As my Summer adult education class, “Food Writing for Fun, Fame and Profit” taught me, all good pieces of food writing begin with a statement of expertise in a given area, and the qualifications to judge what is about to be written about. If the writer lacks qualifications in the field to be discussed, a carefully-crafted, detailed anecdote about the author’s memorable experience with a particular dish can be a good substitute, and, often, will allow them to pass over a discussion of the food itself. You can tell sentences like these, because they usually sound like this: “I felt the shiver of a single bead of sweat roll down the length of my spine as I watched our chef pinch a solitary burgundy strand of Saffron between his fat, nicotine-stained fingers, before placing it expertly on my steaming bowl of Kao Soi, the brilliant sunlight flashing ever so briefly on that single silky, gossamer strand, a side effect of the burning Lampang sun, blazing its way across a soft coral sky.”
Unfortunately, I lack both the qualifications to expertly describe ramen noodles, nor even a meaningful, poetic anecdote about them. In fact, my knowledge of ramen noodles can be boiled down (do you see what I did there?) to these three core facts:
- If you add instant ramen noodles to instant mashed potatoes, very strange things will happen in your mouth while you eat them.
- If you are the father of a towheaded five year old, and are back home after months away at sea, and you slice leftover pork roast, some scallions, mushrooms, a raw egg, and a few sugar snap peas into a bowl of instant “Red Hot Beef” flavored “Top Ramen,” and then serve it for lunch with last night’s VHS-taped episode of The Tonight Show, that single, joyful memory will stay with him for the rest of his life.
- The giant, steaming bowl of coconut curry chicken soup with rice noodles, golden fried curry puffs, and a slight slick of bright orange grease, as served at the Ivy Noodle in New Haven, Connecticut, for $4.75, will instantly and permanently cure any hangover. Even those brought on by amateurishly combining Black Label and Patron Silver.
It was with this total lack of background in ramen-eating that we approached dinner at Pai Men Miyake, the latest brainchild of Masa Miyake here in Portland. The restaurant has been receiving a lot of attention from reviewers far more qualified than I, and has steadily been buzzing along, with packed houses nearly every night. On the night we walked to Longfellow Square, it was without a reservation or a gameplan; we were going to see which restaurant had the smallest crowd, and go there. We were greeted warmly at Pai Men Miyake, and sat immediately at a table in the window.
The atmosphere and decor at Pai Men Miyake is outstanding. A long, very narrow space, with room only for one row of tables and some seating at the bar, one wall is solid brick, and the other decorated with sliced, square pieces of wood of different depths. The ductwork has been left exposed, and a layer of abstract metal sculpture and lighting gives the room a very warm, yet kinetic, high-energy feel.
We started with the steamed pork buns ($9), which were, perhaps, some of the best things to hit our mouths in months. Each satiny, spongy bun is topped with just a bit of fatty braised pork belly, perfectly crisped along the outermost edges, a single slice of sour pickle, a tiny leaf of lettuce, and topped with a spicy mayonnaise. The local press has referred to it as a “Japanese Big Mac,” which would be the case, if Big Macs were the best things you had ever tasted. This is dimsum to get excited about; as Jillian and I each nibbled our way through our buns, we were grinning like lunatics, and excited! excited! about what was to come next. We haven’t felt that way in a restaurant in a long time.
The Tuna Tartare ($8) was also delicious, with brilliantly fresh chunks of pink tuna, scooped up with round rice crackers that provided a very pleasing crunch. The delicate flavors were a nice accompaniment to the stronger flavors of the pork buns, and, with the sake and Maudite flowing, we were ready for our ramen.
I ordered the “Spicy Miso” ramen ($11), a Miso broth enhanced with the spicy flavors of a sesame garlic sauce, and Jillian had the “Tonkotsu,” ($9) a broth flavored with pork. Both soups had a generous amount of ramen noodles, and each were garnished with half a soy-marinated hard boiled egg, crunchy bean shoots, and a few slices of more braised pork belly. And it was here, unfortunately, that our excitement about the meal began to wane. Jillian was looking out the window with each bite, and not saying much. I felt like my broth, which wasn’t spicy at all, was a lot like licking a piece of nori, munching a few sesame seeds, and finishing with a slurp of water that a fish had recently been swimming in. The flavors of each broth, while wildly different from each other, both shared a reluctance to let one flavor assert dominance. While distinct, each flavor was sufficiently wishy-washy to prove, unfortunately, pretty uninteresting to my mouth.
I attribute most of my somewhat negative reactions to our broths to a pure lack of appreciation of the subtle, delicate balance of Japanese flavors. I am, after all, the trashbag who is adding sliced jalapeno to his salmon hand rolls; the guy who is painfully conscious of his wasabi use and sneaks extra when the chef isn’t looking. I don’t have a refined palate, by any stretch of the imagination. It is for this reason, then, that when we return to Pai Men Miyake (and we certainly will), we are likelier to stick to the appetizers and rolls that are offered on the menu.
We had attentive, friendly service, fine sake and beer, and the kinds of starters that get in your head and nibble at your brain until you return for another taste, all served in an exciting, energized setting . Ultimately, though, the ramen (like Radiohead, films by the Coen brothers, and the television show Deadwood) is something I can only admire intellectually, rather than actually enjoy with my whole heart. I can appreciate the talent, thoughtfulness, skill, and technique that went into creating them; I just don’t much feel like eating them.