Saturday, June 25, 2011

Fun Playing Pop Up Easy Japaneasy with Chef Lee Anne Wong

Perhaps the greatest film in the "food and sex" genre ever made is Juzo Itami's Tampopo - a self-described "noodle western". In Tampopo ("Dandelion"), the hapless widow Tampopo recruits Goro (think Burt Reynolds in "Smokey and the Bandit") to go with her in search of the perfect bowl of ramen. Merry  food-related madness ensues that must be viewed to be fully appreciated.

When dating my husband in the early 1990s, I laid down two pre-conditions to moving to Cleveland from the East Coast - a quality brewpub and a Chinatown. While Cleveland had (and has) both of those things, one of the two gaping culinary omissions that remained here (the second being a good locally made knish) has always been the lack of a real ramen shop. Yes, several of our Asiatown restaurants offer noodle soup, and some of it is pretty good. But, until now, there has been no place to go, say after a viewing of Tampopo on DVD (and when will they release a print of it containing all of those wonderful, deleted scenes?) to quench the thirst for truly great ramen.

James Beard Nominated and Food & Wine Best New Chef winner Jonathon Sawyer is coming to our rescue very shortly with the opening of Noodlecat, 234 Euclid  Avenue, Cleveland, 216-589-0007. Noodlecat will be Cleveland's first full time ramen house,* and is scheduled to open around July 15, 2011. Though the noodles will not be made in-house, they will be produced to Chef Sawyer's formula by the best pasta purveyor in Cleveland - Ohio City Pasta. 

Chef Sawyer is also a principal in the recently formed Brick & Mortar Pop-Ups venture, which is celebrating Noodlecat prior to its opening with two short pop up dining series. The first one began last night and concludes tonight; we were fortunate to snag a late reservation.

Though last night's pop up was very well attended, as of this writing, there are still a few seats available for tonight's second go round; if you enjoy Asian food, do not miss this opportunity to play with Easy Japaneasy as conceived and executed by Top Chef alumnus Lee Anne Wong!

We chose the four course tasting menu ($44) with Beverage Pairings ($20); all items are also available a la carte (except alcohol, available only as a pairing for this special event). As we waited for our first course, we played with the condiments on the Noodlecat tables:

The house concocted chili sauce is in the squeeze bottle, a house concocted spice mix is in the shaker, and behind these two is a bottle of charcoal-filtered soy sauce.

Togamashi - Spice Blend 

Soy Sauce

This is no ordinary Sriracha, though it begins with that Southeast Asian condiment. Chef Sawyer also blends ketchup, chili paste, red wine vinegar and other secret ingredients to get this just so. Not too hot, but exploding with flavor, the Sriracha complemented several of Chef Wong's dishes, so I'm glad we decided to play with it! A sprinkle of Togamashi is on the right side of the spoon.

We enjoyed two different styles from Japan's Hitachino Brewery, which was a victim of the March 2011 earthquake; Noodlecat scored a cache of beer from the last batches brewed before the disaster. Both beer styles offered real malt and hop flavors rarely seen in Asian imports; what a shame to lose them. Here's the XH; the more malty of the two:

Get them while you can at Noodlecat.

Course #1: Fingers (well, actually finger foods - but Chef Wong likes to play with her menu has much as her food).

Oyster Roast - Togarashi Garlic Bone Marrow Butter

Yes, you read that correctly - Bone Marrow Butter. Even if you think you hate oysters - these will win you over. Each slurp melted in the mouth, leaving perfect contentment behind. Really.

Tonkatsu Sliders - Mustard-Katsu Sauce, Cabbage Salad 

These patties did not want to slide at all - crispy yet amazingly tender and bursting with real pork flavor, Chef Wong explained that the meat had been tenderized but not minced, which explained the velvety texture. The bun, eerily similar to the burger buns at B Spot, perfectly complimented the meat and held together through the last bite despite the wet condiments. A unique and delicious take on the ubiquitous slider.

Course #2: Sticks (to be eaten with chopsticks, of course).

Shrimp and Fresh Waterchestnut Gyoza- Scallion Ponzu 

I am a sucker for dumplings, so we had to try the gyoza. Freshly made dumpling dough was expertly stuffed and perfectly cooked. Though there are some acceptable replacements for fresh waterchestnuts (such as jicama), canned waterchestnuts are not among them and this dish showcased why only the real thing (or a real substitute) should ever be used (one bite of the real thing and you will know why canned waterchestnuts are not food).

Hatcho Miso Marinated Beef - Asparagus Tempura, Parmesan Dashi Fondue

This East-West fusion was dressed to impress. Tender, tasty beef was almost the underling to the exquisitely crispy, tempuraed asparagus and the tender bits of blanched asparagus that dotted the plate. Easily manipulated with chopsticks - the asparagus bits ensured that none of the creamy fondue got away uneaten! The beef took on a whole new dimension when a modest dab of the Sriracha was applied. Swirled in the fondue - it was a whole new taste sensation that danced on the tongue.

Course #3 - Slurp.

Zosui - Local Eggs, Chicken and Scallops, Mitsuba

This version of zosui (rice soup) was made extra creamy by the eggs. The fresh lotus root chips provided textural contrast, and the thinly sliced nori and scallop flavor lent to the intense umani-ness of the dish. Mitsuba is also known as Japanese Wild Parsley, and it added another new (to me) flavor dimension to the party. A happy party.

Udon Stir Fry - Mama Style Cabbage, Ginger, Bacon

Any dish whose description contains noodles and bacon will probably make it to my place. This one added freshly pickled ginger and fresh corn (where did that come from this time of year?) to the toothy udon and thinly sliced slabs of fresh bacon. A pleasant glow of chili heat also emanated from the bowl, making the end product lip-smacking good.


Soft Serve with Caramel - Black Sesame Brittle, Matcha Rice Krispies, Marinated Mango

A perfect ending to an amazing dinner. It didn't even matter that the ice cream was melting - the toppings offered so many contrasts in texture and taste that we couldn't stop eating, and the rice krispies happily sopped up the cream but remained wonderfully crunchy to the end. I want some right now!

I can't get any more Matcha Rice Krispies, but you can - if you email Brick and Mortar Popups: - there may still be some seats available for tonight's second Pop Up! Chef Wong sure knows how to play with Japaneasy Food!

The second Brick & Morter Pop-Up will feature Cleveland's "Great Food Truck Race" alumnus Chris Hodgson, food truck chef extraordinaire and owner of Dim & Den Sum and Hodge Podge food trucks. It will be held July 11 and 13 at Noodlecat, and tickets for the prix fixe affair may be purchased on Eventbrite

*There is another, albeit late night only, recently opened option for ramen in Cleveland - Chef Dante Bocuzzi offers his Zuzutto (Slurp) menu at Restaurant Dante in Tremont - but it is only available Monday-Thursday 9-11pm and Fri-Sat 10:30pm-1am. I've heard it's delicious, though I have not gotten there myself yet.


  1. Wow. What a night of wonderful food. I thought about attending, but knew my dietary restrictions would keep me from eating anything. I am drooling all over my computer seeing what you enjoyed for me :)

    Glad to see you got to check this out. I love that they are using the space for a pop-up or two before opening Noodlecat.

  2. Love the concept and the menu looked amazing. I wish we could have made it! By the way, if you haven't tried Dante's Zuzutto yet, run, don't walk. It was amazingly good and ridiculously cheap!

  3. Thanks for the excellent write up. We wanted to go - but they were all out of reservations by the time we looked into it. The photos look amazing - especially the udon stir fry.