The scene at Kimura Ramen during the lunch rush has the visual texture of a renaissance sfumato painting.
Through the rising steam and orchestrated chaos of the staff’s movements, incandescent noodles are ladled into a chiaroscuro hued broth, then additional brush strokes of indigo seaweed, verdure scallions and roasted meats are layered and arranged.
Somewhere behind all this pageantry, often seen scrubbing pans in jeans and a well-worn T-shirt, is Chef Michael Sohocki.
Ramen, ryaa – men ラーメン is based upon the wheat noodle (Lo Mein) introduced to Japan by the Chinese centuries ago. It has evolved over time into a thing unto itself.
This is not the packaged, MSG-laced-ramen of your empty-pocket college days.
It is a translucent, nearly al dente bouquet of scent and texture that possesses that fulfilling flavor characteristic – umami – the sixth taste. Every region in Japan is known for its own gourmet interpretation of ramen, and at the same time, its everyday fare noodle soup.
Chef Sohocki lived in the Fukaishimizu neighborhood of Osaka, where the Kansai style of ramen has several local variations. Osaka is known for its fiercely proud food-culture and Sohocki is hell-bent on doing that justice here in San Antonio. The Kansai region, which includes Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto and Nara, touts nearly 300 Michelin star rated restaurants, more than anywhere else in the world.
The story at Kimura almost didn’t happen.
The restaurant, at 152 East Pecan St. Stuite #102 (beneath the Exchange Building apartments), was forced to close earlier this month after less than two days of operation. Chef Sohocki had revived the slow food movement (healthy, well-prepared food) at his restaurant Gwendolyn next door, and in that same vein was making all the ramen noodles and gyoza wrappers by hand, a few orders at a time.
San Antonio was so starved for something new, like a traditional Japanese neighborhood noodle shop, Kimura was inundated with hundreds of new customers in its first two days.
“We were getting killed,” Chef Sohocki said, “so many customers at once, we broke two of our three pasta machines on the first day trying to keep up with the demand. We closed for four days to re-group. I decided to order my ramen directly from Japan, and I’m very satisfied with it. It’s better than what we were making fresh in-house, and that’s saying a lot.”
Chef Sohocki earned his chops in traditional European kitchens in South Texas and even has the street cred of graduating with the Culinary Institute of America’s second undergraduate class in Hyde Park, New York. More hard knocks to follow – working in post 9/11 Manhattan, where he sold restaurant equipment, strike-ridden San Francisco, and then, finally, on to Osaka in 2005.
“Back then, no one knew what to do with a guy who had a college degree in culinary arts,” he said.
While in San Francisco, Sohocki did land a gig at award winning Bistro Jeanty as center sauté, working double shifts – where “I got my ass-kicked,” recalls Sohocki. “On an average Friday night you served 300 people, 4-5 courses each – you went home crying.”
In Osaka, his Japanese mother-in-law taught him traditional cooking, and the straight forward, unambiguous atmosphere of the local Soba and Ramen shops is what has been recreated here at Kimura on the corner of Pecan and St. Mary Streets.
“Ramen is all about the broth,” explains Sohocki. “The broth has to be made with soul. You can’t rush it. The foundation has to be right to achieve the right flavor profile.”
The broth reduces and becomes salty in the pot, and once the noodles are added, the saltiness is absorbed.
At lunch time, Kimura has a hurried yet casual atmosphere.
At night, the vibe changes completely. Kimura transforms into an Izakaya, a place to drink traditional Japanese cocktails, sake and beer, accompanied by traditional Japanese bar foods, including sushi, yakitori, grilled fish, and of course, ramen.
Kimura is not only authentic – it is “as close as possible to the way it is in Japan.”
Having spent a lot of time in Japan, the only thing I have to get used to is, that at Kimura, they speak English.
Michael Sohocki is known in San Antonio for having brought The Cove to national recognition appearing on the Food Network’s – Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, for having worked with Chef Andrew Weissman at Le Reve and Il Sogno, and for establishing Restaurant Gwendolyn in the former Le Reve space, which was featured just recently on National Television.
Chef Sohocki received the Rising Star Sustainability Chef Award from StarChefs.com in 2012 and was nominated for a James Beard Award, the highest culinary honor in America.
Winslow Swart is chief inspiration officer at Winslow Consulting, director of strategic partnerships at Geekdom, and by 5PM every weekday resumes his lifelong position as the Kyoshi Sensei at the Japanese dojo Kenseido.