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A Line or Two: Of Cold Ramen and Rice Balls

Lunch at Obento-ya
Lunch at Obento-ya
 It's official: the Twin Cities have risen to culinary eminence. Places like Tilia, Bachelor Farmer, and Travail have drawn hearty praise from the national foodie press. We seem to have developed a brilliant array of small, highly creative owner-chef places in the neighborhoods that capitalize on local sourcing to craft complex variations of familiar favorites. Meanwhile our roster of ethnic places, particularly Latin and Southeast Asian, continues to expand.

The aspect of this welcome trend that has made me happiest is the burgeoning of Japanese restaurants.

Japanese food is an emotional issue for me. I majored in Japanese in college, worked for a Japanese company for two years, wrote a Japanese cookbook as one of my first ventures into publishing. When I lived in the Boston area, I became a regular at the Kyoto, a cavernous old place near Symphony Hall where middle-aged Japanese-American ladies in kimono padded about with trays of miso soup while Hibari Misora, the songbird of postwar Japan, crooned smiling-through-her-tears love songs on the failing sound system. An ideal place, I felt, to recover from twentysomething heartbreak.

During my time in Japan, friends and colleagues introduced me to special eating experiences like chanko-nabe (the hearty stews that sumo wrestlers fill up on), Hokkaido-style grilled corn on the cob, shippoku cuisine (the Japanized Chinese food of Nagasaki)--along with simple, delicious staples that were, then, hard to come by in America, like curry rice and tako-yaki (grilled breaded octopus, a street food).

Beyond Sushi in the Twin Cities

When I first moved here in the early Nineties from New York, there were only a handful of places to go for authentic Japanese. (And authentic means authentic. The teppan-yaki steakhouse, with the guy dicing the meat like a percussionist and flipping the pepper shaker, you should know, originated in New York and was exported to Japan. I love it.)

Origami
, Saji-Ya, Kikugawa, Sakura were good restaurants, and with the exception of the defunct Kikugawa, are still flagships of local Japanese food. But in the last handful of years they've been joined by more idiosyncratic restaurants where, if you are willing to go beyond sushi, you can discover a whole world of Rising Sun eating pleasure—some of it fusion-y, some of it traditional, some of it recent-traditional. (And some of the old standbys, like Saji-Ya, have added new and intriguing items.)

I'll admit that the sushi issue is a big if. For many Americans, Japanese food and sushi are still near-synonyms, and more's the pity. (Nothing against sushi, by the way--what a wondrous contribution to international eating, born of the utilitarian need to pack fish in fermented rice to preserve it! I celebrate it as a purist and former patron of the tiny sushi bars near Tokyo's Central Fish Market; no avocado, please—and keep the rice inside the seaweed.)

Tanpopo in Saint Paul boldly declared itself mainly a noodle shop, sidelining sushi and specializing in the cheerful deliciousness of skinny soba noodles, hot and cold, and thick udon. Dinner, appetizer and izakaya (bar) food menus in places like Masu Sushi, Midori's Floating World, and the edgy, very fusion-conscious sake brewpub Moto-I teem with once-rare items like fried chicken or pork kara-age, korokke (potato and vegetable croquettes), and okonomiyaki (meat-and-veg pancakes).

Obento-ya

One of my favorite newish places, and one a bit off the beaten track, is Obento-ya, north of Dinkytown on Como Avenue. It's another restaurant that dares to specialize in something besides sushi; the core idea here is the bento, the complete meal served in a  partitioned "lunchbox"--though there is a lot of variety in general and plenty of sushi options on the menu too. And if you are serious about artisanal beer, Obento-ya offers not only Hitachino Nest Beer by Kiuchi Brewery, originally a sake maker, but also Morimoto ales, brewed in Oregon but designed by Japanese superchef Masaharu Morimoto.

On Monday I went there for lunch, lured by the announcement on the restaurant's Facebook page that they were offering hiyashi chuka--cold ramen, a summer specialty.

One of the greatest pleasures in Japanese cuisine is eating seasonally: hearty nabemono (stews) in the winter, chilled soba in ponzu dipping sauce or cold ramen with strips of cucumber, omelet, tomato, and what-have-you in summer while you listen to the reee-reee-reee of singing cicadas…or the gentle swish-swish-swish of traffic going by on Como Avenue. While my Obento-ya cold ramen was missing the pickled red ginger that always gives it bite in Japan, it was otherwise authentic and tasty.

Another pleasure of Japanese cuisine is eating simply. At the end of a meal, for example, the Japanese like to make ochazuke—tea-rice—by pouring a bit of green tea into what's left in the rice bowl and sipping. The mild flavor of the tea unites with the even milder flavor of the rice for a culinary experience that's--well, mild. Ochazuke has long been a symbol of the quieter, subtler side of Japanese esthetics and Japanese living. The great film director Yasujiro Ozu titled one of his gentle, understated studies of family life The Flavor of Ochazuke.

Another echt-Japanese symbol of simplicity is the rice ball: a snowball of rice with a bit of pickled plum inside, wrapped in a sheet of seaweed. That's all it is; it's the original Japanese portable lunch, carried to school and the job site and the temple and the rice-field for hundreds and hundreds of years--and I had a delicious one at Obento-ya.

Nice! The kind of place where you can order hiyashi chuka and a rice-ball-with-pickled-plum, or takoyaki and korokke—and we have such places in our towns now—is a place that is serious about the soul of a great culture. And that's more than lunch or dinner.
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