Get Ready for the Phenomenon of Ramen Nagi

Chef-Owner Satoshi Ikuta realizes a dream by opening his first U.S. branch of his Ramen Nagi.

Chef-Owner Satoshi Ikuta realizes a dream by opening his first U.S. branch of his Ramen Nagi.

 

Ramen Nagi doesn’t open until June 25 in downtown Palo Alto, but you might as well get in line pronto for the first outpost in the United States of this Tokyo ramen chain that boasts 35 locations in Asia.

I can’t say I’ve eaten at every ramen joint in the Bay Area, but I’ve definitely enjoyed my fair share. And Ramen Nagi’s may be the best I’ve had.

Yes, it’s that incredible.

These noodles, made fresh on site every day, are a cut above.

These noodles, made fresh on site every day, are a cut above.

Basil and parmesan ramen -- yes, really.

Basil and parmesan ramen — yes, really.

At a sneak preview media dinner a week before the official opening, I had a chance to sample five different bowls of ramen, plus a variety of side dishes, most of which are not available at any other Ramen Nagi locale elsewhere.

Chef-Owner Satoshi Ikuta, who founded Ramen Nagi in 20014, even flew in from Tokyo for the occasion.

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Warm-Rice Hand Rolls and Okinawan-Style Doughnuts at the New Ozumo

Salmon hand-roll made to order with warm rice -- available at the bar at Ozumo.

Salmon hand-roll made to order with warm rice — available at the bar at Ozumo.

 

As much as I love sushi and Japanese food in general, I rarely could bring myself to step foot inside this spot in San Jose’s Santana Row when it was the former Blowfish Sushi to Die For.

That’s because it was small, dark, and blared pulsating club-like music non-stop, making it impossible to hold any kind of conversation, let alone relax.

What a difference a new concept makes.

Late last month, Ozumo took over that spot, renovating it with a light, bright interior, as well as adding an outdoor beer garden in the Valencia Hotel alcove right below Burke Williams spa.

Lanterns overhead in the beer garden.

Lanterns overhead in the beer garden.

A much more soothing palette than the previous restaurant in this spot.

A much more soothing palette than the previous restaurant in this spot.

The dining room.

The dining room.

Jeremy Umland founded the original Ozumo in San Francisco in 2001. A New York native, he became passionate about Japanese food and culture when he played professional baseball in the Japanese Pacific League.

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Swirled Sesame Tea Cake Made With A New Artisan Tahini

The taste of sesame galore in this tea cake made with a new artisan tahini.

The taste of sesame galore in this tea cake made with a new artisan tahini.

SwirledSesameCakeFinal

 

Just as all peanut butters aren’t created equally, neither are all sesame seed pastes.

Otherwise known as tahini, the vital ingredient in hummus, now’s there’s one that not only makes you sit up and take notice with its robust flavor, but also its mission to cross cultural divides.

New York-based Goni Light and husband Yonatan Sela created SoCo Tahini a year ago. The two are no stranger to business endeavors — or to tahini. They both grew up in Israel. Sela received an MBA from the Wharton School of Business, and worked for a venture capital firm before becoming chief business officer of YouNow, a live broadcasting-based social network. Light earned a master’s of science at New York University before working for years as a finance manager at Proctor & Gamble.

SoCo Tahini.

SoCo Tahini.

When they came to the United States, Light and Sela were dismayed that they couldn’t find any decent tahini. So, they sourced their own, first selling it at a stand at Burning Man, before establishing a bona fide company last year, Seeds of Collaboration or SoCo for short.

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A Taste of Spain Via Berkeley at La Marcha

Trio of croquetas at La Marcha.

Trio of croquetas at La Marcha.

 

It’s been way too long since I visited Spain, but when I walked through the doors recently of La Marcha Tapas Bar in Berkeley, I felt as if I was back in that vibrant, energetic country.

Or perhaps I should say, nudged my way through the doors, because on a Sunday even before 5 p.m., the place was packed and the host was having to turn people away. Fortunately, my husband and I had reservations for an early dinner, of which we paid our own tab.

Why the crowd at that hour? Because La Marcha has one of the best Happy Hours around. It’s every day, too. A select number of cocktails, wines and beers offered at a discount. Best yet, during Happy Hour, each drink you order comes with your choice of a free little snack. There are about a dozen to choose from. No wonder people were fighting their way in here. If you can’t make it then, and are a night owl, La Marcha offers a second Happy Hour each night, 10 p.m. to midnight.

Crisp, sweet and tangy Brussels sprouts -- a freebie snack you can choose with your drink during "Happy Hour.''

Crisp, sweet and tangy Brussels sprouts — a freebie snack you can choose with your drink during “Happy Hour.”

The boisterous spot features a Real Madrid flag hanging above the expansive bar, and an exposed brick wall behind small, closely set tables. We snagged two end seats at the bar, which were actually more at regular table height than bar height. It took a little while to not feel like we were at the kid’s table at a dinner party as we peered at neighboring bar patrons sitting up a foot or so higher.

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Enter the Doors of Porta Blu

Tagines are the centerpiece of the menu at Porta Blu.

Tagines are the centerpiece of the menu at Porta Blu.

 

Driving Highway 101 on the Peninsula, you cannot miss the swank new Hotel Nia. Its 11 stories of gleaming glass make quite the statement.

Step inside the just opened hotel, and you are sure to get whiplash. That’s because the upscale yet whimsical decor by Colum McCartan of New York’s McCartan, Inc. will have you looking every which way. Everywhere you turn, there are eye-catching, fun touches such as a cart full of luggage turned into a planter and rakes leaning against doorways that are actually light fixtures. Just when you think you’ve spotted every surprise, you discover yet another one.

Somebody sure left their luggage here a long time. LOL

Somebody sure left their luggage here a long time. LOL

Don't try using these to sweep up anything.

Don’t try using these to sweep up anything.

Just a tandem bike on the property.

Just a tandem bike on the property.

The property somehow manages to feel secluded, even if it is right off always-jammed 101, and has Facebook as a neighbor.

Enter the restaurant, Porta Blu, and the unique artfulness continues. The backs of the bar stools look as if they sport an abstract squiggle design. But start at them a little longer to discover it’s actually a silhouette of two faces kissing.

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