ひまわり亭 himawari: styling over substance
Apparently, the new breed of noodle shop is all swank interiors and premium ingredients, where shio ramen is made with Okinawan sea salt and Berkeshire pigs hail from a very specific farm in a very specific corner of Canada, for surely knowing the geographic heritage of your pork makes it more luxurious (expensive) and obviously better. New York has Momofuku. West Los Angeles, Chabuya. And for the past year and a half, San Mateo has had Himawari, walking distance from the revered Santa Ramen but zip codes away in terms of pretention and attitude.
I’ve yet to dine at Momofuku, but Himawari, like Chabuya, fails to make the case that prettier is necessarily tastier. Would that the owners spent as much money refining their noodle recipes as they did buying mood lighting and art for the walls. While Chabuya’s proud use of strictly organic ingredients is both its selling point and its fundamental flaw (sometimes you just need that extra dash of MSG), Himawari’s ramen suffer from a general lack of flair in the cooking department and taste like desperate imitations of stuff better served elsewhere.
The “deluxe” shio ramen, while beautiful to stare at, featured thin white noodles that went immediately limp and a disappointingly slight Okinawan sea salt (lest we forget) broth that was neither here nor there. Did I detect a whiff of ocean air in the steam? Or maybe I just imagined it, victim to marketing. Either way it was bland. Sprinkles of pork fat and the trendy tableside garlic did little to salvage the flavor. As for toppings, the extra few dollars bought a shoyu-marinated egg (at least it was only three-fourths boiled) and, like at most area ramen shops, a hunk of fatty braised pork belly. Unfortunately, Himawari’s version of buta kakuni lacked the luscious sweet depth of Maru Ichi’s, or even Kahoo Ramen’s quasi-chashu niblets.
The gyoza was fine, flawless if unspectacular. I sampled some of the other sides at the table - the fried rice and a chashu bowl. Though I found little to complain about, I doubt I would ever order what my friends had. But as if to reinforce my lowered expectations, I took a sip of one buddy’s tonkotsu ramen soup. Stick to Santa for better flavor, Maru Ichi for an overall better and more authentic experience.
In truth, I’m all for giving ramen an upscale facelift. High-profile shops in Japan, institutions like Ippudo, for example, are paeans to both food and artful interior decoration. For far too long, ramen has been considered low-brow eating. “You never take a girl out for ramen, especially not on a first date,” goes the accepted Japanese wisdom.
But that’s Japan, and this is California. Himawari, on a recent Saturday afternoon, was packed with fashionable Asian American yupsters happy to be dining in a contemporary setting, perhaps a little oblivious to the quality of the food. Then again, you don’t go to P.F. Chang’s for real Chinese roast duck after all; rather, you go for the room.
|himawari's "okinawan sea salt" shio broth is all hype. bland and fairly one-dimensional, with a .5 bump for the (real or imagined) whiff of ocean air. a sip of the tonkotsu soup proved generic. it is of my opinion that ramen shops really shouldn't serve tonkotsu ramen unless they specialize in it.||3.5|
|flaccid, white, and irritatingly square, utter lacking in tooth or verve. they're not generic pre-ordered strands, but nor are they any good.||1|
|at least they have braised pork belly and a semi-boiled egg for a few bucks extra. that's worth a little something. you'll be spending close to $10 for your bowl of noodles however. maru ichi has richer, better flavor and a deeper marinade on the pork.||5|
|the gyoza was fine. the chashu bowl and the fried rice, edible. nothing really stood out except that they didn't screw up the gyoza. that's not saying much is it?||5.5|
|lamps from crate & barrel, paintings from the ground floor of ikea. eating here you're surrounded by nice digs and thoughtful color treatment, but that's about the ohly thing this place has going for it.||6|
|yet another attempt at gentrifying traditionally casual cuisine. nice way to turn a bigger profit, but it smacks of cheap opportunism when the food can't back up the haute atmosphere.||0.5|
202 2nd Avenue
11:30 am - 11:00 pm (M-Th)