Early last year chef Mutsuko Soma left her long held post at Miyabi 45th, much to the sorrow of soba-slurping customers, to assume a new one as a first-time mom. And as some know all too well, motherhood and chef life (as with other industries) is a tough balancing act. Still, Soma forges ahead—with a new restaurant no less.
Yes, bless her masterful soba-making hands, she's opening Kamonegi in the former Art of the Table space in Fremont. The restaurant, so named for the classic Japanese pairing of duck and leek, a favorite of hers, will house the handmade, nihachi-style soba dishes that Soma is known for.
Six years ago Soma started on this journey, studying the age-old art of Japanese soba. After having gone to the Art Institute of Seattle and working in hallowed Seattle kitchens—Harvest Vine, Saito, Chez Shea in Pike Place Market—she wanted to cook in Toyko, being the culinary epicenter that it is. And she did go back to the city 80 miles south of her hometown, but cook in Tokyo she didn't. It would've meant starting over completely; she became a sommelier instead. Before returning to Seattle though, she thought, "I should study something only I can learn in Japan: soba." And, praise be, that she did.
These days, Soma hand mills buckwheat seeds, grinding them into a fine flour to be mixed with other U.S.-grown buckwheat flour and some good old all-purpose flour, resulting in robustly textured soba. And every batch is hand cut. It's this meditative technique and the Edomae tradition with which Soma creates her noodles, and at Kamonegi, she'll meld this classic approach with Northwest-sourced ingredients and a bit of playfulness.
In her most recent synonymous popups, dishes looked like mushroom seiro, a riff on cream of mushroom soup accompanied by a hot dipping sauce with morels and spring peas, beside a tangle of buckwheat noodles. You can bet on seeing Soma's favorite combo, kamo nanban, which has seared duck breast and leeks over buckwheat soba, all swimming in a hot, amber-hued broth.
Beyond noodles, there will be tempura made with a Edomae-style reverence, employing heirloom vegetables and a bit of whimsy, too: braising kabocha squash in sweet dashi and tempura, perhaps served with foie gras ice cream. As a new mom, she says, ingredients matter more, "Tempura is deep fried, but I want to think about what's inside—nutritionally, seasonally."
Kamonegi is slated to open in the fall*, but first, a little fundraising. Soma's launched an Indiegogo campaign, necessary for hiring more "soba crew" members and spinning the Art of the Table space into a fully fledged soba restaurant—one of the few in the States!—like ones you might stumble upon in Japan. Soba used to be a street food in the Edo period, says Soma, "In Japan, people drink at soba restaurants then eat soba at the end of the meal—it's kind of like a hotdog stand for Friday night, right? You have to drink first." At Kamonegi, expect some drinks, particularly a nice lineup of sake, plus beer and wine.
See Soma in soba making action in the short film "The Heart of Soba" by Food Talkies' Andrew Gooi.
*Update: the opening goal is September 2017.