Miyabi Forty Fifth - A Niche Found

I often share thoughts on writing with a fellow blogger friend of mine, and while he's probably just as passionate about eating a good meal as I am, we write about completely different topics. That being said, I take his words of instruction, criticism and encouragement to heart over any other writer I correspond with because we're both so extraordinarily passionate about this thing we are compelled to put down on paper (or pixel) and share with others. 

As I fumble my way through figuring out if writing about my love of food is something I can make work for me in a substantial way (can it put a roof over my head as well as satisty my soul?) he has more than once suggested that I "find my niche - find that need that isn't being met and meet it - find that topic that isn't being explored and become an expert at it." The fact that I follow close to 75 online food sources -- some of which I stalk obsessively in search of inspiration and am always in awe by the work they're producing -- keeps his suggestion that I carve out a unique place of my own imperative.

In order to stand out from the crowd, it goes without saying you must be doing the one thing the crowd is not. You must be doing something different, of course, but you also have to be doing it successfully.

My most recent visit to the Pacific Northwest  seemed to be a lesson in reinforcing my friend's recommendation. You can see it in the two previous posts in which I "reviewed" Portland's BEAST and Seattle's Nue restaurants. Among the hottest and trendiest restaurants in Portland's ever-evolving foodscene Naomi Pomeroy has been quiety providing a memorable, communal dining experience at BEAST, and Chris Cvetkovich, not wanting to limit the type of cuisine he wanted to offer is sharing his love of global cuisine under one small roof at Nue. 

As I reflect back now on the final review I'd planned to pen from my trip up north, it's clear that chef and artison soba maker Mutsuko Soma of Miyabi Forth Fith is capitalizing on something that for years has been right under Seattle's nose but never taken advantage of: buckwheat.

Miyabi Forty Fifth is a thriving Japanese gastropub in the Wallinford district of Seattle, and while it provides pillowy pork belly bao and crispy chicken karaage (as well as the popular pop up Onibaba Ramen on Wednesdays) it is the only restaurant on the west coast to be serving and highlighting handmade soba noodles. Ahhhh ... the niche. 

Coming to the States from Japan to train at the Art Institute of Seattle, Mutsuko honed her skills at Seattle hot spots Harvest Vine, Chez Shea (now closed) and Saito's before returning home to Japan to study the art of buckwheat soba noodle making. Seattle has an extremely diverse culinary scene with nearly every culture imaginable represented, but no one was taking advantage of the fact that Washington was producing massive quantities of buckweat that was nearly untouched. Mutsuko saw the opportunity to produce something unique and took advantage of it

Growing buckwheat is easy in Seattle's climate and it's used most often in crop rotation. But how the grain is milled into flour and stored is where the challenge lies. Milled flour doesn't have a long shelf-life and as Tiffany, Miyabi's lead cook explained to me, that means a lot of times the soba noodles you're eating at most restaurants are a blend of 80% buckwheat to 20% white flour. The percentage of white flour is highest in dried soba. 

My sister agreed to visit Miyabi with me and when we showed up on Wednesday I was anxious to try my first handmade order of Zaru Soba - plain cold soba with soy aged bonito dipping sauce. Whoops! Remember I mentioned they host the pop-up Onibaba Ramen spot on Wednedays? Yeah ... so we "suffered" through a bowl of ramen for Jen (her first!), some cold ramen for me and pork belly bao buns and chicken karaage for us to share.

It was a delicious meal and Jen was so pleased to have finally tried her first bowl of ramen, but I needed those soba noodles - needed to know if the handmade soba noodles were worthy of the obsessive attention to detail Japanese soba makers gave it. If it was worth Mutsuko going back home to learn when her main objective had been to learn western cuisine.

I came back the next day, positioning myself strategically at the bar for a late lunch, and respectfully ordered the Zaru Soba. It wasn't easy. I love bold flavors and the Duck Tantan noodles were an immediate distraction. Ground miso duck and pork with a spicy broth over thick hot noodles? Dangit, Heidi, stay on point! Zaru soba only, please. Really? Not even some prawn and vegetable tempura thrown in for good measure? Son of a nutcracker ... but now. Just the soba noodles, please.

As Tiffany cooked my soba for me (after learning a ton from her during our visit on Wednesday, I told her to expect me again the following day with even more questions - and she was full of fantastic information), I asked about how they received their buckwheat. The fresh noodles cooked briefly in boiling water and she explained Mutsuko's process as she wacked the strainer conatining my noodles to expell all the cooking water.

Mutusuko mills the buckwheat she receives from local growers herself and makes the noodles each day by hand. "I'm allowed to cook the soba but I cannot touch the dough," Tiffany explained, plating my fresh soba noodles on a bamboo mat and reaching for its accompanying dipping sauce. "That's the chef's job only. You have to work your way up through the ranks before you're ready to make soba."

I nodded and jotted notes down in my notebook as I munched on a fresh salad with ginger-wasabi dressing. And then, it was before me, in all it's unassuming glory. Chilled fresh soba noodles, glistening, chewy and tender, nutty and earthy and accented beautifully by the deeply aged soy and bonito dipping sauce. So simple, but each of the ingredients treated with such care that what looked innocently enough like a simple dish turned out to be amazingly satisfying.

Traditionally, when diners get near the bottom of their noodles, they are brought a little kettle filled with soba cooking water that is poured into any remaining dipping sauce they have left, turning it into the most vevety umami-packed "bonito soup" I've ever tasted. The more cooking water you pour in, the better it gets. I've simply never had anything like it.

Which is the point, really. There are lots of really great noodle spots in Seattle and they're all making pretty good dishes - but Miyabi (and Mutsuko herself) has made itself notable. They've set themselves apart from the crowd by providing a dining experience you can't find anywhere else. It's one I won't be forgetting any time soon.