Yikes, we’ve been in a bit of the cold snap for the last week or so with the mercury struggling to reach 50. (And yes, I realize those of you from the East Coast and Midwest are scoffing at this native Californian’s thin skin when it comes to tolerating temperatures under about 60.) Cold nights mean lots of soup for dinner. A big bowl of soup is the perfect cure for the cold, wet weather this time of year. And the soup I’ve developed quite an appetite for this week is Japanese udon. I realized the other night I’ve eaten udon for dinner four out of the past seven days. With thick wheat noodles served in a rich broth, udon is a soup that’s hearty and filling, but doesn’t leave that heavy feeling.
My favorite of all udon preparations is nabeyaki udon. It’s a twist on the traditional udon served in a hot pot with tempura shrimp, sweet tofu skin and an egg.
Round 1: Ocean Sushi Deli (Monterey, Pacific Grove)
Ocean Sushi Deli is probably best known for takeaway sushi, but they’ve got a rather extensive menu of Japanese cuisine, including several hearty soups like udon and ramen.
The nabeyaki udon came with tempura shrimp, shiitake mushrooms, fish cake, egg, spinach, wakame and green onion in a bonito broth ($11.95).
I took my first sip to gauge whether any extra chili powder would be needed—nope, the broth was perfect on its own. I eagerly began to slurp up the thick noodles, throwing caution to the wind and risking scalding my tongue because the flavors were so good.
The tempura shrimp arrived already placed on the soup, so the batter got a little soggy. I was a little apprehensive about this—I love a crisp bite of tempura—but one bite and any qualms melted away. As the sweet tempura batter melted into the broth, it added such depth of flavor.
The egg was a little more “done” than I expected—I prefer a runny yolk, personally—but it added nice body even so. And I liked the slices of white fish in the soup—they added a nice tangy bite to the soup.
But my favorite bite was the shiitake mushroom, a luxurious touch rich in earthy umami.
This soup was good to the very last drop. When I got to the dregs at the bottom of the bowl, I added some chili powder and unabashedly slurped up every drop!
Ocean Sushi Deli is at 165 Webster Street in Monterey (831-645-9876) and 2701 David Avenue in Pacific Grove (831-649-1320). www.oceansushi.com.
Round 2: Crystal Fish (Monterey)
When friends wanted to get together for a birthday sushi dinner at Crystal Fish, I decided to buck the trend and order a bowl of udon instead of a sushi roll. The menu included traditional tempura udon and kitsune udon, but I decided to splurge and I went right for the nabeyaki udon with shrimp tempura, chicken, fish cake and egg ($11.50).
When my udon arrived, it was piping hot—perfect for the chilly evening outside.
I took my first sip. Unfortunately, the broth was a bit weak, sorely in need of a kick. I sprinkled on some chili powder, hoping to give it a little more depth. It took a handful of shakes to get the broth up to snuff.
The tempura shrimp arrived on its own plate, ready for me to dip in the soup. The shrimp were nice and crispy, and I used the soup like a dipping sauce.
There was a generous portion of chicken, but it wasn’t really all that flavorful and didn’t add much to the dish. The egg was much better. I pulled the egg open with my chopsticks, letting the slightly runny egg yolk mix with the broth to add a little more body and depth of flavor to the soup.
The tofu skin gave some nice sweet accents to the savory soup.
The noodles were the perfect consistency—thick, but not too gummy or chewy. It was the right ratio of noodles to soup so I wasn’t left with an excess of broth at the bottom of the bowl.
Crystal Fish is at 514 Lighthouse Avenue in Monterey. 831-649-3474. crystalfishsushi.com.
There really wasn’t much of a question who came out on top in this food fight. Ocean Sushi Deli handily bested Crystal Fish when it came to the nabeyaki udon. The
rich flavors in the udon at Ocean Sushi Deli sealed the win. I’ve been dreaming about those shiitake mushrooms steeped in bonito broth. For lunch or dinner, this udon is the perfect remedy for the chilly weather that’s come to town this week.