205 Grand Street, Brooklyn NY 11211 (b/n Bedford and Driggs; map); samuraimama.com
Service: Reserved but knowledgeable
Setting: Communal tables and a few booths; dim lighting
Must-Haves: Udon! And pork belly
Cost:$4 to $11
Grade: A for udon, B+ for everything else
With the success of Bozu, the self-proclaimed Japanese Tapas Lounge featuring small plates of refined Japanese-European fusion, chef-owner Makoto Suzuki continues his Williamsburg-based expansion with Samurai Mama. It's an unfortunate name for what is a truly excellent noodle shop, and what I hope will be the start of a new, moderately-priced Asian-themed noodle dynasty. The hand-made udon are certainly good enough to carry it.
The wood-and-brick filled interior is moody but comfortable, with a single long communal table dominating the dining room, along with a few satellite banquettes. Thankfully, the table is large enough that you can still be afforded some privacy despite the communal setting.
Their menu is made for sharing and divided in the traditional Japanese style—by cooking method. Sections of small bites, fried dishes, simmered dishes, pan-seared dishes, sushi, and noodles fill it out.
The Kobashi section of the menu (all $4) features a half dozen small tastes made for sharing that range fromYakko—an awesome homemade soft silken tofu with a lightly fishy soy and seaweed tukudani (I have a huge soft spot for homemade tofu) to crunchy Konbu Dango ($4)—deep fried fritters of sea kelp and soy beans with a mildly spicy mayonnaise. The flavor is somewhat like a vegetarian tako-yaki with a light but savory texture.
Pork Belly Daikon ($9) is an appetizer made for sharing, with a soft-boiled marinated egg and rich pork belly braised in a sweet mirin and soy broth until meltingly tender with soft daikon that retains a pleasing crunch. Going a little further afield of tradition, Age Nashi ($5.50) pairs deep fried eggplant with baby shrimp and garlic. The tiny eggplant are tender and fatty but not greasy or heavy. Caramelized garlic is not a typical Japanese flavor, but it works well here.
My mother's gyoza will never be topped, but the Mama's Pork Gyoza ($6.50) give them a run for their money. The twist comes with their unique cooking style. Gyoza is not normally on the teppan-yaki (iron griddle) section of a Japanese menu, but these are cooked in a cast iron skillet, then inverted, so that the crusty skin stays crisp as it's served. It reminds me of the cheeseburger at Shady Glenn in Manchester, CT, with its fried cheese wings. I've never seen dumplings like this before, but I hope to see many, many more of them.
Other fried foods like the Vegetable Tempura ($8) are equally succesful with light, crisp, grease-free coatings. I like the way they shred all the vegetables (here, a mix of onion, carrots, scallion, and pumpkin) and fry them together so you have to pull them apart into steaming, savory piles, like a Japanese version of an onion pakora. They're served simply with a sprinkle of green tea salt.
The sushi section of the menu is the only part that left me unfulfilled. You have a choice of regular rolls or what they call Taco Style ($4.50 to $6 per piece)—sushi served with cubed fish in little nori boats. One of the less successful interpretations here (the nori gets a little soggy and chewy as it sits), but tasty nonetheless. Traditional fish-only sushi sits next to more modern combos with avocado or spicy mayo. The best part of the dish is the bright pink pickled yuzu rind that replaces the pickled ginger.
The real reason to come here, however, is the excellent made-in-house udon—ramen's thicker, Japanese-ier cousin. Perfectly formed into long, meaty, rectangular strands, this is the kind of noodle that makes you wonder why you ever put up with the frozen or freeze-dried stuff. They're slippery, with a substantial chew, and made for slurping.
Traditional Kake-style udon ($8 to $13.50 per bowl) come served hot in a big bowl of ocean-flavored broth that exemplifies the Japanese aesthetic—deep and rich in flavor but light and refreshing on the palate. You can opt for one of the predetermined bowls with options like Nikuji Kake Udon ($11) made with braised pork belly and scallion or or Sansai Udon with edible wild Japanese plants, or go choose-your-own-adventure style with a dozen add-on topping choices ranging from slow-poached egg and tororo (grated yam) to sweet potato or shrimp tempura (all $2-3).
It may seem odd to serve crisp fried food in a soup, but it's a very traditional Japanese preparation, and I like the way the bits that stick out stay crisp while the submerged bits become almost fluffy, with the texture of dim-sum chicken feet.
The same noodles are also available in two other styles, both served cold. Tsuke Jiru Udon ($9.50) comes with dipping sauce on the side, while Bukkake Udon comes with a soft poached egg and a sweet soy and dashi-based sauce meant to be dumped and stirred into the bowl, forming a sort of moist noodle salad.
Considering the price increases Williamsburg restaurants have seen in the last few years, it's refreshing to find a place where a table of four can fill themselves on food of this caliber and get out for under $25 a head all-in. What's even better is that unlike other elegant-casual Asian-fusion eateries these days, you can dine at a leisurely pace without feeling like you're getting booted out for the next person in line—at least for now. Let's hope it stays this way.