F&W Best New Chefs 2019: Mutsuko Soma of Kamonegi in Seattle
Ramen has had its moment; pho has won hearts on cold afternoons; dan dan noodles have their legions of mala loyalists. But in the pantheon of imported noodle traditions explored in American kitchens, one strand is still waiting its turn: soba. The buckwheat noodle, with historic roots in Japan’s Edo period, is notoriously hard to perfect—a traditional ni-hachi ratio of 80 percent buckwheat to 20 percent wheat flour, the instincts to detect and adapt for hairpin changes in factors like humidity and altitude, a litany of specialized tools (lacquered bowls [konebachi]; long, smooth rolling dowels; a foot-long blade that resembles the world’s most elegant guillotine). All of this in the service of an incomparable texture, at once coarse and silky, and a flavor whose exquisite subtlety is exactly the point.
So you can understand why I immediately thrilled to chef Mutsuko Soma, soba evangelist at Seattle’s Kamonegi, who is getting it all so magnificently right. She was raised in Tochigi prefecture, watching her grandmother cut soba using only one arm—she’d lost the other one in an accident. Her adapted technique wasn’t something Soma could master, so after a few years working at French and Spanish restaurants in America, she enrolled in an intensive soba course in Tokyo. “I learned how to mill buckwheat, how to blend different types of bonito to make dashi, how to pay attention to changes in temperature and moisture, about nodogoshi [throat feel],” she says. Soma returned to the U.S. and started staging soba pop-ups in Seattle to see if American diners would take to the noodle. They did.
Soma opened Kamonegi in 2017, serving her pristine hand-mixed, -rolled, and -cut soba noodles in the three traditional styles: nanban (submerged in hot broth), seiro (served cold with a hot broth for dipping), and bukkake (floating with chilled broth in a composed bowl). But while her menu can certainly work as a primer for the uninitiated, Soma takes creative liberties and indulges in the kind of flights of fancy that make Kamonegi uniquely her own, sparking tempura with bacon vinaigrette or Gorgonzola or introducing rich mozzarella into a Japanese curry broth. My favorite dish was the signature kamonegi—so named for an idiom about a lucky duck carrying a leek—with pink slices of the bird’s breast plus tiny duck meatballs to nibble along with the gorgeous strands. You can add textures like tempura flakes and chewy mochi balls and dabs of funky umeboshi, and once you’ve finished, a server will bring a cup of soba yu—the aromatic cooking water—to sip. As for the noodles themselves, although most of the buckwheat in the region is grown as a cover crop, Soma is working with the bread lab at Washington State University to explore the possibility of developing a local strain she can cook with.
It all adds up to a chef working at the highest level, a master of one of the most rarefied skill sets in the Japanese canon.