When you enter a Japanese restaurant, it’s a good sign to hear customers speaking Japanese. It’s an even better sign when those customers are, themselves, talented chefs originally from Japan. Here they are on a rare night off to eat soba, share a bottle of seasonal sake, and generally soak up the various talents of Mutsuko Soma.
Makoto Kimoto of Suika and Tamari Bar and Keisuke Kobayashi of Yoroshiku sit with their wives at the kitchen counter and polish off an order of tempura zucchini blossoms stuffed with a mousse of scallops and yellow corn. Next comes soba, a swirl of bukkake-style noodles dressed with a kimchi of heirloom tomatoes and toasted black sesame seeds—a decidedly delicate dish that still packs sweet, sour, and spicy sensations. By turns they ask technical questions about the food and lift their sake glasses to toast the woman who made it, who stands just across the counter in an apron and knit beanie.
Though, honestly, you don’t need to be a Japanese chef to know something special is happening here.
Kamonegi’s owner is one of just a few chefs in the U.S. who can fashion tenuous soba noodles by hand. For this, she deserves endless respect. But her artistry with buckwheat flour and a soba blade is matched by her keen way with flavors. Which is why Seattle Met’s restaurant of the year is this tiny noodle haunt in Fremont, where chef Mutsuko Soma’s cross-cultural talents reverberate across the entire menu.
She could have just stuck to classic Japanese soba arrangements like the namesake kamonegi—perfect, rare duck breast, meatballs, and ample leeks—and kept the restaurant’s scant 32 seats perpetually full. But, “It’s fun to create something,” says the chef, who grew up in Japan’s Tochigi Prefecture but cooked Spanish food at Harvest Vine and French fare at the now-defunct Chez Shea (not to mention a stint at the former Saito’s sushi bar) before she immersed herself in soba training in Tokyo.
Soma takes smart liberties with her handmade noodles, like a vegetable curry broth topped with gooey mozzarella, or that tomato kimchi, or a corn and scallop combo topped with a thick pat of butter, in homage to Hokkaido-style miso ramen. The consistency of her skeins is even more impressive when you consider their hurried means of production: Kamonegi often runs through its prepped supply of soba before the night is through. When that happens, Soma must duck into a storage closet to mix more dough by hand, then shuttle a large blade back and forth, in warp-speed rhythm to deliver enough soba to make it through the rest of the night.
Kamonegi began in 2012 as a popup, then mostly went dormant during Soma’s years showcasing soba at Miyabi 45th. She eventually stepped down to have her daughter, Hibiki, but last year inherited this address from Art of the Table, and continued its tradition of bootstrapping an awkward space into something deeply personal. Noodle talents aside, she’s best at dishes whose dainty appearance belies a host of bold flavors. She can pack an entire composed dish worth of nuance and seasonality into tempura, whether it’s a fried shiso leaf topped with uni, or broccolini with a swoop of miso anchovy aioli. It may look like an unremarkable beige square when it arrives at the table, but her foie gras tofu remains one of the most gasp-inducing bites in the city. Just the genius bravado of mixing blue cheese with Japan’s kewpie mayonnaise to dress a salad of smoked duck breast with Dakota figs and endive could have earned her Restaurant of the Year status. (This woman knows her way around a duck, and generates so much of its savory fat, she gives it away to diners for home cooking.)
In some ways, Kamonegi is representative of this moment, a year when Seattle has seen a welcome burst of Japanese restaurants that explore aspects of the cuisine far beyond sushi. But mostly this restaurant is one woman’s distinct experience: Japanese training, a background in Seattle’s European-style kitchens, and zero inclination to be stuffy about any of it.