Saturday, November 10, 2012

Dinner at Samurai Mama...better than it sounds.

I have to admit I was reticent when I was asked to meet for dinner by my hurricane-Sandy-displaced friends near their temporary home on Williamsburg's Grand Street. "Samurai Mama" I thought? That name may work well in certain culturally challenged third tier cities, Cleveland perhaps? Columbus, Ohio? One of those localities where all the Japanese restaurants are actually run by Chinese immigrants and no-one can tell the difference? I was reminded of a time years ago when I was walking down Bedford street with my Japanese friend Yuki and we came across a Sushi restaurant called "Wasabi". She could barely contain her disdain at the stupidity of the name. In Japan she said,  they would never give a restaurant such a silly name. I suppose the American equivalent would be to name a hamburger restaurant "Catsup". So what is in a name? If the proprietors of a restaurant can't even christen their establishment with a decent name, will this extend to their taste in menu fare, decor, and flavor? I was about to find out...

Samurai Mama specializes in Udon noodles. The entire extent of my experience with Udon has been at sushi restaurants, where large bowls of noodle soups are proffered, along with a few token teriyaki dishes,  as an alternative for people less enamored with raw fish. Essentially, I thought, these are noodles for the sushi-challenged. Udon noodles are thick and long white noodles that are made from wheat that look like the ubiquitous Pho noodles, only they are about 50 times thicker. A single strand a noodle can fill your mouth completely. I usually prefer a thinner, more delicate noodle. For instance, when I make spaghetti at home, I almost always choose cappelini. But maybe it's just me. I'm sure there are legions of thick noodle lovers out there- I'm just not one of them.

Udon with Shrimp Tempura in low light

The restaurant is dominated by a long sharing table with cozy nook-like booths to either side. Eugene, Nathalie, and our friend Stefano who was visiting from Paris were lucky enough to score one of these low-lit booths which made for an intimate setting, especially after a large bottle of a mellow Saki was delivered. We started off with a few appetizers which were both inventive and tasty.

Pork Gyoza with "pickles"

Tuna with Guacamole roll

Assorted Tempura

The pork Gyoza, served on a sizzling hot frying pan, were delicious. The chef had evidently flipped the dumplings upside down before serving, so that a delicious pan-shaped crust that had formed in the frying could be broken up and eaten like peanut brittle with the dumplings. The pungent pickles that were served alongside them struck the appropriate note of tartness and we gobbled them down with enthusiasm in just a few minutes.

I suggest you try the tempura here. We ordered the seasonal special, with mushrooms, butternut squash, and a mix of zucchini and other fall vegetables, and it was fabulous. The sushi was noteworthy too. Our order of tuna with guacamole was extremely good, the tuna was fresh and clean and the salty, creamy, guacamole was more than just an interesting novelty. I would expect to see this dish popping up on more menus, it is the logical evolution of the tuna avocado roll. They also server a thicker version of soy sauce with wasabi already incorporated in,  which was appreciated, all the better to quickly deposit the tasty morsels in our eager mouths. They also make a fried chicken appetizer with garlic which looked very appetizing. If I had a little more ambition I would have added it to our order.

We loved the appetizers, but for me the Udon was just..... OK. The noodles were chewy and toothesome, but much like Udon I've tasted in other restaurants that don't actually specialize in them. Ditto the light soy broth that was served with mine. I have tasted those flavors before and I found them pleasant enough but wholly unremarkable. Nathalie and I ordered the shrimp tempura version of the Udon soup, which is quite nice when the shrimp are served crispy and hot. Unfortunately ours had been submersed in the soup, turning the crusty tempura batter into a soggy mess that made clumps in our soup, which is too bad, since the shrimp were very good and large enough to meet your daily protein requirements. Eugene and Stefano ordered the pork version, which I thought had a much tastier and darker broth that blended better with the noodles and is squarely on my radar for the next visit. They were out of a curry version, which could also be interesting to sample on a future outing. Since it was a cold night we all opted for the hot versions of the soup, cold options are available too, usually served with a warm dipping sauce.

Eugene and Nathalie in the spotlight.


Il maestro Stefano and me.


I really enjoyed our meal at Samurai Mamma, much as I hate to say the name. All of the appetizers were excellent, and I feel that with a more judicious choice, the soup can be too. I'm sure I'll be back, and maybe with a little patience I can start to appreciate the merits of the Udon noodle. I guess I'll just have to practice.

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