A Modern Twist on Traditional Japanese Comfort Food

If you associate ramen with those cellophane-wrapped packets of dried noodles that are a staple of dorm-room sustenance, your perceptions will be turned upside down when you dig into a steaming bowl of this traditional Japanese-style meal as prepared by the chefs at Sebastopol’s Ramen Gaijin. A new image of ramen will forever eclipse the old, and your taste-buds will cheer! Each dish is lovingly prepared from house-made ingredients and beautifully presented, honoring traditional Japanese ramen, but made with prime local ingredients. And there’s much more than ramen to explore here, with izakaya—Japanese-style pub food—and unusual cocktails and seasonal tonics made from Japanese teas, spirits and ginger beer.

This delightful jewel of an eatery is the brainchild of a pair of young chefs, both with extensive experience in California-style fine dining, who are offering a completely different culinary experience, served in a community- and family-oriented setting. Moishe Hahn-Schuman and Matthew Williams, co-owners of Sebastopol’s Ramen Gaijin, met while working at Woodfour Brewery, under former executive chef Jamil Peden. They realized that their lives followed similar trajectories and they shared a common goal of having their own restaurant. Meeting when they did at Woodfour was serendipitous.

Both chefs are under 40, and both are married with small children; they understood the challenges and pressures of juggling the long hours of the restaurant business with raising a family. “We had common ground. The communication was good and we felt we could get along,” Hahn-Schuman told me when we spoke in late November on Ramen Gaijin’s heated patio that opens to Sebastopol’s Town Plaza.
Prior to cooking at Woodfour, Hahn-Schuman had a pop-up restaurant at the Casino in Bodega Bay, focused around soulful, honest food. He’d learned his craft on the job at high-end restaurants here in wine country, and in San Francisco and Hawaii. Then, taking his cooking in an entirely different direction, he’d started a program at Summerfield Waldorf School to prepare food for kindergarteners, high school students, and faculty, sourcing produce grown by the students from the school’s “incredible” biodynamic farm. In contrast to cooking at the fancier restaurants, running the program at Summerfield showed Hahn-Schuman that “I could enjoy myself with food in a way that is more meaningful and less pretentious.”

Matthew Williams started working in restaurants at age 15 in Boulder, Colorado, and supported himself by cooking at several European-style restaurants there while studying journalism at the University of Colorado. After graduating and working as a journalist, “I found I was happier in a kitchen than behind a desk,” he said. He studied in the Culinary School of the Rockies, then staged [interned] in southern France at two Michelin-starred restaurants, L’Oustau de Baumaniere and La Cabro D’Or in St. Remy.

He moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, staging at Fifth Floor restaurant in the Hotel Palomar. He then went to Seattle to take a sous chef position at Kimpton Hotel’s Tulio Restaurant. “I was there for two years, and learned a lot. Then I had the opportunity to open Tilth, working for Executive Chef Maria Hines.” Williams spent 1-1/2 years at Tilth, briefly moved to Portland, and returned to Seattle to become executive chef (and minority investor) at Beato, where he met his wife, Lauren Klopp-Williams. The couple spent four months in Italy and decided to settle in Sebastopol where Klopp-Williams’ father grows Pinot Noir grapes on his Klopp Ranch. Williams cooked at Sebastopol’s Zazu, Meadowood in Napa, the Duck Club in Bodega Bay, and Osteria Stellina in Pt. Reyes before cooking at Woodfour in Sebastopol, where he met Hahn-Schuman.

“So we met, and we’d go out to eat together,” said Hahn-Schuman. They ate at a lot of Ramen shops in San Francisco. “Ramen was kind of a fad for six or seven years, and every ramen shop had lines of people out the door. We thought, ‘what if we did ramen in Sonoma County?’ It’s approachable, soulful food and nobody else was offering it here. So we started small and tested the waters.”

The two developed their partnership by hosting a pop-up ramen restaurant every two weeks on days when Woodfour’s kitchen was closed, and they sold out every time. They hoped that in the future their pop-up would become a permanent restaurant. Two years ago, they acted on their vision when Jamilah Nixon, owner of Forchetta-Bastoni (a hybrid restaurant serving both Italian food and Thai street food), approached them about leasing the space where the Italian restaurant had recently closed. They decided to take the plunge.

In December of 2014, they began serving their ramen specialties four nights a week in their new permanent space, which they named Ramen Gaijin—Ramen for the traditional bowl of noodles with broth and toppings, and Gaijin for the Japanese word for foreigner. Encouraged by how busy they were, they bought Nixon’s liquor license and did a complete remodel of the bar area—adding plants, tables made from Cazadero redwood, and colorful deep orange lanterns that add warmth to the modern décor—finishing their expansion in March of 2016.

The space continues to have a split identity. They kept the two-kitchen, two-menu concept—with one kitchen preparing ramen dishes and the other preparing izakaya dishes. In Japan, izakaya is a casual pub, a place to get beers and small bites, Japanese-style tapas. At Ramen Gaijin, the izakaya menu offers Japanese pub food, with a twist. During lunch hours, ramen is served in the entire space. For dinner, ramen is served only in the back and upstairs dining rooms, while downstairs in the bar and on the outdoor patio, diners can pair izakaya with unique cocktails and beer, for happy hour and for dinner.

What’s consistent about both menus is the attention to quality and detail. The izakaya menu includes yakitori (traditionally skewered and grilled seasoned chicken). Ramen Gaijin offers a broader choice of this dish, including the traditional chicken, plus shoyu-braised pork belly, wagyu beef short rib,

Hokkaido scallops, trumpet mushrooms, butterball potatoes, Nardello pepper, and yaki onigiri (grilled rice ball). There’s a pickle plate, Kumomoto oyster, maguro poke, a variety of salads with seafood and vegetables and the beautifully presented “Wing” or hane-tsuki gyoza, a Japanese-style pot sticker.

“We wanted to serve gyoza in the traditional way,” said Hahn-Schuman. “It’s rare and hard to find.” He learned to make it from recipes by acclaimed chef Masaharu Morimoto, “and by trial and error.” The gyoza wrapping (or skin, as it’s called) is made of wheat noodle dough. It’s made using boiling water, which keeps it soft and pliable. The filling is made from Devil’s Gulch Ranch ground pork. “We grind all our own meat and make everything from scratch,” including the different types of noodle dough and broth.

Their okonomiyaki—which translates as “Grilled as you like it”—is typical street food in Japan. At Ramen Gaijin, the ingredients change seasonally. “We’ve created one that we’re excited about. It’s a savory pancake, with a batter made with dashi, with cabbage, green onions, braised beef cheeks and kimchee—all house-made.” For a traditional chicken katsu, which is pounded, breaded and fried, and rolled up with cheese inside, they use an organic triple-cream cow cheese called “Flower-Power” speckled with bee pollen, made in Sebastopol by Bohemian Creamery.

Hahn-Schuman and Williams plan the menus together. There is constant evolution and the menu changes seasonally, but you will always find three kinds of ramen: shoyu, shiitake miso (vegetarian), and spicy tan tan.

Traditional ramen broth is composed of tare (a seasoning component) plus oil and stock. The seasoned broth and the oil flavor the noodles. Tokyo-style shoyu ramen is a soy-based tare and includes roasted pork, wakame or nori seaweed, memna (lacto-fermented bamboo, marinated in soy sauce), scallion or negi (Japanese leek) and is topped with a soft-boiled egg.

“Our shoyu ramen is similar, but different,” said Hahn-Schuman. “We use rendered pork fat or sesame oil for the oil component of our broth. And we use rye noodles for an earthy feel, for character and depth, and braised pork belly—which is fatty, juicy, and delicious—and memna, wakame, leeks and a soft-boiled egg.”

In the spring, their raman dishes include chicken-based tori paitan with asparagus, pea shoots and carrots. In the fall, their tori paitan is made with chicken broth and meat, grilled chicory, roasted carrots and braised Swiss chard, all locally sourced. The winter ramen has a pork-based broth, boiled for 24 hours into a rich liquid, with tonkatsu (a crispy, breaded fried pork cutlet), pickled ginger, bok choy, wood ear mushrooms, and scallions. This dish is topped with an onsen egg, poached in the shell at 63 degrees, cooked to custard consistency (traditionally in hot springs in Japan).

This year they are rebuilding their yakitori (barbecued meat-on-a-stick) program and creating a firebrick hearth to prepare it. “We are really proud of our yakitori,” said Hahn-Schuman. “We cook it over a Japanese white-oak charcoal called binchō-tan [a clean-burning charcoal made by steaming at high temperatures] mixed with another charcoal to get a smokier flavor.”

“Our success continues to dazzle us,” said Hahn-Schuman. At full capacity on a Saturday night, they will serve 500 to 600 people. They have high praise for their staff of 37 employees. “We have an amazing group of people and feel blessed to have such a great crew.” Attention to detail at all levels, served in warmly decorated and inviting rooms illuminated by bright orange Japanese lanterns, make a visit to Ramen Gaijin an educational and delicious eating and drinking experience. Open Tuesday through Saturday. Visit Ramengaijin.com for hours and menus. SD