Most diners across Kamonegi’s tiny warren of rooms have a sight line into the open kitchen, yet chef Mutsuko Soma slips out virtually unnoticed. It’s 8:30pm on a Wednesday, and her Fremont restaurant is down to its last few servings of slender square-cut noodles the color of lightly creamed coffee.
“It’s been happening more and more lately,” one of her two sous chefs acknowledges. No wonder. Even actual Tokyo soba patrons would be impressed by how many customers can fit within these slight spaces. A few tables even talk in animated Japanese, as chopsticks draw those delicate strands from Kamonegi’s signature bowl of soba—rare duck breast and duck meatballs with fat slices of leek—or manipulate cold noodles from bamboo mats into ceramic cups of warm dipping broth.
Soma repairs to the closet where staff stash their raincoats atop jumbles of storage boxes. By all accounts, she’s the only chef on the West Coast who makes soba noodles by hand, a process that’s part centuries-old ritual, part high-stakes science. “Soba has to be this weird balance,” she says of her fingertips’ quest for just the right texture. “Smooth, but a little bit coarse.” Separated from the swirl of conversation and slurp of noodles only by a flimsy curtain, she plunges her hands into an enormous lacquer bowl of house-ground flour and begins.
Officially, Kamonegi specializes in soba and tempura, Japanese cuisine returned to its pristine Edo-period roots. That ultratraditional rubric doesn’t explain the yakitori duck meatballs, brightened with a pulsing mixture of chili, nori, satsuma zest, and ginger plus pops of green peppers and the unifying powers of a sunny egg yolk. Nor the alluringly plated, inscrutably named Hoshigaki Sando, essentially a stewed persimmon stuffed with walnuts and powerhouse blue cheese, all atop a bed of cinnamon Greek yogurt. And, wait—are those really tempura-fried Oreos on the dessert menu?
This combination of old-school tradition and saucy drinking food, with frequent infusions of fine-dining finesse could only belong to the slight woman in the newsboy cap folding and rolling her thin sheet of dough in that makeshift workspace.
Mutsuko Soma’s story is the stuff of Chef’s Table documentarian dreams: She learned the art of soba from her grandmother. When she landed in Seattle, cooking higher-end European food in local spots like Harvest Vine and Chez Shea, she missed the singular texture of fresh soba, achieved by a precise combination of buckwheat and wheat flour. Soba found stateside is generally dried; its higher ratio of wheat makes for a different texture. During an extended stay back home in Japan, she completed rigorous soba training in Tokyo, then returned to her adopted hometown in 2013. How bizarre that Seattle had strong ties to Japan but no fresh soba. And how fortuitous that our state just happens to grow more buckwheat than any other place in the nation.
Ramen junkies, take heed—these classic soba combinations are comparatively restrained, but Kamonegi is best when Soma editorializes. Sometimes it’s just a little, like housemade black-garlic oil that energizes the fukagawa soba with clams and leeks. She’s also unafraid to deploy gooey mozzarella within a vegetable curry broth already packed with flavor; there’s an almost illicit pleasure to navigating strings of melting cheese with chopsticks.
Dinner at Kamonegi generally includes both a tutorial and vocab lesson. The staff is (mostly) very good at explaining the hot and cold variations available for most soba dishes. They’re wont to explain that the cold, or seiro approach “really lets the noodle shine.” It’s true, though hot nanban noodles usually win out on rainy nights. The bukkake is perhaps the best introduction to soba’s charms, a nest of cold noodles kaleidoscoped with color and texture galore—perhaps nori ribbons, matchsticks of cucumber, grated daikon, chewy rice cake, and shrimp tempura. Kamonegi’s soba has almost a Tom Hanks–ian ability to let other elements shine even as it remains undoubtedly, consistently the star.
All this backstory, plus the unerring craftsmanship of the noodles, nearly obscures the basic fact of Kamonegi: It’s really flipping fun. After all, this is the same woman who perfected the artful drinking snack when she was the chef at Miyabi 45th (the titanically savory foie gras tofu lives on at Kamonegi). Who likes whiskey so much she named her daughter Hibiki. Who is well aware of bukkake’s other, Urban Dictionary–esque meaning.
Tempura, the other half of Kamonegi’s mission statement, also offsets tradition with cheek. Shiso leaves emerge puffed up and crunchy, like a culture-bending tortilla chip, each with a bit of wasabi and the clarion ocean call of fresh uni dotted on top. And those fried Oreos? “It started as a joke,” says Soma, a riff on fried Twinkies. But, just like the stellar eggplant tempura or the wedges of fried satsuma yam dressed with honey and gorgonzola, the batter crust steams what’s inside and alters the texture into something else entirely.
Kamonegi began as a popup in 2012, then Soma became the chef at the now-defunct Miyabi 45th in Wallingford. Last year, she bounded back from a self-styled maternity leave with more popups; when Art of the Table acquired new, larger quarters, it left behind a vacant restaurant small enough to sustain those soba noodles, plus a legacy of making unlikely magic in a very awkward space.
Back in that space, back in that closet, Soma picks up a soba blade and shuttles it again and again through her layers of dough. Each assured stroke turns a hairsbreadth cross-section into a skein of noodles. Smooth but a little coarse.
Another 10 minutes and the results of her labor are en route to those ever-full tables and Soma’s back in the kitchen pulling tempura out of the fryer with metal-edged chopsticks. Being smooth but not overly refined may be a weird contradiction when talking about noodles, but it’s the perfect description for the restaurant that serves them.