(Published by South Bay Accent magazine in December 2016)
There’s an unfortunate bifurcation when it comes to eating out in the South Bay. Given all the fine cuisine and storied chefs in the region, diners expect a restaurant meal involving superb food will come with a hefty bill and be a pricey form of entertainment. Meanwhile, grabbing a quick mouthful for a small price is largely the territory of forgettable spots whose goal is simple fuel with low culinary expectations. With Americans now spending more on away-from-home meals than grocery buying, it’s not surprising that less-costly eateries get more of our food dollars than higher-end restaurants, which many people can’t afford.
However, Kumino in Mountain View, launched in 2015, has turned this dictum on its head. With Culinary Institute of America graduate and former Manresa chef Haochen Liu at the helm, this small, unpretentious restaurant is producing unique, high-end Asian/Whatever fusion food at a laughably low price. A delectable, filling meal can be had for $12 and a veritable feast with plenty of take-home containers for $20.
Joined by sous chef Bryan Leavey, formerly of New York’s renowned Momofuku Noodle Bar, Liu has cleverly engineered a formula that delivers maximum taste and enjoyment to diners at a tiny cost. First, the petite restaurant is in a forgettable strip mall and is minimal on overwrought decor, although servers are present. But the biggest factor is the comfort-food menu of noodles, rice bowls, steamed buns and similar items that are worlds away in their recipes, ingredients and presentation from these humble items elsewhere.
Take the wondrous buns, for example, whose fillings frequently depart from Asia into international territory. Luscious shredded pork shoulder is laced with soy, bell pepper and cilantro while the divine smoked salmon bun comes with paper-thin radish slices and ponzu cream cheese. Lox and bagels were never so tasty.
The pork belly bun features the unctuous meat perfectly paired with hoisin sauce and cucumber and there’s an unusual crawfish bun in which masago (fish roe used in sushi) is stirred into mayonnaise along with diced celery and carrot. It’s like the ultimate tuna salad. Vegetarians will love the eggplant bun in which soft chunks of veg are heightened with a made-in-house sweet chile sauce with lettuce for texture.
These unorthodox combinations continue into the remaining sections of Kumino’s menu. Take the category simply called “others,” which includes fork-tender Chinese barbecued ribs in honey glaze that marinate for two days, an excellent version of chicken karaage — the addictive Japanese take on fried chicken — and a couple of outstanding, generously portioned salads.
Roasted beet salad with oranges will never appear on an Asian menu but it pops up here for a miniscule price, while Liu’s signature dish is warm eggplant salad in which the soft fried vegetable is enrobed with bell pepper puree and miso butter. This dish first appeared on Manresa’s tasting menu and it flies out the door at Kumino. Try finding butter as an ingredient on an Asian menu elsewhere.
Rice and noodle bowls are frequently amazing, led by a pristinely fresh poached salmon rice bowl with colorful pickled cucumbers, more of that terrific miso butter and a poached egg. In a totally different direction is roasted duck leg rice bowl in which the super-tender fowl wears a yogurt tonkotsu sauce (tonkotsu is a long-cooked Japanese pork broth) with raisins and jam while a nicely executed Greek salad sits adjacent. This creation involves the cuisines of at least four countries.
The noodle bowls are rapidly approaching signature status, with “seafood noodles” (salmon, shrimp, scallops and mussels) doubling for a top-notch Provençal fish soup by way of China. Reportedly, the creation of Liu’s complex broth includes an entire mild fish for extra flavor. The vegetable soup noodle bowl is mushroom based and contains truffle oil, of course. Liu’s spicy beef dandan noodles pile complexly spiced beef ragu with sweet corn and cabbage slaw on the toothy noodles and tender beef slices while his garlic noodles combine garlicky linguine with broccoli and just-spiced-enough char siu pork.
There are more little treats on the menu such as pumpkin and cream cheese-filled crispy wontons, yucca fries with flavored mayo and seasonal stir-fried vegetables. Large-appetite guests can get additional toppings on their already-generous bowls for a small price, from a poached egg and tofu to corn, pork belly, seafood, pork shoulder and kimchi. A single dessert is even available: green tea tiramisu. It’s barely sweet, creamy and can douse the fire of a spicy entree.
Given the tiny size of the restaurant, a no-reservations policy and the way Liu’s fame is spreading, Kumino can get busy at prime time. Those who can’t live without his creative, finely executed and very satisfying offerings might consider doing takeout, since the restaurant is on the basic side and the servers can get overwhelmed at times.
Kumino is named for a translation of cumin, Liu’s favorite spice and a flavoring that rarely appears in Asian food. Given his all-over-the-world cooking style, the name seems apt.
Kumino, 580 N. Rengstorff Ave., Mountain View; (650) 964-3300. Facebook: kuminorestaurant
HOURS: Tuesday-Sunday, 11:30-2:30, 5:30-9:30. Closed Monday. No reservations.
PRICES: Buns: $3.50-4.25; salads/starters: $7-7.50; rice bowls: $11.50-14.50; noodle bowls: $11-14; sides/snacks: $2-5.50.