From top: (1) Appetizers: Country style Kabocha (Japanese pumpkin and shitake mushrooms simmered in a vegetable dashi broth), Pork Belly Daikon (cooked pork belly with Mirin soy sauce), Tsukemono (assorted homemade pickles). (2) Chef Shige, (3) Ebi Tempura Udon (Udon with shrimp tempura), (4) Kitchen knives, etc. (5) Kinpira (cooked Burdock root, carrots with Sesame Oil and Soy Sauce, (6) Table setting, (7) Udon Sansai (Udon with edible Japanese wild plants and their housemade dashi (broth)).
Chef and owner Makoto Suzuki is surprising. At first he’s a little wary. Then he arms burst open and gives you an bear-like hug, then he’s on the phone, checking in politely with a vendor to make sure everything will be delivered Ok, then his eyes light up as he tells you about his unique Japanese water system. (Kaiki Water), and how passionate he is about making his Dashi (soup broth), from scratch.
But let’s get back to the water system, because when you walk into Samurai Mama, on Grand Street in Williamsburg you suspect that there will be sushi, and possibly imported beer, but you do not suspect that the only water you will drink, and the only water that goes into his much coveted Udon soup comes from a filtration system imported from Japan, and is the purest, cleanest water you will ever try in New York.
The restaurant opened in 2010, which as Makoto points out is 150 years from when the Samurai first came to New York. To that end, he’s tried to keep the restaurant unaffected by Japanese paraphernalia. There are no typical Japanese screens, no fish tanks, waterfalls or walls that house any embroidered, ceremonial kimono’s. The space feels industrial. “Like the first samurai,” he says,”they brought nothing with them from Japan, so I wanted to emulate how they would have set up a restaurant 150 years ago, with just themselves.” The place is wonderfully low-lit, but if your capable of feeling your way around with some chopsticks you can dig into some of the best Udon around.
It’s his handmade dashi and the chemical-free filtered water that make the difference. Each region in Japan has a unique recipe for their Udon. Some prefer a thicker noodle, and each place has a different broth. Makoto’s wife Kanako went to udon school, and it’s her recipe that they make in the restaurant. She herself is a confessed udon lover. (“She had to have it, every day, so in the end I set up a restaurant to make her happy,” says Makoto). Their recipe is part Kushi (the region where his wife is from) and part Eastern Japan (where Makoto is from). His dashi is made by soaking dried shitake mushrooms and konbu (seaweed, imported from Japan) overnight in the Kaiki filtered water. Next day he brings the mixture to 150 degrees (never to the boil, he cautions) with bonita flakes, fish with wing (mackeral) and then they use it the next day. (They never let it sit longer.)
The other secret ingredient on top of the udon is yuzu zest, which they also import from Japan. It gives the soup an indefinable citrus tang. And it’s unlike anything I’ve ever eaten. Try the Udon Sansai which is dashi (broth), noodles, with Japanese edible wild plants (make sure you get a slow-poached egg as well) or pull up a bench at the long beautiful communal table and ask Morgan the manager to recommend something for you, which he will, happily, and it will transport you. But do try the water, regardless, it’s worth all the fuss.
JUSTIN WALKER is a travel and food photographer based in Brooklyn. A native to Durango, Colorado, he grew up as a bystander to his families adventures; from commercial salmon and halibut fishing in Alaska, to big game hunting on a small ranch in Colorado.
KAITLYN DU ROSS is Boston bred, Brooklyn made, from the South shore of Boston, Kaitlyn found her way out to Colorado— only to follow her love for the shuffle-and-jive back to the east coast. When she’s not jiving, she’s styling props.