"Ramen is easy," says chef Mutsuko Soma, dismissively, while talking about the relative difficulties of making soba, the buckwheat-based noodles she specializes in at her Wallingford restaurant, Kamonegi.
Soba and tempura form the backbone of Kamonegi's menu, which Soma keeps small enough to update at the slightest whisper of a season change or even just her own whim. Some days, she'll add a shrimp bisque with soba to the menu, other days, a tempura made of cod milt.
The short menu fits with the size of the restaurant—just 32 seats in two oddly shaped alcoves, divided by a broad window into the kitchen. The former Art of the Table space underwent a makeunder, now sporting the look of a simple Japanese home, sharply dressed with window screens and flower arrangements.
But the soba magic occurs behind closed doors, in a tiny storage closet. A wooden surface pulls down like a Murphy bed, which Soma spreads with buckwheat flour instead of bedsheets, the beginnings of making the noodles by hand. The two- to three-hour task involves a not-small amount of muscle and skill, and must be done each day before service.
"Making soba is labor intensive," says Soma, in the understatement of the year.
The process falls halfway between intense workout and intricately choreographed dance routine: juggling multiple long dowel-like wooden pins, measuring flour hydration by feel, and precisely cutting the noodles with a special rectangular blade into completely uniform lengths, as if by machine. But no machines come near Soma's soba—she scoffs at the Italian pasta labeled "handmade" but rolled or cut by machines. Mechanically produced soba, something she never had until moving to the United States as an adult, lacks the flavor and texture that make it unique. It also lacks some nutritional value, because the machine-made noodles must be cooked longer.
Raised on her grandmother's handmade version, Soma came to the art of making noodles by accident. A sommelier by trade, she signed up for soba school while stuck in Japan with visa issues. There, she learned that much of the buckwheat used in Japanese soba comes from Washington State—and an idea began to form. Starting with pop-ups in 2012, she built toward her own restaurant, with a brief stop at Miyabi 45th. "It was too big," she explains.
Now, in her right-sized spot, she can bring together soba and its traditional partner, tempura. In Japanese home cooking, the two foods use a similar dipping sauce, so people—like Soma's grandmother—serve them together. But Kamonegi's food is anything but home style: The razor-sharp flavors marry Northwest ingredients to classic, old-school Japanese dishes, executed with modern techniques.
A starter—on the menu as foie gras tofu—wields this striking combination with Annie Oakley aim, presaging the artfulness of the soba to come. Sweet sake-poached shrimp laze on a pillow of foie gras mousse, an island in a sea of dashi. But the tiny key that unlocks this dish is the zing of wasabi, hidden unassumingly behind the shrimp, which balances the dish like a dancer on pointe—delicately, powerfully, and perfectly centered. Like Kamonegi (and Soma herself), its small size belies its impressiveness.