Thursday, March 03, 2011

I Came, I Saw, I Bowled

Pop-up books. Pop-up stores. And now pop-up restaurants. Combine that with the recent craze for ramen noodles and you've got Boke Bowl, the brainchild of Brannon Riceci and blogger Patrick Fleming.

We're not talking about the ramen you remember from your college days when ten packages of those dried, curly noodles cost a buck and you could cook them up in the percolator in your dorm room. And forget that super-salty, chemical-laden "broth" from a little foil packet.

The noodles that Fleming and his crew make have a handmade toothiness, with a regular wheat version and a gluten-free yam noodle option. The broths profferred the day I was there, variations on Japanese dashi, were seafood miso, a meaty pork-and-chicken combo and a light caramelized fennel. Each bowl comes with greens, mushrooms, butternut squash and water chestnuts, and inventive additions can be ordered individually.

The meal started out with a plate of airy rice crisps with a little bowl of a housemade sriracha dipping sauce (right) alongside. Both my dining companion, mistress of the Pacific NW Cheese Project, Tami Parr, and I only half-jokingly asked if we could each get a quart of it to go. Its heat was cooled by the agua frescas (above left), though it was tempting to try a (for me, nap-inducing) cocktail from Oba's terrific-sounding bar menu.

We also selected the steamed buns, a choice of grilled eggplant with pickled mustard sauce or a version containing char sui pork, cucumber and green onion (left). Not the usual stuffed dumplings, these were more like tacos, the filling sandwiched in the fold of a fluffy disk of dough.

Apparently the Brussels sprout salad, warm Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, blood orange and house tofu croutons with Thai vinaigrette, was amazing judging from the sighs coming from nearby tables, but after the chips and buns, and knowing that a couple of big bowls of soup were on the way, we decided that in this case discretion was the better part of valor.

My pork and chicken broth (top photo), a stew so dark and rich that even Toshiro Mifune would have a hard time stomping his way through it, came with choices like buttermilk fried chicken, pork belly or a slow-poached egg. Having heard from the event's DJ, Cabeza de Queso (right), that the fried chicken was to-die-for delicious, I chose it and was rewarded with an odalisque of crispy-on-the-outside, moist-on-the-inside nuggets sitting on top of my noodles with a dollop of aioli.

The last-Monday-of-the-month schedule, posted at the last minute on the website, happens at a rotating list of local restaurants. Past event locations have included Bijou Café, Cruzroom and the Globe, all at night, the one I attended at Oba being the first lunch the team had attempted. While this kind of schedule provides its fans an element of eager anticipation with a whiff of exclusiveness, it also makes it a challenging way to run a restaurant.

Patrick and Brannon only have a skeleton crew themselves, relying on the kitchen staff at the event location to put out the bulk of the food on the day of service. For the most part these are dishes that the line staff has never made (or seen) before. Plus the abbreviated schedule and throngs of fans being seated all at once means that mistakes can happen, like my first bowl of soup arriving after a significant wait and sans the requisite ramen. When the lack of the main ingredient was pointed out, a new bowl was quickly provided (and I wasn't charged for it). Also, some of the noodles were initially clumped together in a mass that required some work to untangle.

Overall, though, it was a fun and, yes, exciting experience, and if a rumored permanent location for this experiment-in-a-bowl does materialize, any problems with consistency should disappear with the addition of a permanent staff. Until then, though, you'll have to monitor their website and go knowing that the unexpected is always lurking in the wings.

Details: Boke Bowl. Last Monday of the month pop-up event. Monitor the website for next location.

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