Disclaimer: I have known executive Chef James Davidson at Noraneko for over 20 years. He is also an extremely talented music producer and composer and we have collaborated on numerous musical projects over the years. It thrills me to see him taking his artistic talents and focusing on creating food.
Terri-Lynn and I popped in for lunch one sunny afternoon and we just let James send out whatever he wanted to make us. I wish the photos were better but Terri-Lynn wanted to sit at the open bar kitchen to watch James work which was not the best lighting for food pictures.
I am also putting a different spin on this post, having known James for so long I decided to “interview” him in between dishes to get a better idea of why he cooks what he does and where he found the inspiration to dive into Japanese food.
Sip & Stay: So this is where you wanted us to begin our flavor journey, what is this?
James: “Tsukemono is a combination of brined and fermented vegetables. We try to incorporate some traditional Japanese preservation techniques – miso curing, nuka doko (a rice bran bed used for fermenting vegetables), shio koji (we were on it before it was trendy!), salt curing (you’d be surprised what happens if you salt and press mustard greens for 7 days).”
Sip & Stay: How did you find yourself to be a Chef at a restaurant in Portland, which is a highly competitive market filled with talent.
James: I became chef of Biwa at the end of 2014. I had worked as a cook for many years, and a friend got me a job at Biwa (now closed). I fell in love with the food from my time in Japan, and wanted to be a part of something I could be proud of. As previous chefs left, I stayed, until eventually I was chef. Which lead to being chef at Noraneko and now Giraffe.
The next dish to arrive were the Kimchi Korokke.
James: The korokke (kimchi croquettes) are one of my favorites. For awhile that was my go to snack at the beginning of lunch service.
Sip & Stay: I know you spent some time in Japan, I can only assume that had a huge impact on your culinary interests.
James: In 2009, I moved to Japan with my wife, Katya. She was teaching English and we were there for half a year. We got to experience a good variety of Japanese cooking while living there, and fell in love with izakaya food – basically Japanese pubs featuring small plates. You order some drinks and some food, and then more drinks, and then more food, and then more drinks… It’s a fun and lively way of dining with friends.
Yakitori (grilled food, especially chicken and it’s many parts) featured prominently in the izazkayi of our area (Ehime-ken on the northern part of Shikoku)and we were lucky enough to have some locals we befriended share the kinds of things you just can’t find in the US (I’ve eaten every part of a chicken, as well as crazy raw food – beef, chicken, horse, blowfish). When I first went to Biwa as a patron in 2011, they had chicken hearts on the menu, and I knew the place was something special. My friend John Pickett (now chef of Willow) had just become sous chef, and he got me a job as a cook shortly thereafter. I was consistently impressed by how Biwa was able to capture this authentic izazkaya experience and translate that into a version of Japanese food that makes sense in Portland,OR.
So my time living in Japan provided me the basis of understanding the flavors and principles of Japanese food. That gave me an anchor at Biwa. One of the things that’s been satisfying working with Gabe Rosen (owner of Biwa, Noraneko, Giraffe) is that I feel we’ve been able to channel some aspects of the Japanese culinary experience and recreate them in certain ways. Some of my proudest moments have been my least creative ideas – where I can function as a conduit for bringing an authentic idea of Japanese food to my work (to the best of my ability.) And having those ideas resonate with people, other people that have had this experience of Japanese cuisine (and those who haven’t!), that has been the best part of my work as a chef.
Sip & Stay: You just told me this is the best fried chicken in Portland, and I will admit that you may be right. Any secrets?
James: The karaage (fried chicken) is our biggest seller. It might be more popular than our ramen! It’s skin-on thigh meat, marinated in sake and tamari, and coated with a mix of potato and corn starch, so it crisps up.
Sip & Stay: OK, so this is what we came for. A bowl of Ramen. However this is obviously something very different and I understand you found the inspiration for this dish while in Japan.
James: The inspiration for the tomato ramen came from my trip to Japan in 2017. We were in Osaka and there was a shop that specialized in tomato ramen near our hostel. I had never heard of it, but it sounded quirky enough to check out. The broth was made from fresh tomatoes and seasoned with mineral salts from Mongolia (for real), the noodles were finer than regular ramen noodles and made with soy milk, and it came with some bitter greens and clams.
My biggest takeaway from eating in Japan on that trip was how specialized and precise each restaurant is. This place served tomato ramen. That’s their deal. The curry shop serves curry. That’s their deal. So I was mostly inspired to leave the menu at Noraneko alone. Focus on the precision of what we were already doing. But the tomato ramen seemed funky enough to find a spot on our menu – we’ve done a green curry ramen, pho ramen, menudo ramen, bbq ramen.
Once I started R&D for tomato ramen at Noraneko, it just turned into it’s own thing. I ended up using sun dried tomatoes to make a dashi, and pureed that to make a tare. I found some thin noodles to emulate the ones I had. It was summer, so we went with a cherry tomato/sliced squash vibe,and a cheese crisp, cause everybody thinks of cheese and tomato soup. So, not a wholly accurate recreation, but a tribute that worked well with the Noraneko format.
Everybody asks about the egg! It’s soft boiled (whites totally set, yolk still creamy in the middle – an art unto itself) and then marinated in tamari, sake, mirin and kombu. That’s it.
Sip & Stay: Yes, you are right. The perfect egg is an art!
Sip & Stay: This is interesting, flavored sodas?
James: The house sodas are delicious. I dig the black pepper soda, and the genmai cream soda (toasted brown rice syrup with vanilla bean).
We had an excellent lunch and the rest of the menu would be a fun and I am sure delicious adventure to continue on. Thanks James for the excellent creative food and taking the time to share some of your history with us! Check out the rest of Noraneko’s menu on their web site here.