Sunday, October 4, 2009

Citrus Lovers Unite! The Refreshing, Handmade Sudachi Udon Noodles of Ichimian

While Ramen and Soba continue to be my favorite types of Noodles, once in a while, I find myself craving a good bowl of Udon. While the recent discovery of handmade Udon at Kotohira has helped change my perspective of the (usually) thick, wheat flour Noodle, it still hasn't dethroned Ramen or Soba for the top spot amongst the "Big 3" Noodles in Japanese cuisine. But that might be changing after experiencing the homemade Udon Noodles of Ichimian.

While Ichimian (English name "Bamboo Garden") is famous for their outstanding handmade Soba Noodles, they've now added handmade Udon Noodles to their repertoire, and the results have exceeded my expectations. Chef and Soba Master Yuji Adachi's Udon Noodles - like his Soba Noodles - are made fresh, in-house, every morning in limited batches; once they sell out, they're done for the day.

It was during my 4th visit to Ichimian that I noticed 3 new signs for various types of Udon. Surprised, I confirmed with the server that, like their Soba Noodles, they make the Udon Noodles from scratch, in-house, every morning. I could feel the excitement building, but it would have to wait as we had already placed our order before discovering these new signs. But no matter, as we were able to enjoy more of their classic offerings, starting with:

Ume Shiso Soba, Hosomen (Thin Buckwheat Soba Noodles with Japanese Plum and Shiso Leaf). (Note that you can order any of their Soba dishes as "Hosomen" (Thin Noodles) or "Futomen" (Thick Noodles).)

Mixing together the ingredients and taking the first bite, it's wonderful: The fruity tartness of the Ume (Japanese Plum) hits your senses and is perfectly matched with the herbal Shiso Leaf, and when mixed with the subtle, earthy qualities of their Buckwheat and Wheat Flour Soba Noodles, it's another instant classic.

We also try their Maguro Don (Tuna Bowl) which is fresh Raw Tuna, Green Onions and Seaweed over Steamed Rice. Like most of Ichimian's menu, it's driven by the core ingredients with a simplistic, pure angle: The Maguro Don has no salt added (except what's in the Nori (Seaweed)). There's Soy Sauce and Pepper Seasonings at each table if you want to adjust the flavor. The Tuna tastes very fresh, and with a bit of the Wasabi, Green Onions and Seaweed, it makes for a very light, healthy combination if you're in the mood for something like this.

Their Mentai Oroshi Soba, Hosomen (Spicy Marinated Pollock Fish Roe, Grated Daikon Radish, Thin Soba Noodles) is quickly becoming my favorite dish at Ichimian.

The lightly spiced Pollock Roe delivers just the right hint of oceanic goodness, and the Shiso Leaf is as enchanting as always in its fragrance. Add to that the perfectly cooked Soba Noodles, the Konbu (Kelp) and Nori (Seaweed) and it's the one dish I find myself always ordering, despite the many other flavors offered at Ichimian. :)

The Una Don (Freshwater Eel Rice Bowl) is probably the restaurant's boldest flavor item, a nice, lightly sweet and savory cut of Grilled Unagi topped with their house Tare Sauce over a bed of Steamed Rice. It's not the best Unagi I've had, but as a little side dish to accompany the fabulous Soba Noodles, it's a nice menu option.

Their Kare- Don (Homemade Curry Rice Bowl) is another good alternative for those looking for heavier flavors as a foil to the light Soba Noodles. Adachi-san and his staff make their Japanese Curry in-house, from scratch, which results in a sweet, mild, lightly spiced Curry. It's a little too sweet for my tastes, but it's a solid choice for those craving some Japanese Curry when visiting.

The Kare- Don is served with a little appetizer of homemade, marinated Katsuobushi (Dried, Shaved Bonito) and Konbu (Kelp), which is intense, sweet and briny.

But finally on our 5th visit is when we were able to try the new Udon items, starting with their Sudachi Oroshi Jikasei Udon (Homemade Udon Noodles with Sudachi Citrus and Grated Daikon Radish).

The Udon arrives soon after and the first thing that strikes me is how thin these Udon Noodles are. Unlike the more ubiquitous Sanuki-style Udon (big, thick Noodle), these are much thinner (but still thicker than Soba). I gently take a bite and a wave of Spring washes over me: Bright, vibrant, green, gorgeous notes of the unmistakable Sudachi Citrus Fruit stand in the spotlight, but then the deep-in-the-earth flavors of the Grated Daikon Radish hit next, and both just bathe the cool homemade Udon Noodles in a verdant flavor explosion.

While I appreciate Kotohira's thick Sanuki-style Udon (much better than the mass produced versions at most shops around town), these thin Udon Noodles at Ichimian are more in tune with my palate: There's a very satisfying chew without detracting from the meal, and with the wonderful Japanese citrus fruit, it's completely refreshing. :)

Their Tori Nanban Udon (Nanban Chicken Udon Noodle Soup) is a nice variation of the usual Hot Udon Soup Noodles.

While it's nothing like the usual Nanban dishes (very spice-laden, bold, vinegary), there's a subtle tartness lacing each piece of Chicken in their homemade Tsuyu broth (Soy Sauce, Mirin and Dashi blend). Their homemade Udon Noodles still have a great bite to them, but are softened a little bit more in the hot Broth (compared to the chilled versions). The Chicken, though, is a bit disappointing, being a little bit too dry and chunky, having all their flavor cooked away into the broth.

But their most popular Udon dish would have to be their Tororo Mozuku Udon (Cold Udon with Grated Japanese Mountain Yam, Seaweed, Ginger and Quail Egg).

It features an impressive ingredient list, seemingly overwhelming, but not at all: Homemade Udon Noodles with Kaiware (Radish Sprouts), Wakame (Seaweed), Katsuobushi (Dried Bonito Flakes), Mozuku (Vinegar Kaiso (Seaweed)), freshly-grated Shouga (Ginger), Konbu (Kelp), and topped with Uzura Tamago (Quail Egg).

Breaking the Quail Egg Yolk and mixing everything together, you end up with a delicious, creamy, silky and slick, chilled Udon Noodle dish: A bit of an ocean breeze from the various Kelp and Seaweed, a touch of tart, but mostly a lightly savory, viscous Noodle dish with a nice chew. (Note: Tororo (Grated Japanese Mountain Yam) is naturally slimy when grated, so those that might have an aversion to that texture might hold off on ordering this dish.)

Their Nameko Oroshi Udon (Nameko Mushrooms, Grated Daikon Radish, Udon Noodles) is a must order for Nameko fans.

Ichimian serves this dish hot or cold (we opt for cold which was perfect for the hot Summer day), which arrives with Nameko Mushrooms, Radish Sprouts, Green Onions, Kelp, Seaweed and Dried Bonito Flakes on top. A quick stir and it's surprisingly salty (not overwhelming so): The Nameko Mushrooms (naturally slick) are marinated in an intense Shoyu (Soy Sauce) mixture that by itself, is too salty, but when eaten with the neutral, mild homemade Udon Noodles provides just the right amount of saltiness for the dish. I thought it was just a bit too salty, but my guest thought it was just fine as is.

On my most recent visit, I decide to try their Sansai Tororo Soba, Hosomen (Japanese Mountain Vegetables, Grated Japanese Mountain Yam, Thin Soba Noodles).

The Sansai combination of Mountain Vegetables is a decent mix of 4 popular types of the wild vegetables, but I was hoping for more variation. When combined with the other ingredients, it's a nice crunchy variation on the standard Tororo Soba, having the same popular slippery quality, combined with their excellent Soba Noodles.

For those ordering cold Soba, don't forget to get a cup of their complementary Soba-yu ("Buckwheat Broth" (the hot water the Noodles were cooked in)) to pour into the remaining Tsuyu broth you have. It's meant to dilute the Tsuyu sauce and create a warm, lightly salted Broth to enjoy at the end of your Soba meal. :)

Ichimian is a small mom-and-pop operation, reminding me of the little, informal eateries sprinkled throughout Tokyo, underneath train tracks and tucked away in quiet neighborhoods: You order at the register, grab as much free Iced or Hot Tea as you want, and after you finish your food, you bring the trays up to the cleaning rack. Their Soba and Udon Noodle dishes range from $5.90 - $8 (tax *included* in the price already, so it's more like ~$5.38 - $7.29 for each dish, a great price for homemade Soba and Udon Noodles. :)

While the clean, earthy, simple Soba Noodles continue to be the true strength at Ichimian (Honten) (Original Branch), their new offerings of homemade Udon Noodles shows great promise. While I appreciate Kotohira's traditional Sanuki-style Udon, it says a lot about Ichimian's noodle-making skills that their new Sudachi Oroshi Udon (Sudachi Citrus Fruit, Grated Daikon Radish, Udon Noodles) has become my new favorite Udon dish, and that their Tororo Mozuku Udon is one of the most popular items on the menu now (more than some of their Soba dishes).

A note to those that may be trying Soba or Udon for the first time: It's nothing like Ramen Noodles which tend to be far more explosive in flavors and toppings. Instead, Udon and especially Soba Noodles' strength are in its minimalism and simplicity: It's pure, very light, and just wonderful in its chilled presentation. Calming, relaxing and refreshing.

Rating: 8.9 (out of 10.0)

Ichimian (Honten) Bamboo Garden
1618 Cravens Ave.
Torrance, CA 90501
(310) 328-1323

* Cash Only *

Hours: Mon, Wed - Fri, 11:00 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.
Sat - Sun, 11:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Closed Tuesdays.


weezermonkey said...

So much noodle goodness in South Bay! I need to send my friends to your site. I don't know what to recommend in that area!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

Thanks. :) There are definitely a few standouts in the South Bay for Noodles. Let me know if you get a chance to try Ichimian.

Noah said...

When it comes down to it, and I factor everything in, there may not be a restaurant in the LA area that I enjoy more than this one. It's inexpensive and makes me incredibly happy.

I had the Tororo Mozuku Udon on my last visit, and loved it. You'd never think that something that could be described as a puddle of slime would taste so good.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Noah,

Nice! :) I love Ichimian as well. I would agree, for the price point and the calming, relaxing Teuchi Soba and Udon you get... it's just wonderful. :)

ELS said...

What a coincidence: we were there Sunday as well. We went per a recommendation from my Japanese sister in law. We enjoyed it thoroughly and plan to be back, even though it is a bit of a drive for us.

Funny to see weez here too. If it's the same one, I haven't seen her since my days at The Knot. Small world.

gourmetpigs said...

Oh, Ichimian has great homemade udon too? Man I don't think I make it down there often enough to switch between soba and udon ... but I love both. I guess since I've tried the soba I should venture out to the udon. I've never seen such thin udon noodles too, so definitely worth a try.

Exile Kiss said...


I'm glad you like Ichimian as well. :) Can't get enough of this little eatery.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

Yah, I was surprised as well the first time I found out. :) Definitely worth a try to experience some excellent homemade Udon Noodles. Let me know what you think if you go. :)

lynn said...

yum and yum. by the way, to answer your question on our blog, i'd recommend the gnocchi @ osteria la buca

Exile Kiss said...

Hi The Actors Diet,

Thanks for the rec. :) I'll be sure to try it on my visit.

If you get a chance to try these light and healthy Soba and Udon Noodles, let me know what you think of them. :)

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