In a world of big box retailers, strip malls, and mega chains, where everything is mass-produced, market-studied, cost-cutted, and generic, lies an almost invisible little noodle shop, in the sleepy if not dormant old-town Torrance. If it wasn’t for the ubiquitous neon ‘open’ sign illuminated just above the thicket of young bamboo, you would be hard-pressed to even notice Ichimi-an was open for business. Step inside, and it’s no different. At peak lunch hour, the tiny restaurant quietly hums along at a causal pace; a soft-spoken Japanese man takes orders from the register at the center of the restaurant, while patrons at the low counter and small tables along the window and walls slurp down bowls of handmade buckwheat noodles.
However calm and relaxed Ichimi-an might feel, the kitchen runs with typical Japanese efficiency, with food arriving within minutes of ordering.
The specialty here is definitely the handmade soba (Japanese noodles made with buckwheat flour), with the menu ranging from the ultra simple zaru soba (soba noodles served on a bamboo mat, which are simply dipped in tsuyu, a sauce made from dashi, mirin, and sweetened soy) to a multitude of other cold and hot combinations. The soba is probably some of the best in Southern California. Delicate and light, as only handmade soba can be, but with enough structure and bounce.
Each dish is carefully crafted from a multitude of fresh, high quality ingredients. The mentai oroshi comes topped with spicy cod roe, grated daikon radish, shaved bonito, and green onions. Swirling in the cod roe adds a subtle, briny heat to the stock, though never overpowering the delicate freshly-made noodles.
Another bowl features glistening nameko mushrooms; a dab of wasabi adds just the perfect amount of complementing nuttiness. The broth that plays a major role in Ichimi-an’s noodles is well-balanced and speaks of dashi and soy, but is never too sweet.
One of the current specials, tororo mozuku, a cold preparation of udon (a thinner, flatter version, more akin to fettuccine in shape), is highlighted by a flavorful vinegar-based broth, which gains substantial body from the addition of grated mountain yam. Each slurp and bite delivers an entertaining mouthful; chewy al dente noodles, vinegary seaweed, citrus-like grated ginger, peppery radish sprouts, umami-rich bonito, and an unusually thick but satisfying soup (further enriched with a raw quail egg).
In addition, Ichimi-an offers small rice bowls, which helps to fill the void when noodles and soup just aren’t enough. While the tuna bowls are somewhat bland due to the absence of seasoning, the sake ikura bowl (flaked salmon with roe) bursts of salt. The floral, herbaceous chiffonade of shiso provides a suitable foil, and when proportioned with a bite of rice, the saltiness of the salmon and roe is brought into check.
To complete the meal, the restaurant provides complimentary hot and cold hojicha (roasted green tea), and soba-yu (the water in which the soba noodles are cooked in).
It’s difficult not to notice the pride in each bowl, the reverence of ingredients, and the attention to detail. Presentation is paramount; each tray of food carefully prepared, arranged, and delivered to your table, delighting not only the taste buds, but the eyes as well. It’s this following of time-honored tradition, and wonderfully simple and anthentic food, that is a refreshing departure from the norm.
I must say that it’s been quite a hectic year. Buying my first home, jumping in for the first time in the midst of a crisis, tearing apart my new purchase, struggling with contractors, meticulously scrutinizing every detail of my dream kitchen (albeit a small one), moving, welcoming new additions to the family, and saying goodbye to precious ones, settling in, unpacking, furnishing, making my house a home. All the while, good friends and loved ones were there every step of the way, and to them I say thanks.
Since the dust has finally cleared, I’ve been trying to get back to business. Getting in the the kitchen, familiarizing myself with a new space and toys (appliances), reacquainting myself with basic skills, senses of touch and smell, taste, dexterity, and timing, after what seems like an absence of almost a year. One word: rusty. It feels good though. Like the first workout or run after the holiday eating season. Hurts like hell at first, but so exhilarating afterward. My design and programming skills also got a thorough workout recently, and after many late nights of wrestling with CSS and PHP, I’m proud to say I finally have a collective space to store my thoughts and images, and a reason to get back in the kitchen and behind the lens.
I knew all along that for my first entry, I wanted to do something with ice cream. Nothing says comfort like a warm dessert with a scoop or two of that cool, luscious, frozen treat. I originally planned to make an apple nougatine tart from the Tartine cookbook, but after a miserably botched attempt at making flaky pie dough which sent me whimpering with my tail between my legs, I settled on something a little more approachable to ease myself back into cooking (or baking in this case).
This past weekend I dined at the wonderful Church & State in downtown LA, and fell in love with their strawberry rhubarb crisp. Already bowled over by a delicious meal, good wine and conversation with friends, the understated offerings on the dessert display table barely perked an interest amongst those at our table. The last second decision to order a pair of desserts was a well-made one, as the simple crisp was an unexpected surprise. Sweet, tart, crunchy, gooey, hot, and cold. Obviously the combination of strawberry and rhubarb is nothing new, but delightful for someone who always thought the strange looking red vegetable would taste somewhat like celery. I sought out to recreate this dessert at home.
A weekend visit to the local farmers’ market yielded beautiful, ruby gems of strawberries, but no rhubarb (this novice didn’t know rhubarb doesn’t do well in the hot summer months and therefore isn’t available). So I ended up making the crisp with strawberries alone; the rhubarb will have to wait until next year. Though the resulting crisp was good, singing with floral notes of summer, it lacked the structure those crimson stalks would have brought to the table. I do have to say that the vanilla bean gelato I churned up a few days ago in anticipation of the pairing was sinfully rich, dense, and creamy, like a tall glass of cold milk. And when added generously to the dish, delicious. Because you know, everything tastes better with ice cream.
Adjust sugar according to the sweetness of your berries. The strawberries i used were very sweet, so the 1/4 cup of sugar was plenty. Makes 4 5-inch round crisps.
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
To make filling, mix together sugar, flour, and cinnamon. in a large bowl, combine the berries with the sugar, flour and cinnamon mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon until dry ingredients are thoroughly incorporated. Add vanilla and lemon juice. Divide and fill 4 5-inch fluted ramekins with strawberry filling.
Combine oats, flour, sugar, and salt in a bowl. using a pastry blender, work in the butter until topping resembles coarse meal. Sprinkle evenly over the strawberries.
Place the ramekins on a baking sheet. bake in the center of the oven until fruit is bubbling and the topping is golden brown, about 50 minutes. Remove crisps to a rack to cool slightly. Serve with ice cream.
Makes 1 pint (or so)
Put 1 1/2 cups of milk, heavy cream, sugar, and salt in a saucepan over medium-low heat. If using a vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise and scrape seeds into liquid, then add pod. Cook until mixture begins to steam.
In a bowl, blend cornstarch and remaining 1/2 cup of milk; there should be no lumps. Remove bean pod from pot and discard. Add cornstarch mixture to pot. Cook under low heat, stirring until mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon, about 5 minutes. If using vanilla extract, add it now. Immediately remove from heat.
Strain mixture into a bowl and chill in an ice-water bath for 20 minutes. Place in an airtight container and chill overnight in refrigerator. Pour into an ice cream machine and freeze according to the manufacturer’s instructions.