Shiba Ramen Update from 38,000 Feet

We are somewhere over the Pacific, maybe halfway between Tokyo and San Francisco. I like it here. It’s dark, I have a bottle of my favorite [non-alcoholic] drink, Ito-En Oi Ocha green tea.  A cinnamon roll beckons at my right. Music is playing. I played math puzzles on my sumaho, then scrolled through the hundreds of photos I took in Japan.  There is no Internet [my choice], no toddler, and nobody needing me to write a brief, sign a document, or cut a massive check.  As far as I know, there is nobody on this airplane I need to yell at, although I’m quite sure there are people on the ground who have something coming to them. Perhaps best of all, Donald Trump is nowhere to be seen; I am blissfully unaware of which unqualified individual he appointed to lead a federal agency today.  In short, life on United 876 is pretty good. 

Hama-Rikyu Gardens. This used to be the private Tokyo park of the Tokugawa shoguns.

Hama-Rikyu Gardens. This used to be the private Tokyo park of the Tokugawa shoguns.

I’ll tell you something: I needed this trip.  People tell you not to bite off more than you can chew.  That’s good advice, but it’s often hard to know in advance just how much you can fit in your mouth.  I tend to assume my mouth is big. It’s not cavernous, but it’s definitely oversized. In 2016, I’ve been exploring the limits of my capacity.  I’m working through a massive bite right now, and I think I’m going to make it through, but my jaws are seriously aching.  Just as we were coming up for air from opening Shiba Ramen almost exactly a year ago, we signed not just one, but two new leases in August.  The first was for our downtown Oakland Shiba Ramen, set to open in roughly January.  The second was something of a calculated lark, the kiosk adjoining the original Shiba in Emeryville Public Market, to do an entirely new concept—The Period Table, our taproom and sake bar.  These two excellent opportunities came up at the same time. Were we supposed to turn one down?  

Unsurprisingly, each project requires a not insubstantial amount of blood and treasure.  Also unsurprisingly, the amount of each is quite indeterminate until you’ve traveled well past the point of no return.  So I’m out looking for money.  Lots and lots of money.  I’m learning where money hides, and I’m learning how to flush it out.  People keep wanting more of it, so I need to keep finding more of it.  That’s the way it goes.

Shiba Ramen Oakland.  Should be finished in January.

Shiba Ramen Oakland.  Should be finished in January.

In the meantime, we have to execute the projects.  Shiba Oakland has been the big one.  It’s been a live design-build scenario since Labor Day.  That is, the design is unfolding as the construction happens.  We're taking over a café that went out of business, but even though a lot of infrastructure was in place, it’s a huge renovation.  Total makeover of dining room and bathroom, all new kitchen equipment and corollary plumbing and electrical work, and significant upgrades to storage.  In addition to overseeing the contractors’ execution of the project, we have spent positively inordinate amounts of time choosing all the finishes, fixtures, and furniture.  You cannot imagine how many pendant lights we’ve looked at; the Internet is a vast sea of them, and 99.9% are no good for one reason or another.  Anyway, there are worse ways to spend your time.

The Periodic Table project, mercifully, is on a staggered timeframe.  This is a full buildout from a cold dark shell, not a renovation.  The architecture has to be done and permits obtained before anything can be built, and that’s a still-ongoing process.  The only bills have been for the architects.  Construction will happen this winter-spring.  The architects curated most of the finishes and fixtures, but we did go pretty deep ourselves looking for pendant lights.  It’s unavoidable.

Would you believe it if I told you we’ve been negotiating even more deals for new Shiba Ramen locations?  Of course you would.  It’s the natural order of things.

Robot Restaurant.  Crazy and totally worth it. Kabuki-cho. Tokyo. 

Robot Restaurant.  Crazy and totally worth it. Kabuki-cho. Tokyo. 

Now here’s the real problem: the monasticism that pulling all this off requires.  Recall I’m a practicing lawyer, so I need to bill my hours.  My firm (thanks, DWT!) lets me work at home, which is great as a time-saving measure.  The downside is that I spend unhealthy amounts of time alone at home in front of a computer, doing one or the other of my jobs, often too tired and stressed to be as efficient as I want to be.  When my kid comes home from school at 5:30, I usually just give up until he goes to bed.  Then the gravitational pull of the computer kicks in again, and more progress is made in fits and starts.  I drink too much sake and stay up way too late.  The next day invariably proceeds according to the template set by the last.  Things are better or worse depending on how many cooks have called off at Shiba Ramen on a given day—a staggeringly bad problem—and thus how much time Hiroko has to spend at the restaurant cutting onions or peeling eggs.

And let’s not forget the backdrop to this year’s stint in solitary: watching the Great American Trainwreck unfold in slow motion on the Internet, compulsively checking an ever-expanding roster of websites, distraction begetting distraction, escalating through September and October, and reaching critical mass on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.  The nauseating palpability of our National catastrophe savaged my productivity in the days that followed.  At least in this, I’m certain I was not alone. 

But now I have been to Japan, and I feel good.  Today I was eating four different kinds of toro at 9:30 a.m., photographing red leaves and white herons in a gorgeous urban park after that.  I had amazing tours at three sake factories.  I saw a show at the Robot Restaurant.  I visited Hiroko’s parents, the original hipsters, in their artisanal/local/sustainable 19th Century world where they make their own charcoal and salt, and grow a substantial percentage of their own food.  Twice I ate fugu and survived the threat of tetrodotoxin, and twice I ate the seasonal delicacy—soft roe—a coiled membrane filled with cod sperm.  I am outfitted with sake bottles and sake glasses, and the enjoyment of Japan will continue when I land. 

For the moment at least, I'm excited to see my dogs and my tyrant 4-year-old.  This exceptionally long day started with sushi breakfast, and it's going to end with cheeseburgers and milkshakes.  Hello California.

Pre-Flight Breakfast. Sushizanmai, Ginza, Tokyo.  Sushizanmai is a chain of sushi restaurants in and around the Tsukiji fish market.  The sushi is amazing and it's a great value.  

Pre-Flight Breakfast. Sushizanmai, Ginza, Tokyo.  Sushizanmai is a chain of sushi restaurants in and around the Tsukiji fish market.  The sushi is amazing and it's a great value.  

Postscript, 3 Days Later: In the three days between writing this post and its publication today, I've decided I'm pretty much ready to leave again.  

Postscript, 4 Days Later: Ben Carson appointed as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.  The Rapture really may be upon us.  

The Golden-Haired Dictator and the End of the Republic

The Republican mode of government, its system of checks and balances subject to facile subversion, was accelerating toward a critical existential moment.  The institutions of state, were made for a different and simpler time.  But they remained jealously preserved by the small slice of historically entrenched interests that controlled them, even as they proved increasingly inadequate. At the same time, state policy itself cloaked the traditional politician-general in the raiment of the warlord, placing the Republic in the crossfire of armed and ambitious rivals.   And nobody was as ambitious, as bold, or as ruthless as Lucius Cornelius Sulla.

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The Past Is Chemistry, the Future Is the Periodic Table

More than a decade before we ever thought to open a ramen restaurant, back in the days when Donald Trump's best-known line was "You're Fired," we were organic chemists.  I met Hiroko in the summer of 2002, at the tail end of a miserable July 4 Boston heatwave.  She had arrived from Japan for a postdoctoral year over the holiday weekend, and was there in lab getting set up when I came back from a summer trip to my native Akron, Ohio.  Unlike today, her English wasn't very good.  Much like today, my Japanese was non-existent.  Well, in 2002 it was totally non-existent, and now it's only relatively so.  

Despite the language barrier, we got to know each other pretty well, with the assistance of two things: chemistry and beer.  Hiroko worked with me on my PhD project, the total synthesis of a complex small molecule, Norzoanthamine.  

After lab we and our chemist friends excelled, like many graduate students, at drinking. Hiroko had a surprisingly good tolerance, given how skinny she was.  And at 24, I not yet accepted what was becoming increasingly clear: that my body was not made for binge drinking.  That winter I had ramen for the first time, at a place in the little Japanese mall in Porter Square.  At the time I thought that first ramen was so amazing, but Hiroko assures me it was terrible.  And man did we drink a lot of Guinness.  And Harpoon and Sam Adams.  We were in Boston, after all.  That Xmas, Hiroko came to Ohio, where she was so very fortunate to witness the Ohio State Buckeyes defeat the Miami Hurricanes for their first national title since 1968.  That spring, I made my first trip to Japan.  

Norzoanthamine.  Alkaloid molecule isolated from a sea anemone.  

Norzoanthamine.  Alkaloid molecule isolated from a sea anemone.  

Fast forward thirteen years, and we're married with two dogchildren and one real child. Norzoanthamine never got made, despite the awesome boron-catalyzed diastereoselective Diels-Alder reaction we developed together to make the molecule's core six-membered ring.  I moved on from science as a career in 2005 when I arrived in the Bay Area for law school. Hiroko quit research the next year, when she left her pharma job in Japan to join me in California--where, incidentally and somewhat shockingly, we rented an apartment in downtown Palo Alto for a paltry $1500/month.  Hiroko worked in a consulting job for Japanese biotech companies for a few years, and for a brief while I dabbled in chemistry in the context of pharma litigation.  But a couple things have not changed in all this time.  I still use the Sigma-Aldrich company Periodic Table mousepad I had in graduate school.  We still love science.  And of course we drink a lot of beer.  

Future Site of The Periodic Table.  Taproom and sake bar right there next to Shiba Ramen.  Just put a hole in the wall to send over Shiba Wings.  Photo of a recent beer event we had with 21st Amendment and Triple Voodoo B

Future Site of The Periodic Table.  Taproom and sake bar right there next to Shiba Ramen.  Just put a hole in the wall to send over Shiba Wings.  Photo of a recent beer event we had with 21st Amendment and Triple Voodoo B

The Periodic Table

When the opportunity to develop a taproom in Emeryville Public Market unexpectedly came up this summer, you won't be surprised to learn that we jumped at it.  After a series of long post-toddler-bedtime conversations, we came up with a taproom and sake bar concept, appropriately called The Periodic Table.  

The Periodic Table will be in the kiosk right next to Shiba Ramen, but because it will have no kitchen, there will be space for a full bar counter and other inside seating.  We'll operate 10-15 rotating taps, mostly featuring craft beer from the robust Bay Area scene, alongside selections from Japan and elsewhere.  We'll use Shiba Ramen's kitchen to make bar bites: Shiba Wings, of course, along with pickles and other tasty things tbd. 

But beer is only half the story.  We see The Periodic Table as a forum to bring sake to the American consumer.  Sake [pronounced sa-keh, not sa-kee] is still the province of sushi restaurants and boutique shops.  Bottles are branded with Japanese names and characters, making it next to impossible for anyone but a true connoisseur to distinguish between one product and the next. When you go to the grocery store, if there's any sake on the shelf, it's probably a mediocre American-made product buried on a bottom shelf, somewhere near the vermouth or the margarita mix.    

That's a tragic state of affairs.  Sake is delicious and a natural substitute for white wine.  If anything, it goes down easier than a glass of chardonnay.  But to change consumption patterns, somebody needs to present sake in a familiar domestic context, and make it as easy as possible for people to give it a shot.  More than that, somebody needs to figure out how to brand sake to get non-connoisseurs to recognize and remember products.  That's the challenge we're undertaking with The Periodic Table. 

Just the Beginning.  Shiba Ramen's Japanese drink collection.  This is a good start for sake, but we've got a lot of ground to cover at The Periodic Table.  

Just the Beginning.  Shiba Ramen's Japanese drink collection.  This is a good start for sake, but we've got a lot of ground to cover at The Periodic Table.  

And now to come back to where we started: chemistry.  The Periodic Table will build on the "chemists start a ramen shop" theme we've explored with Ramen Chemistry, in a context--alcohol--readily suited to association with science.  We're working with a fabulous team of Oakland-based architects and designers at Arcsine to create an awesome space that blends design inspiration from chemistry and Japan. 

We expect to start construction this winter and be open by Summer 2017.  In the meantime, we'll be doing sake-tasting pop-ups in The Periodic Table's future space.  The first one is this coming Friday, October 14.  Of course, you can still get great sake and craft beer seven days a week at Shiba Ramen.

We'll have lots of updates on Ramen Chemistry as The Periodic Table project unfolds.  Until then, kanpai!

Summer Digest: Ruined Sleep and Big Shiba News

It's 8:19 p.m., Saturday night. My 3-year-old has been in bed for 30 minutes already, after spending the previous three hours flopping around the house, climbing all over me, and pouting because I wouldn't let him cheat at our game of Busytown ("no, you got a 2, not a 1, and you cannot take that shortcut!").  When his wild cavorting continued unabated at the dinner table, I offered him the choice between eating dinner and going to bed.  Miraculously, unbelievably, he chose bed.  He's rarely in bed before 10. Generally unstoppable, this kid, he's exhausting.  

A couple of hours ago, I'm trying to nap on the couch, my head buried deep under a pile of pillows. The child can't sit still; now he's rolling over my legs, now he's sitting upside down on my back. "Daddy, I'm having three more gummy bears."  "Daddy, when will you play with me?"  "Daddy, are you napping?"  Episodes of the Octonauts play in a continuous stream on TV.  Creature Report! Creature Report! Octonauts at ease, until the next adventure!

Yes, child, I am napping. The dog woke me up again this morning. This time at 6:20. Less than five hours of sleep. I awake to the pitter patter of little dogfeet, circling around my head.  Now the dog is sitting on my head.  Now he's repositioned himself, on the other side of my head. I get up and open the doggie door. But it doesn't solve the problem. Dog repeats pacing and head-sitting on and off for 30 minutes. He's relentless.  

I get up. Now it's around 7:00. I go to the child's room, knowing that even if I can go back to sleep in my own bed with this maniacal pacing dog, 7:30 will roll around and I'll be awoken to "Daddy, come sleep in my bed!" I'll preempt this, I think, I'll go to his bed and if he wakes up, he'll see me and he won't yell. But I can't shake the dog, he follows me. Now he's sitting on the child's head, a minute later he's circling mine. The child of course is awake. "Daddy, change me!" He goes to the bathroom. "Daddy, I peed on the floor!" There is an awful lot of pee on the floor. He wasn't joking. "You need to make sure you point your wiener into the potty next time, ok?" Well, that's does it, doesn't it? Now we're awake.  

Pattern Disturbances

These things have been happening every day, more or less, for weeks. The child won't come into our bed in the morning anymore. He's scared of an owl-themed wallpaper strip on our wall. It's kids wallpaper, as a matter of fact. We switched rooms with him earlier this summer, but the walls are still bedecked with forest creatures and the Very Hungry Caterpillar. Who has time to redecorate? The big news in this room is the Inada Dreamwave, the Japanese massage chair we bought last spring in our most magnificent impulse/non-impulse purchase of all time.  Anyway, the child yells for me--always me--as soon as he reaches a threshold level of consciousness each day.  I frequently find myself waking up in his bed in the morning, having no idea how I got there.  

Meanwhile, the dog is getting crazier by the day. These kinds of early morning wake-ups used to happen only in the rare case of a doggie door emergency. But now it's not about the dog's need to relieve himself. He wants something else. Food? Could be food. Could be he's developed some phobia about me sleeping. I think it could be a bit of both, but who knows, he's a dog. If he's so damn hungry, there's kibble in his bowl.  I tell him he's an asshole. Meaningless to him, but still makes me feel better. On the subject of assholes, his is probably millimeters away from my ear; his tail is draped over my face. Go eat your kibble. Asshole.

At Least There's This!  Thanks Japan. You have amazing technology.

At Least There's This!  Thanks Japan. You have amazing technology.

Each day brings different permutations of the same events. Last Tuesday, I'm sitting at the computer at 10:00 a.m. Home office. I'm writing a brief, but I can't put two thoughts together. I call for an emergency power nap. Didn't I just wake up? Why do I need a nap already? Now I'm on the couch, face down with my fleece pulled over my head.  I'm in a dark space, breathing deeply, trying to ignore the dog on my head.

Ten minutes later, I'm back at my desk, refreshed. I have no idea if I fell asleep. There is a period of productivity.  At 3:00 I pick up the child from preschool, which exhausts me. I return to the couch, my head is under a giant Marimekko pillow. The child sits down on my back and turns on the TV. This time, I fall asleep immediately.  Thirty minutes later, I'm back at my desk again, feeling better than I have all day. Now I'm productive again, so that's a plus. Great to be back on the clock. 

By the way, Tuesday was our tenth wedding anniversary. Not an insignificant event, but did either of us remember? I did at 10 p.m. Right around the time the child, having been rendered somewhat delirious by a cold late that afternoon, peed in his bed. We changed the sheets, opened some sake. Kanpai! Suddenly it's after 1 a.m., and a surprising amount of sake is gone. We're having a great time. The next morning we both wake up with the child's cold. The rest of the week is a slog. 

No, Your Shift Is Not Optional

So back to tonight, Saturday. We have yet to account for the entire Ramen Chemistry nuclear family. Saturday evening is usually family time, is it not? Time for giving our child the iPad and unlimited tortilla chips to keep him occupied while we have margaritas and shrimp enchiladas. That sort of thing.

Chef Hiroko, it turns out, is pulling an unexpected shift as Shiba Ramen's dishwasher. The scheduled dishwasher called off at the last minute, claiming he was "required to attend a meeting at his other job," which prevented him from sleeping, and now he's just too tired to work his shift. Maybe I'm naive, but I thought he was required to attend his job with us. I guess our published schedule is just a list of suggested work times, an aspirational document, an invitation to folks who want to make a few extra bucks on the weekend. 

This isn't the first time he's done this. In fact, it's the second Saturday night he's sabotaged for us in the past month. "I hope you understand," he texted me this morning. No, I don't understand. You're fired.   

That's Right, Shiba Ramen is coming to Oakland.

That's Right, Shiba Ramen is coming to Oakland.

At Least I Have Exciting News!

So what's the upshot here? This evening's otherwise unfortunate circumstances gave me an unexpected gift: 90 minutes alone at home to write for Ramen Chemistry. I've been absent from this site all summer. I've been occupied, mostly as described above, but not entirely.

And here is where we come to an announcement. Are you ready? We just closed a lease deal for Shiba Ramen's second location, a full (non-kiosk) restaurant space in Oakland, specifics coming soon. Last Monday I picked up the keys. By Friday, the contractors had finished demolition, and the space design is in the works. Alcohol license application goes in this week. It's happening. 

Oh, and there's something else. Another real estate opportunity came up earlier this summer, although not for another Shiba Ramen. The opportunity forced us to come up with an entirely new non-ramen concept, and we're a couple weeks away from closing the deal to make it a reality. We're really excited about this one.

More to come on both projects in the coming weeks. We're going to have a lot to talk about this fall.