The Road to Sake Is Paved With Gold(schlager)

Here it is, Sunday night, and I'm at my desk enjoying a glass of sauvignon blanc. Fifteen years ago, I wouldn't have been caught dead drinking this stuff, but I've come around. White wine is actually good, I'm happy to report. There's a certain inevitability in the arc of one's drinking life. If a drink is in fact good, sooner or later, you'll end up drinking it. So let's give it up for sauvignon blanc.

It's Best to Get Started Early. There's a Lot to Learn.

It doesn't seem like that long ago I was desperately trying to force myself to like beer. Was that 1993? Maybe it was 1994. I was probably fourteen or fifteen and boy did I want to get shitfaced. Did I ever. But it was hard, you know? Booze wasn't too easy to come by, and it tasted pretty terrible.

The first time I got drunk I was a freshman at Firestone High School, in the former rubber capital of the world and home of LeBron James, Akron, Ohio. It was a dismal fall Saturday and I had the good fortune to be introduced to some juniors (I've arrived!) and their cheap vodka and orange juice. I definitely blacked out early on, and when I regained awareness I was hanging off the deck on the back of this guy's house doing pullups. The white turtleneck I was wearing was smeared with mud on the back. Later on I found my retainer in a flower bed. I agree this is all sort of horrifying, but I was having fun.  

When you're fifteen, pounding screwdrivers is easy. The hard part is teaching yourself to stomach Natty Ice or Miller High Life or whatever godawful beer you can get your hands on. If you want to tie one on, you need to knock back a whole lot of that stuff. So you sit there in some friend's basement, or maybe in the park after dark, holding your nose and trying not to yack as you plod through a six pack. I remember being sixteen, trying to get drunk without the hassle of beer, having a positively barbaric outing with Zima chugged from styrofoam cups, and a gallon jug of Carlo Rossi rhine wine. Thanks mom and dad for buying us that shit. Memories to last a lifetime, and not just for me.   

You might say my behavior was foul, maybe even reprehensible, but I was only getting started. Worlds were unfolding. Shots of Goldschlager, 40s of OE, the delightfully repulsive took on so many forms. Oh, this might be twenty years too late, but sorry not sorry Dan's parents about your Canadian whiskey, and sorry not sorry Tim's dad about your single-malt Glenfarclas. That stuff was like 110 proof, and it burned going down, but whatever. In all things in life, you do what you need to do to get the job done. If the job is to be seventeen and wasted, when Glenfarclas presents itself, you drink that shit, and you come back for seconds.  

Division I College Drinking

Secure in my capacity for excess, I headed off for a four year tour at The (The!) Ohio State University. I arrived with my Arizona ID, which was an awful fake, but it worked remarkably well at Kroger's and Applebees. The Natty Ice was never in short supply freshman year, thank god. That was the year I learned to love kegs of Icehouse, and had a nasty run-in with a certain Mr. James Beam. It was the year I learned to drink in the shower at 8 a.m., as a means of getting a head start before a noon kickoff, or maybe before going to church if that's your thing. Good times in Bradley Hall, turning reckless binge drinking into high art. 

Things only escalated sophomore year once we moved off campus to E. 18th Avenue, and continued raging at an aggressive pace for the subsequent three years. Handle bottles of Scoresby blended scotch bought from the ghetto liquor store at the corner of 5th and 4th. Warm Captain Morgan's smuggled into Ohio Stadium on a sweltering football Saturday. Shots of the Three Wisemen, a revolting combination trio of Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, and Jose Cuervo. Senior year I helped pioneer the self keg stand. Yes, that's physically possible. No, I haven't done it since 1999.

Coaches. John Cooper won a lot of games, but pretty much never when it counted. 2-13-1 against Michigan. Urban Meyer and Jim Tressel won titles, and are combined 14-1 against Michigan.  

Coaches. John Cooper won a lot of games, but pretty much never when it counted. 2-13-1 against Michigan. Urban Meyer and Jim Tressel won titles, and are combined 14-1 against Michigan.  

1999 was a ridiculous year, binge-drinking at its zenith. The football team was having its worst season in years. It was back before the paradise of Urban Meyer and Jim Tressel, when John Cooper blew it against Michigan year in and year out. We compensated by forming a football-themed drinking team. I was one of the defensive captains, I played middle linebacker. I organized, motivated, hit hard. I coordinated the team jerseys. I wasn't one of those offensive wonders, the quarterback and the running back, those guys who would drink bong water, or dive-bomb a lawn chair, or expose themselves at parties. That season, if you puked it was a fumble. But it wasn't a turnover if you got back up and started drinking again.   

My stamina was amazing back in those days, and not just because of Ripped Fuel [Friend: Hey, do you want some Ripped Fuel? Me: What's Ripped Fuel? Friend: It's like trucker cocaine, I got it at GNC. Me: I'll take two].  One time Dan's mom (she of the missing Canadian whiskey) came to Columbus and asked how I'd spent the previous day. "Drinking an inordinate amount of alcohol." "How much is that?," she asked. "30 beers." To be fair, though, it was over a stretch of 20 hours, so arguably I'd paced myself. Besides it was probably Coors Light or something more water than beer. Stamina, people. Enjoy it while you can.

Thoughts on Scotch.  Glenfarclas, we didn't deserve you. Scoresby, you're not rare at all, but you should be. Johnnie, man, it was good to catch up at the firm retreat last week. Hadn't seen you for a while. 

Thoughts on Scotch.  Glenfarclas, we didn't deserve you. Scoresby, you're not rare at all, but you should be. Johnnie, man, it was good to catch up at the firm retreat last week. Hadn't seen you for a while. 

In December 1999, our drinking team finished off an undefeated season, and we played against ourselves in a national title game. The Icehouse Bowl or something dumb like that, presented as a Christmas-themed costume party. I wore some absurd thrift-store polyester suit, green pants and a red jacket. Quite obviously, we won a big victory. National title, baby. I drank the worm in a mezcal bottle, and I woke up face down the next morning, still in my holiday best, shoes and all. There is irony here. Eighteen years later I have such vivid memories of that night, but the next day I would have told you I didn't remember anything.  

Graduate School. Way Less Fun, Way Worse Hangovers.

People always say you should go out when you're on top, so that's sort of what I did. The me that could drink to such calculated excess retired at the end of that game. My vaunted stamina was rapidly eroding, the hangovers increasingly painful, the sense of self-loathing during a day-long head-pounding malaise all the more acute.  There was no single moment of epiphany; it was a gradual realization that this actually wasn't fun anymore. Laying low as a matter of self-preservation characterized my final months in Columbus.  

The Kong. Scorpion Bowls. My last visit here ended not well. 

The Kong. Scorpion Bowls. My last visit here ended not well. 

This isn't to say I didn't give it a go when I got to Cambridge in 2000. I proudly got ejected from the Crimson Grille and the Hong Kong for insulting bouncers. I corralled our entire lab into drinking 40s of OE from brown bags during our fall 2002 new-student open house. We played a drinking game. Every time our adviser trotted out one of his buzzwords du jour, everybody had a drink. Because he spoke a dialect comprised exclusively of buzzwords, the game was a raging success. Some great people ended up joining the lab that year.  

Big picture, though, let's be real here. The Harvard graduate chemistry crowd, a few notable exceptions aside (Dr. Chen and the Borg, those guys were maniacs), couldn't quite compete on the same field as Big Ten undergrads. Realistically, not many people can compete at that level. At the risk of stating the obvious, nor should people want to. 

Boston had a lot of bars, though, and I spent a lot of time at them. Drinking Guinness and Johnnie Walker, because I happened to like Guinness and Johnnie Walker. Do you see that shift? Now we're talking about drinking just because we like what we're drinking. Our biology tells us that, if we're to keep drinking, it's going to have to be on these terms and only these terms. We don't do binge-drinking anymore. We can't do it. By the time I was in law school, which I assure you would have been more enjoyable had I been drunk the entire time, I was largely drinking this way. The last time I drank a 40 was in 2005 on the Caltrain. I can't say I liked the drink, but I can say I liked the idea of drinking it on public transportation. 

The Real Zenith of Drinking

I'm turning 40 this year. Since my late 20s, I've enforced a three drink maximum with a fair degree of rigor. I panic with even faint anticipation of a hangover. I am, you see, committed to enjoy my drinking, and I refuse to do anything that will compromise the experience. The experience should always be good.

There's no reason it shouldn't be. We are living in a golden age of alcohol, and I can't imagine a better place to experience it than the Golden State. Wine has flourished here for decades, although truth be told I think Napa is awful. I prefer wine that tastes like dirt anyway, and the odds of getting a mouthful of dirt are better with French wine, so I get most of my wine at Kermit Lynch in Berkeley. Craft beer culture has simply exploded in the past ten years, and cocktail culture too. It seems like California is at the vanguard in every segment of the alcohol market, although the tide is rising throughout the country. 

And so we come to sake. A market segment that, for all intents and purposes, doesn't exist in the United States. But let me tell you, people, it needs to exist, it must exist. Sake should be huge. This isn't a drink that should be confined to occasional consumption at a sushi restaurant, or that deserves placement next to margarita mix and vermouth on the bottom shelf of the Safeway liquor aisle. Sake is an everyday drink. It goes down easier than wine, it pairs well with western food, and it's affordable. Sake, however, has a marketing problem, a foreignness problem. Sake's potential is obscured by kanji brushstrokes, unmemorable Japanese names, and technical nomenclature. We've decided that needs to change. 

In two months, we're opening The Periodic Table. Sake will be presented as something accessible and casual. We'll serve cheese, cured meats, pickles, all of which are great with sake, believe it or not. We'll educate people, try to break through the brushstroke barrier, and emphasize that you don't really need to care whether it's a junmai daiginjo or a junmai sake. It only matters whether you like the taste. Part of the project is to present it alongside local beer, to show how they can be consumed with the same food in the same casual setting. And, as an added and unexpected twist, we're now planning to do scotch-style Japanese whiskey too. Suntory Time in Emeryville.  

When I sat down to write this piece, I planned to dive right into sake. But unsure where to begin, and not quite ready to start the hard technical research, I started thinking about my life in drinking, and how I went from being a drunken post-adolescent Ohioan to opening a sake bar in the Bay Area. To me, the lesson of this history is that drinking is something everyone can enjoy, in different ways at different times in life. No matter how foreign a drink might seem, if you like it, then drink more of it. It's just a drink, after all.

Now we start on sake. Let's demystify, drink, and repeat. 

Shiba Ramen Oakland: The Final Product

We made it, I'm relieved to report. Shiba Ramen Oakland is up and running. Construction has been done for over a month, and we're fully open, more or less. Six days a week, at this point, until 8:30. Development is about to explode in Downtown Oakland, but the biggest projects are either just breaking ground or still at the Planning Commission. When more people move down there, we'll stay open later. Right now it doesn't really make sense. There just aren't that many people down there after work. 

Construction was taxing. We're glad it's over. These things always become much bigger than you expect them to be. They take longer, and they cost a lot more. There is copious angst. Your sense of time gets distorted. But once it's over, it's over, and there you are, a bit worse for the wear and a lot poorer. Now you've got to switch gears and start selling things. You've got to get your money back. But, hey, the space looks great and I love hanging out there. With Chef Danny Keiser on the job, the menu is growing, and with me and Hiroko on the job, the alcohol situation is quite promising.   

Design Concept to Final Product

We got deeply involved in every aspect of the design on this project. The stated objective was to move the design themes we'd started in the Emeryville kiosk toward a logical conclusion. The kiosk format was so limiting, and this was an opportunity to refine and extend the concept. The whole project was a collaboration between us and our design/build contractor LMNOP, with consulting input from our design partner Misa Grannis. Hiroko and I selected all the fixtures, finishes, and furniture, and with Misa's input, set the overall design parameters for the project. LMNOP pulled together the structural design and technical drawings, and then served as the general contractor. 

The signature feature of the space is an undulating basswood soffit, suspended by aircraft cables from a scaffolding. The soffit begins in the back of the restaurant, extends over the bar and POS, and then projects upward in multiple segments over the dining room. The front 1/3 of the dining room is open to the full height of the ceiling, with a 3-foot-diameter ball suspended overhead between the soffit and the front wall. The top of ball is visible from across the street through the clerestory windows--a striking scene at night--and you can still see the bottom of the ball throughout the restaurant. 

A design theme that resonates throughout the space is the use of hexagonal geometry. Hexagonal forms appear behind the bar, in the asanoha tile mosaic, in the bathroom parallelogram-based tile mosaic, in the bar stools, in the shadows cast by the central pendant lamp, and in the front window treatments.  

The Finishes

We looked at a staggering number of pendant lights on the internet. If you've ever looked for lights on the internet, you know there is an ocean of choices, and maybe you concluded, like we did, that most of them fall on a continuum somewhere between abhorrent and meh. The nice ones stand out, but you've got to work to find them. We picked pendants for three different applications in the space, and probably spent more time on those than any other element, if only wading through all the chaff on the internet.  

In the front of the space, we installed a 3-foot-diameter "Coral" sphere from David Trubridge in New Zealand.  It's made of 60 identical pieces of painted bamboo, each connected at 5 points, and it throws geometric shadows all over the adjacent walls.  Along the length of the dining room we installed 12 "Annular" pendants--six per side--from Dutch designer Woud, bought from some French distributor. Splendid customer service, I have to say. Thanks Fabrice! Finally, over the bar counter, we used four "Chouchin" pendants from Foscarini. These Italian lights, inspired by Japanese chouchin paper lamps, are the same ones we used in the original Shiba Ramen, but a different color and larger format.

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We chose three kinds of tile (floor, back bar wall, and bathroom walls), designed the bathroom mosaic, and assembled the back bar mosaic (wonderfully designed by Misa) at our house before transporting it in boxes to the site. The back bar tiles are Japanese imports in the asanoha pattern. They're the very same tiles we used in the Emeryville location, but we used five colors this time and the mosaic is about twice the size. The asanoha pattern also features in the window treatments in front of the restaurant. The bathroom mosaic is comprised of Spanish tiles manufactured by Natucer -- parallelograms arrayed in the forms of hexagons and six-pointed stars. We designed it to be rotationally symmetric--meaning if you rotate the image (in this case by 180 degrees: so-called "C2 symmetry"), the resulting image will be identical to the one you started with. Well, there's one point of asymmetry. Go visit Shiba Ramen and see if you can figure out what it is. There's a real organic chemistry influence in this mosaic.  

Wood is featured throughout the space, in the banquette seating, the butcher-block tables, the drink rails, and the slatted ash die walls under the bar.  And, of course, in that gorgeous soffit that dominates the scene. The bar counters are gray quartz -- silestone, specifically. For the furniture, we went with red geometric "Hot Mesh" bar stools from BluDot at the various counters and the community table, balanced by some relatively nondescript modern gray chairs at the low tables. We featured our Shiba red color in a few accents throughout the space -- front and back accent walls, the backlit-at-night storefront sign, and a giant Shiba Ramen logo in the back hallway.

There were countless other issues that came up along the way, not the least of which were redesigning the kitchen and dry storage and settling on an equipment package. The stereo system had to be put together and purchased. For that, I outsourced component selection to my audiophile friend. I sent him the dimensions of the space, and told him he had $2000 to work with, and he came up with a nice system (KEF Q-series speakers and Nuprime amplifier) that works well for the space. 

Finally, let's not forget the rounds of multi-party hand-wringing about the questionable code compliance of the building trash area's drainage system, almost leading to a serious issue with the landlord who (naturally) tried to disclaim responsibility, until the health department relented and made us buy a $500 trash can instead of doing a $40,000 sanitation upgrade to the building's exterior (i.e., not in our rented space). Deep breaths.  

Wrapping Up and Next Steps

And so, reader, we are open. Please come eat at Shiba Ramen Oakland. Buy some beer, but don't let it stop you from buying sake, too. Double-fisting is nothing to be ashamed of. To the contrary, it is something we practice ourselves, and something we encourage for you. To be clear, however, we are not promoting sake bombs. Goodness, no, that would be gauche. And make sure to order some of Chef Danny's house-made pickles, which arrived on the menu last week. They are outstanding, especially with sake.

With Oakland complete, Ramen Chemistry needs to move on to new topics. The construction barricade for The Periodic Table went up a few days ago, and excavation should start early this week. In that spirit, we need to dive into sake here in a serious way. Coming soon, I'll take readers on a tour of the Kenbishi sake brewery in Japan, where we spent an amazing morning with the owners last November. And, of course, we need to learn the ABCs of sake. Lots to talk about. Exciting.

p.s. A week after we opened, the next-door Foot Locker shut down. We're not sad. The space is for lease, and rumor has it the landlord is looking for a cocktail bar. Fingers crossed. That would be a nice synergy. 

Ramen Chemistry in Distraction. Also, We Opened Another Restaurant.

I think about Trump again.  When I do, I enter an ecstasy of horror and fascination. I revel in it. The sheer absurdity counterbalances the loathing and the terror, and gives me hope that, when we finally hear someone tell us "my fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over," the nightmare won't have gone on too long. Let's just hope the person delivering that message isn't Mike Pence! 

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What We Ate in Japan

On Shiba Ramen's trip to Japan last month, we had some memorable meals in Tokyo and Kyoto, and I gave myself free rein to act like a food fanatic, taking pictures of most things we ate. Sushi, ramen, tonkatsu, gyoza, cod sperm, raw chicken, and even Denny's. This is as close as I'm ever going to get to being an online food commentator. Please enjoy the photos! 

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Tokyo and the East

Tokyo. I can never get enough of that place. Repeat: never. If you've been, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, scroll down and you'll understand. Tokyo is a giant of a city in every respect. But despite its size, intimate scenes of nature and even of urbanity are around every corner. Its food is the best in the world, its gardens unparalleled. Oh, and make no mistake, it's crazy. Teeming streets and cultural oddities abound. 

Last month, we spent 48 high-intensity hours in Tokyo. We ate fabulously (without breaking the bank), visited glorious urban parks (Hama-rikyu Gardens and Shibakoen), strolled through the crowded streets of Ginza, Kabuki-cho, and Harakjuku, went shopping for restaurant supplies in Kappabashi and for Japanese finery in Tokyo Midtown, and spent an absolutely insane evening at the Robot Restaurant. In Tokyo, there is sushi for breakfast, and it is good.  

Hama-rikyu Gardens.  Once the private preserve of the Tokugawa shoguns.

Ginza architecture.

Oguni jinja. Hamamatsu, Shizuoka. Hiroko's hometown and our first stop in Japan before Kyoto and Tokyo. 

Hama-rikyu Gardens

Ginza

Robot Restaurant.

Hama-rikyu Gardens