Each Friday, the Heavy Table presents a new installment of Knife Skills, a culinary novel presented piece by piece as it’s written. If you’re uncomfortable with salty language, please be aware that characters regularly use words and phrases unacceptable in polite conversation. In the author’s imagination, some members of the food service industry have a tendency to swear. For previous and subsequent installments, visit the Heavy Table’s Fiction directory.
A New Noodle Joint’s Complicated Soul
by Arthur Cho
“Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood. Perceptions like that — latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time — all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust — to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.”
Those are the words of Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, who died in 180 AD. But they may as well be the critic’s credo now and forever: As professional decoders of culture for our readers, it’s our job to penetrate the hogwash and discover what’s really going on.
It’s not fair to criticize the smoke and mirrors of the modern restaurant simply for being there. Diners want to be entertained. When you’ve paid $40 — a decent hourly wage, particularly in these trying times — for a meal, you want to feel as though you’ve been taken on a journey somewhere. Sometimes that journey is fiction, like going to Disneyland. It’s not gold, it’s gilt. Sometimes, if the mood is right or the price is right, that’s OK. There’s no shame in showmanship, and when it’s artful, it deserves praise.
But it’s refreshing, wonderful even, to dine in a place that isn’t putting its stock in special effects. And in a shock to those familiar with his track record, there’s little showmanship in Jim Thursday’s new Japanese soul food eatery, Kami. Kami literally means “spirit,” and it’s a perfect name for a place that seems to be unconcerned with material trappings. The ingredients being used are excellent, sure, and the decor is tasteful, but from the moment you walk through the door you understand that the main gig is hospitality.
Diners are always offered a little something when they sit at a table. On three successive visits, the amuse was, respectively, a deviled egg with a coiled ball of curried rice noodles sitting in for the yolk, a tiny shot of sake so delicate that you would swear it was merely water tinted with orange peel, and a hot, spicy black tea that perfectly complemented the cool autumn air outside.
Aside from a nicely executed but somewhat token kobe steak or shabu shabu option, the restaurant’s menu is a collection of small dishes: dumplings or noodles, including ramen, udon, and soba. A light eater with frugal taste could probably get by on about $14; a heavy eater gravitating toward four or five of the more upscale options might pay around $50. Both would leave satisfied. Without exception, the dishes tasted fussed over, well balanced, and focused: Each little bowl of noodles makes a point, as does each plate of dumplings.
A silken, velveteen squid ink udon dish ($11) brings out the almost sweet taste of the perfectly tender squid rings that accompany the noodles; pork dumplings in broth ($6) pack a pleasant heat that help them stand up to the soup’s own choleric nature.
The menu is a triumph of tasteful (and tasty) minimalism. That Chef Robert T. Robertson accomplished this feat in the less than three months he reputedly had before opening is a minor miracle, and speaks kindly of the previously Minneapolis-based chef’s skills.
Novelty isn’t everything in the world of dining. A hot dog stand was a good idea 100 years ago, and it’ll still be a good idea 1,000 years hence, if there’s still a civilization around capable of enjoying a frankfurter with ketchup, mustard, and onions. But the kind of novelty Kami’s packing is forgivable — it seduces, but also rewards repeat visits. There’s a real joy to experiencing an imagination expressing itself through small plates, and that’s an emotion that’s more than skin deep.