Cox: Sebastopol’s Ramen Gaijin is no ordinary noodle shop
You know what to expect at most Japanese restaurants: sushi, sashimi, gyoza, tempura, soba noodles, miso soup. But Ramen Gaijin in Sebastopol gives you something different.
“Gaijin” is Japanese for “outside person.” And the chefs, Matthew Seven Oaks Williams and Moishe Hahn-Schuman, would definitely be outsiders in Japan. Their new restaurant, housed in the space that was Forchetta in its previous incarnation, is a foodie’s dream of a noodle shop. It takes inspiration from Japan itself and from some of the unique Japanese restaurants in San Francisco, such as Yuzu. And it’s hip.
Williams and Hahn-Schuman come from the Woodfour Brewing Co. in Sebastopol’s nearby Barlow complex, where they were the talented sous chefs to the innovative Jamil Peden. When Peden left to take the reins at Applewood in Guerneville, these two packed up their talent and reinvented themselves as Ramen Gaijin.
The drinks list is surprisingly broad for a focused Japanese restaurant like this. Besides two draft beers and 11 interesting bottled beers (mostly Japanese), there are four white and four red wines, with bottles from California, southern France, and Italy’s Veneto region.
Plus five American whiskeys and five more from Ireland and Scotland, plus malt whiskies from Japan. (Whiskies is plural for whisky spelled without the “e,” as is done in Canada, Scotland, and Japan.)
The kitchen offers specials like the Yakitori Chicken Thigh ($3 ???), a piece of dark meat stuck through with a wooden skewer.
A couple of pieces of scallion are slid onto the skewer, it’s twirled in Bachan’s teriyaki sauce and grilled over an open flame.
The sauce is made in Sebastopol in very small batches by a one-person operation and pays homage to a mom-and-pop shop in southern California.
A recent ramen special was tonkotsu for $15. This is a top style of ramen in Japan. Pork bones are roasted at high heat for a long time, which forces out the bone marrow. This then dissolves in the broth, enriching it.
Its noodles are in the style of Hakata, a town in the Fukuoka prefecture of southern Japan.
A third special was an irresistible Yuzu and Strawberry Soda ($3 ????), just a fizzy glass of goodness. Yuzu is a citrus with a delicious flavor all its own, distinct from oranges, limes, or lemons.
Don’t miss the Donburi ($12 ????). It’s a little bit of everything good in one small bowl. The foundation is calrose rice, a medium-grain rice grown here. The rice is topped with grilled pork belly. There’s tobiko (flying-fish roe). Fermented kimchi is the bowl’s way of honoring Korea. There’s Kewpie, Japan’s version of mayonnaise. You get a dash of Bull Dog Sauce, Japan’s favorite topping for breaded pork cutlet. And bonito bits, plus pickled red onions and, finally, cooked spinach sprinkled with furikake, which is a dry condiment make of dried and ground fish, sesame seeds, chopped seaweed, and salt and pepper.
Ohitashi ($7 ???) is a spring dish, here featuring chewy twists made of boiled spinach paired with bits of sunchokes, pickled carrots, liquefied silken tofu, and furikake. It can be made with any spring vegetable, but spinach is typical.
It’s fun to find your way down through the ingredients of the Vegetarian Miso Ramen ($14 ???) to discover the Sapporo noodles underneath in the rich broth.
You have to eat your way there: first with the chunks of fried tofu; then the torn-up leaves of charred bok choy that give you a hit of bittersweetness; then on to the chewy, earthy woodear mushrooms; the wakame seaweed; the chopped scallions; through the togarashi roasted carrots, understanding that togarashi is Japanese for chile pepper, in this case mild ones, not the kind that set your mouth on fire. Then you stop to split open the six-minute egg so the liquid yolk spills out, and then enjoy the pleasure of slurping some of the long noodles into your mouth.
A word of caution. The Spicy Tan Tan Ramen at $15 will set your mouth on fire.
Dinner finished with a luscious Cherry Sorbet ($7 ???), an almost gelato-like scoop assisted by yuzu curd, a well-made macaroon, and some bits of shiso leaf.
To sum up: This is no ordinary noodle shop.
Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review for the Sonoma Living section. He can be reached at email@example.com.