The Agony of Summer; or, Where's My Money?

I've had enough of summer. The sunshine is all well and good, but I'm ready to move on. I don't mean to be a scrooge about the whole thing, but I'm not finding it all that satisfying at this point. Summer is bad for business. And I'm cooped up all the time. I can't even get out and enjoy the season. Not that it's all bad. Tomato season is almost here, and that's something to look forward to. I'm also into my garden. Amazing plants out there. 

I used to revel in the summer sun, so in that sense you could say I was a devotee of Apollo. But the Sun God and I have diverging interests, I'm somewhat surprised to find out. I'm generally one to follow my interests, so I pray to the Fog Gods now. Hope stirs when I see the first tendrils of fog creep over Twin Peaks; I am #blessed when it consumes the Golden Gate and barrels into the East Bay. Let it last through lunchtime tomorrow, and if afterward it should go away, let it be back by happy hour.  

The principal deities in my pantheon are the Rain Gods. Praise be unto them! Let us give sacrifice! The greater gift to the God of Cold Drizzle, the lesser to the God of Torrential Downpours. It is of great concern should the latter giveth too much. Biblical floods are bad for business, as is commonly known. I'm in the ramen business. Cold drizzle is the manna falling from my skies.  

I take solace in the fact that, as people are now wont to say, winter is coming.  Too bad it's only the beginning of August. There are still September heat waves to endure, a back-to-school slowdown, more of the massive, slow-burning construction outside our Emeryville store.  At least there isn't a realistic threat of baseball playoffs this year--the A's and the Giants are both terrible. Let's just get to the rainy season relatively unscathed, and then maybe we can start making some money, at least until the Warriors steal the attention of every jump-on-the-bandwagon fan in the East Bay, every other night for two months of literally endless NBA playoffs. Seriously, I never heard the word "Warriors" in my first decade in the Bay Area. Now they're great and every fucking person is walking around draped in blue and gold. It's bad enough that I'm a Cavs fan, but what I really can't abide is the impact of all this greatness on sales. 

The Warriors' victory parade went right by Shiba Ramen. 

The Warriors' victory parade went right by Shiba Ramen. 

So this is what's become of me. Shiba Ramen has been in operation for twenty months, and I now view everything, every public event and every shift in the weather, in terms of the likely impact on sales. I hypothesize about the influence of morning clouds on lunch volume. I'm an armchair psychologist.  Does commuting in dark conditions positively correlate to lunchtime ramen consumption, as compared to commuting under clear skies? Does the answer change depending on the season? Do clouds have a bigger impact in summer (i.e., to what degree do you have to correct for expectations about weather)?? 

I imagine myself as a SuperFriends arch-villain, some diabolical Doctor Drizzle. I'm building a giant machine on a remote volcanic island, capable of controlling Earth's climate. My sinister goal is to create a perpetual state of Perfect Ramen Weather,  all to increase ramen sales, so as to accelerate the moment at which I can finally take a fucking vacation, and buy a car on which both side mirrors haven't been knocked off. I actually have such a car. The engine light has been on since 2015, and it's wearing a spare tire. 

What is money, and why is it needed? 

Money is something I do not have. I used to have it. Unfortunately, I still require it for things like "eating," which I must continue to do if I want to remain alive long enough to get my money back from Shiba Ramen. I want to get my money back from Shiba Ramen. I also require it for things like "shelter" and "preschool."  In a year, mercifully, I will enroll my child in public kindergarten. Even so, I will likely still need money.  

Where is the money? 

People took it. More accurately, I gave it to Shiba Ramen Corporation, which in turn gave it to people in exchange for goods and services. The number of such "people," defined to include corporate entities, to whom I regularly give money is staggering. Everybody gets in on the action. The many heads of the governmental hydra are first in line, followed closely by insurance companies, banks, and landlords. The employees eat the most, though, by far, and the minimum wage keeps rising. There are contractors, subcontractors, architects and engineers. And just when you've paid them, the government swings by for another bite, this time for some tax you didn't know you had to pay. Your last dollar goes to Waste Management, which charges a rate that reeks of noncompetitive bidding and municipal corruption.   

When everyone has finished eating, there are no leftovers. Well, sometimes there are leftovers, other times there aren't. Sometimes you have to pay just to have the privilege of feeding everybody. Also, technically, most of the above-identified diners never really stop eating. The contractors do if you stop building things, but everyone else will be back for breakfast tomorrow.

This is what happened to my money. I assume similar things happen to other people's money.  

Below: Summer hasn't been without highlights. Shiba Ramen had a stall at Umami Mart's matsuri festival, and the Shiba Party was incredible. 

Where can I get money? 

I have the sense that the more I seek money, the less of it I will have. That's certainly true as a historical statement over the past three years. But I'm at my limit of being able to live like this, and my personal flow of dollars to the business needs to stop. It isn't sustainable.

The good news is that a year of non-stop real estate development is wrapping up by the end of the month. I'm not sure what exactly we were thinking last summer when we signed two leases at the same time. Naturally, we underestimated how much it would all cost and how long it would take for everything to come together. That's how these things go. If your initial estimate is accurate, you might scare yourself out of taking a risk, and you might miss a good opportunity! You need to indulge in a bit of sugarcoating if you want to get anything big done. 

A year after signing the lease, The Periodic Table is just a couple weeks from opening. Finally. I hope we'll sell a lot of booze, but I don't know how long it will take to get the word out and start drawing people to Public Market to drink and spend time in the evenings. We're investing in a big PR push starting this month to promote the concept. We also decided to sell a burger (something the Market currently lacks) as a means to get some lunch traffic while we work on driving alcohol sales. We had been planning to only offer a few small-plate sides, but it's imperative that we capitalize on the crowd that makes up the bulk of the Market's traffic.

Dinner in the garden is pretty nice, too. Grilling tai snapper, with oysters and great beer.  

Dinner in the garden is pretty nice, too. Grilling tai snapper, with oysters and great beer.  

The other good piece is that labor costs are going to be way, way lower than Shiba Ramen. Almost nothing has to be prepared in advance. The bad news is that we have to start paying the bank that financed The Periodic Table. We just got the last disbursement from our credit line, so the company has to pay the final contractor invoices itself just when we start getting the bank's bill.  

Whatever. I plan on selling good alcohol, and I'm confident in the capacity of humankind to seek out and consume good alcohol. The most significant thing is that the rainy season is only two months away, and that points to a coming renaissance for ramen sales. The summer days are getting shorter, back to school is in the air. Some evenings, when the fog comes in, you can almost believe it's October. October is the first rain, and October is what I'm shooting for. October is also when the worst of Public Market's construction is scheduled to be over. October can't come soon enough. 

   

Learning the Sake ABCs at Japan's Oldest Brewery

Let's learn about sake. Are you ready? I am. I'm also interested in drinking some, but that's beside the point. I have a beer in my hand, so I'll have to give myself a raincheck, for at least the next half hour.

I'm going to go through the sake-brewing process, from start to finish, with a case study based on our trip last fall to Kenbishi, Japan's oldest sake brand. Kenbishi, located west of Osaka in Hyogo Prefecture, has been brewing sake since 1505. The name Kenbishi means "sword diamond," and they've used the same iconic sword-diamond logo for hundreds of years. You can actually see it in some old Edo-period woodblock prints, like the famous Utamaro print below, now at the New York Met.. This is sake with history, a classic brand paired with centuries of technical expertise. The product itself is bold and distinctive, and made a real impression on me even before our trip there. 

Kenbishi's current owners--the fourth family to own the brewery--are dedicated stewards of a half-millennium tradition. Masataka and Noriko Shirakashi generously spent four hours with us, giving us a private step-by-step, room-by-room tour of the entire sake-making process, followed by a sake tasting. It was an incredible experience, and a surprisingly intimate one. We learned a ton, not only about how sake is made, but also about how well it pairs with Western foods like cured meats and cheeses. Because they let us bring our camera along for the tour, we have a great photo record to accompany the sake story, and hopefully make it easier to follow.

Sake Brewing Basics

Before we enter the kura (sake brewery), let's make sure we understand some basic sake principles. Sake is a drink made by fermenting rice, which has been milled to remove the outer layers. The fermentation process used to make sake is known as "double-parallel" fermentation. This means two types of fermentation are necessary to make sake, and they happen in the same pot at the same time. First, the starches in rice must be converted into simple sugars. This process is carried out by a fungus, known as koji. Second, as with other alcoholic beverages, yeast (also a fungus) is used to convert sugars to ethanol. 

The end product results from controlling an astounding number of variables: the variety of rice, the amount of rice milled, the rice cooking process, the rice moisture content, the species of koji and yeast used, the quality of the water, filtration, pasteurization, aging, and much more. The dedication to the craft, the attention to detail at every step in the process, is the hallmark of sake-making. At Kenbishi, the commitment to traditional methods is on full display. Instead of using synthetic, off-the-shelf ropes for its sake barrels, Kenbishi makes its own ropes in-house. It still manufactures its own rice-steaming barrels and wooden warming elements, just as it has for hundreds of years. No corners are cut, the commitment to the craft drives every step of the process.  

We visited Kenbishi's primary kura, one of four. Incredibly, Kenbishi saw huge damage in the 1995 Kobe earthquake. At that time, they had eight kuras. Only one survived. A devastating loss, and one that could easily spell the end for a business. But with 500 years of tradition, the strength of its brand, and the quality of its product, Kenbishi pulled itself up and rebuilt. Today it is thriving. Across four brewing sites, Kenbishi has about sixty permanent employees. During the winter months, peak brewing season, that number doubles with the addition of seasonal workers. 

Rice Milling

The first step in making sake is milling the rice down to its starchy core. The milling strips the outer layers, which contain proteins, fats, and other impurities that can compromise the taste of the final product. The process is performed using a milling machine like the one shown below. The powdered outer layers are not discarded; they are used in various cooking applications, for livestock feed, etc. 

If you've seen the terms ginjo or daiginjo on a menu, they are indicators of the percentage of rice milled.  Ginjo means the sake uses rice milled to at least 60% of its original volume; daiginjo to at least 50%. Often sake is referred to as being "premium" the closer it gets to a daiginjo. The important thing to understand, though, is that this doesn't mean a daiginjo sake is better, or that you'll like it more. It just means (a) it costs more to make because less of the rice grain is used, and (b) it's likely to have a cleaner taste with more of the grain's outer impurity-containing layers having been removed.  In other words, ginjo and daiginjo refer to manufacturing styles (and, relatedly, Japanese regulatory and labeling distinctions) rather than to the rank of the sake.

Kenbishi only mills its rice to a bit over 70% of its original volume, and the sake has a big, complex taste. They adjust the exact milling rate each year to make the best use of the rice harvested that year.

Rice Steaming

Once the rice is milled to the desired level, it has to be steamed. Remarkable care is taken to control the steaming process, because the ultimate moisture content imparted to the rice is critical for the success of subsequent fermentation processes. Kenbishi, with its focus on traditional methods, steams rice using large cedar barrels, called koshiki.  They believe the wooden koshiki is a superior vessel, because it prevents condensation and absorbs excess water.  They steam their rice in the very early morning, to take advantage of cold air coming down from the nearby mountains. It helps with temperature control. 

Amazingly, Kenbishi's wooden koshiki are all made by an in-house craftsman, using traditional methods. This particular craftsman is the only person alive today with the know-how to make these things. As it turns out, he's quite old, so for the past five years, he has been training others at Kenbishi to carry on this craft tradition after he's gone. Now Kenbishi is in a position to keep its historical brewing methods alive into the future.

Koji

Once the rice is cooked, a portion is used to make koji. This is done in a special room, which feels a lot like a sauna or a steam room. It's essentially a huge cedar box, kept at elevated temperature and humidity. The brewers begin the process by working the koji spores into the rice by hand. This painstaking manual procedure is necessary to achieve uniform coverage across all grains of rice. The rice is then placed into little open cedar boxes, which are moved around the room four times a day for 4-5 days. This constant rotation is necessary to make sure all the grains of rice are exposed to the same environmental conditions, to promote uniform koji growth. When the growing process is complete, the koji rice is set aside for use in the fermentation tank. 

Somewhat surprisingly, we were allowed into the koji room during our tour. It was steamy in there, and you get the sense of how demanding it must be for the brewers to spend so much time in this hot space working around the clock to assure optimal distribution and growth of the koji fungus. We were invited to touch and taste the finished koji rice. You can see in the picture how the look of the rice has changed; it appears to be covered in a matte-opaque white material, and has become a bit clumpy. The taste was pleasant, sort of sweet, and the texture a bit chewy. 

Yeast Starter

The next step is to make the yeast starter, also known as shubo. This is the first step that makes it clear alcohol is being brewed. The yeast starter is an oatmeal-like concoction of steamed rice, koji rice, and water, in which yeast propagates. This is where parallel fermentation takes place: the koji is breaking down the rice, converting the starch to sugar, while the yeast is simultaneously taking the koji-produced sugar and converting it to alcohol.  

At Kenbishi, the preparation of the yeast starter takes about a month. Most other breweries do it in about half the time because, unlike Kenbishi, they physically mash the rice during the fermentation process, exposing the interior of the grain to the koji enzymes. The process involves a traditional method of slow, indirect heating, using wooden jugs periodically filled with boiling water. Once again, Kenbishi is uniquely traditional here, because they employ the only craftsman in Japan who can still make these wooden jugs.

From a scientific perspective, a lot of cool stuff is happening in the yeast starter, which I'll write about in detail later. 

Fermentation Mash

When the yeast starter is complete, it is time for bulk fermentation. Now the process moves to significantly larger tanks, into which yeast starter, koji, steamed rice, and water are added in three intervals over a four-day period. The reason for the intervals is that the transfer to a bigger vessel with more surface area puts stress on the yeast, which need time to adjust to changed environmental conditions. The moromi mash is kept in the tank for about three weeks. At this point, it's time for final processing.

Finishing the Sake

With fermentation complete, the mash is filtered to remove residual solid particulates. There are a number of ways to perform the filtration; Kenbishi uses the press filtration machine in the image below. Be aware, though, that not all sake is filtered to clearness. You may have encountered niigori sake, which is cloudy as a result of filtration using a coarser mesh.  

Following filtration, the sake is pasteurized. Not only does this heating process kill bacteria, it stops enzymatic activity in the sake, which helps stabilize product quality. Some breweries also filter their products over charcoal, which helps remove organic impurities and clear up the sake's color. Finally, Kenbishi transfers the sake to large tanks, where they age it before bottling. Their popular kuromatsu product is aged for less than a year, but they have another product that's aged for up to fifteen years.  

So now we've gone through the entire sake-making process. It's safe to say the main contours of the process at Kenbishi are representative of how sake is made generally. The steps always include rice milling and steaming, the preparation of koji, and then the yeast starter, before moving on to bulk fermentation. The fine details of an individual brewery's processes, combined with variations in rice, water, microbes, etc., together contribute to each sake's unique characteristics. There are obviously more subtleties to Kenbishi's process, which are too detailed to go into here.   

Sake Tasting, With a Surprise

After our tour, we sat down with the Shirakashis for a sake tasting. We tried six products, each aged for different periods of time. Only a couple of them (kuromatsu and kuromatsu mizuho) are available in the U.S. Kenbishi's basic product, kuromatsu, is a bold, rich drink, but it was the lightest sake we tried. Most striking was a sake that had been aged for more than five years, taking on a golden hue and delivering a powerful sensory experience. Not quite a brandy or a liqueur, but trending in that direction relative to most sake out there.  

The most eye-opening part of our tasting was that Kenbishi paired its sake with Western foods--blue cheese, Camembert, prosciutto--in addition to some Japanese items, like pickled sea urchin and fermented squid (ika no shiokara). All of these cured or fermented high-umami foods paired well with Kenbishi's strong sake, with the richest sake pairing best with the richest foods, the blue cheese and the sea urchin.

The point is that Kenbishi chooses to showcase its products in an international context, drawing on food pairings best suited to the sake, and disregarding the artificial barrier between this Japanese drink and Western cuisine. Kenbishi is being forward thinking here. It realizes, as a matter of business, that the future of sake is a global one. At the same time the Japanese sake industry sees a shrinking market at home, sake is starting to gain a foothold in the uncharted West, with Americans and Europeans starting to drink it more seriously.  Perhaps not surprisingly, we just saw Shirakashi-san at the JFC sake expo in the Bay Area last month, and his Facebook feed says he's been in LA and Italy in the weeks since then.

Kenbishi reveres tradition when it comes to making its product, but it's positioning itself at the vanguard of sake's big extraterritorial expansion. For both of these things, we tip our hats and raise our glasses. Kanpai!    

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.

32818033131_4ad565fb94_h.jpg

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! 

Read More