Words and photos by Nicole Ruiz Hudson
When is a noodle more than just boiled grain? For Haochen Liu, the chef behind Mountain View’s Kumino Noodle & Rice, noodles are the common thread in a life spent eating and cooking across multiple cultures and cuisines.
“Seventy percent of my whole life’s meals is about noodles,” says Liu, a northern China native who opened Kumino in late 2015. “Almost nothing is super traditional or authentic. My idea is to try the very good traditional food, like Japanese ramen, or Chinese noodles, or Taiwanese beef noodles, and make something different.”
Liu is doing just that, making big creative food and juxtaposing high concepts and low prices. Kumino is a casual noodle shop in an unassuming strip mall off North Rengstorff Avenue but these noodles have pedigree. Liu graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and is an alumnus of David Kinch’s three-Michelin star restaurant Manresa. His sous chef, Bryan Leavey, was a culinary classmate and spent time at David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York.
The food at Kumino draws influences from all over, a fact evident even in the name which plays on the Italian word for cumin, Liu’s favorite spice. You’ll find hints of it in the pork belly bun ($3.75), one of their most popular dishes. Garlic noodles ($12) could be a culinary representation of Marco Polo’s voyages: Linguini pasta is stirfried with tender pieces of spicy chasiu (Cantonese barbecue) pork, seasonal vegetables (we had it with broccoli, which has switched to asparagus for spring), soy sauce, garlic, onions and a little butter to give it a creamy texture. The result is a dish with luscious flavor drawing on both Italian and Chinese traditions.
The crawfish bun ($4.25) takes inspiration from a classic lobster roll. A buttered bao-style bun is swapped in for the brioche and is flavored with a little cajun seasoning, fish oil, mayo and finished with a sprinkling of masago (fish roe). The smoked salmon bun ($4.25) similarly borrows from a brunch favorite, salmon benedict. The bao gets a schmear of cream cheese, topped with smoked salmon and flavored with sesame oil, a hit of soy sauce, ponzu sauce and a garnish of dill. Each brings a happy harmony between the original dish and Liu’s version.
Some dishes are just pure pleasure. The fried chicken cutlet rice bowl ($11.50) pairs katsu-style chicken with a pumpkin curry, carrots and apple chutney and comes together in a comforting yet complex way. Both the pork and spicy beef ramen ($12 and $12.50) are also sure to bring bliss.
Liu extends his Manresa experience to the dishes as well. The dashi (broth) for his Seafood Ramen ($14) is inspired by Manresa’s famous Winter Tidal Pool dish. It gets ramped up here with more miso and is made in richer style, rather than David Kinch’s pristinely clear version. The Warm Eggplant Salad ($7.50), which has fried eggplant, bell pepper puree and miso butter had its origins in a dish Liu would prepare for Manresa’s family meal which was always popular with the staff, and now is equally popular in its current incarnation with Kumino’s customers.
Dishes are seasonal, ensuring a super fresh experience. And while there is certainly enough variety to keep things interesting, the menu is fairly compact.
Liu’s fusion mindset and attention to detail extends to dessert and drinks. In his Tiramisu ($6) green tea stands in for the traditional coffee flavor and it has a silky, creamy texture. Sous-chef Leavey spent time as a brewer and he and Liu gave considerable thought to the short curated beer list, updated seasonally to match the menu.
Our advice: Order a few dishes to sample with your beer and be happy if you end up with leftovers.
// Kumino Restaurant // 580 N Rengstorff Ave J, Mountain View // Tuesday-Sunday 11:30am-2:30pm, 5:30pm-9pm //