness, and it doesn’t make you feel heavy at the end of the night.”
Don’t let that fool you, though. Soma’s really into ramen as well, once serving some of the best in town at a pop-up called Onibaba (a mythical Japanese demon) within the former Miyabi 45th. Asked if ramen will return, Soma flashes a slightly devilish smile as she serves up another beautiful bowl of soba.