Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Lunch Chronicles: Tanpopo

The first day of November bore a heavy, leaden sky and the attendant nip of cold temperatures, which means only one thing will do for lunch—soup. Despite bringing to work a thermos filled with homemade chicken-corn chowder, I thought I would treat myself to udon in a rich, nourishing broth at Tanpopo.

This Lowertown noodle shop is located in a warehouse cum artists' lofts. The space is beautiful, with the post-and-beam construction you find in Midwestern, brick warehouses from the 1880s, here whitewashed for a light, bright feel. The menu features noodles (soba or udon) in broth with a variety of toppings, including beef, tofu, tempura shrimp, tempura vegetables, and chicken. And, Tanpopo serves teishoku ("set meals") of a salad, miso soup, pickles, and an entree, some of which include broiled mackerel (saba), agedashi tofu, panko-breaded pork cutlet (tonkatsu), and a special featuring fresh, seasonal ingredients from the nearby St. Paul Farmers Market.

Hambone and I took a Japanese grilling class this past summer that was taught by Tanpopo's owner, Koshiki Yonemura, who had a remarkably calm demeanor in the kitchen. She showed us how to grill simple chicken skewers and a delectable salmon, as well as how to prepare a green salad with a miso dressing. All the food was very good.

I had hoped to walk away from the class with the formula for the restaurant's miso dressing. Yonemura gave us a recipe that was close but not quite the one that makes me want to drink what remains in bottom of the bowl when the lettuce, shaved red onion, cucumber slices, and shredded carrots have been slowly devoured. That stuff is magical and tugs at me every time I go to the restaurant.

So if I ever walk to Tanpopo, anticipating those restorative noodles, I can be sure that the special teishoku will win out. Today I took the sui gyoza, eight steamed dumplings filled with pork and napa cabbage, then doused with a chili sauce (also with miso and some brightness—I'm guessing it was ponzu) and sprinkled with scallions. The teishoku was really brilliant. Yonemura played with textures (crunchy and soft) and flavors (salty, sweet, sour, spicy), as well as temperatures (warm, hot, cold).

Still, those darling dumplings stole the show. Rather than the usual round wrapper folded over the filling and crimped to form half-moon shapes, the sui gyoza filling formed a small ball. The excess wrapper had couturier pleats that so that the filling appeared to be wearing a skirt.

I look forward to the treasure that my next lunch of noodles beholds!