FOODIE FEST ENCINITAS: HOW TO BUILD A WHET NOODLE: CHEF DAVIN WAITE’S MUSE HAS ONE EYE AND A LOAD OF “TRASH”

BY MICHAEL A. GARDINER
sdfoodtravel.com

The idea of a high-end organic, sustainable farm playing the roll of “muse” to a high-end Chef is hardly anything new or newsworthy. But it is not for those perfect vegetables or gorgeous fruits that Chef Davin Waite of The Whet Noodle and Wrench and Rodent Seabasstropub (1813 and 1815 South Coast Highway, Oceanside) goes to Cyclops Farms (443 Avocado Road, Oceanside). It’s for the “trash.”

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I met Waite outside his restaurants at 9:00 a.m. on an overcast Oceanside morning. Waite came around the corner from the parking lot, an impish grin on his face, saying: “Let’s go!” And with that we headed six long blocks up the hill—about two miles—to find his muse.

Waite was the first over the farm’s locked gate, hopping it in a single, graceful move. He turned to me, a look of concern crossing his face. “It’s OK,” he said, “I have permission for this.” I smiled, and considered suggesting if he must think of me as a lawyer it be in terms of Hunter S. Thompson’s attorney.

First on the docket were the nasturtiums.   Waite kneeled, showing me a particularly beautiful little one. “These are the ones every Chef goes for,” he said. “But I want these.” Waite took a large, floppy nasturtium leaf, tearing off two pieces, one of went in his mouth and one of which he handed to me. It was like a little vegetal pepper bomb went off in my mouth. My eyes must have gone buggy. “See?” Waite said.

Next, Waite guided us to a block of broccoli plants. He pointed to some tiny florets at the top of long shooting stems. “Try these!” Breaking off a stem, I did. The florets were like sweet broccoli pollen, without even a hint of the bitterness that some cite as their reason for disliking the vegetable. I took a nibble of the stem and it may have been even better.

“It’s like candy,” I heard a little voice behind me say, turning around to see 8 year old Josie Girling—with her father, Cyclops’ owner Luke several yards behind—a broccoli stem curling from her lips. And she wasn’t wrong.

But Waite wasn’t done. He knelt down, reached to the bottom of the broccoli plant and tore off a piece of the long, large, flat leaf and handed it to me. It looked like a darker, overgrown lacinato kale leaf. The flavor was rounder, more cabbage-like, hovering somewhere between savory and sweet. I looked at him quizzically, smiling. “Yeah,” I nodded. Josie smiled too and took a chomp of her broccoli stem candy cane.

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Five minutes down the hill, behind the sushi bar at the Wrench, we set about experimenting with Cyclops Farms’ “unwanted” bounty with an eye toward The Whet Noodle’s menu or specials.   Waite conceives of Noodle as an izakaya, essentially a Japanese-inflected version of a cross between a British gastropub and a Spanish tapas bar. Essentially, anything delicious goes.

Aside from matters of flavor, principle and idealism—Waite’s and Girling’s—there was a solid business reason for wanting to build The Whet Noodle’s arsenal of dishes around Cyclops Farm’s “trash.” Those unwanted, unloved parts of the glory crops—the stuff left behind—were cheap (if not necessarily free). The ingredient costs at the Wrench—glorious sushi-grade fish—is high. Building a big part of the Noodle’s menu around the delicious stuff that other people don’t want yields a much lower cost-of-goods-sold.

Remember those nasturtium leaves that were “too big?” Puréed with thinly sliced sautéed green onions, a bit of Chinese 5-spice, sugar and salt they became a nasturtium relish that elevated a dish of thinly sliced local yellowtail with curls of nasturtium flower and citrus juice. After bouncing a couple of ideas back and forth the dish evolved into a blood tangelo and habañero aguachile of local yellowtail with nasturtium relish and ramp tips.

Earlier at the farm, Waite, Luke Girling and I had each confessed to Spam as a favorite guilty pleasure. It was a strange moment to share on an organic farm in the midst of discussions about the importance of using all of fresh, delicious, organic vegetables. It was even stranger developing a dish in the Wrench based on Spam Masubi. When Waite mentioned he had some leftover beet hollandaise sauce he’d made the night before a light went on. “Do you have quail eggs?” I asked. He smiled: “Spam Masubi Beet Benedict.” A dab of Yuzu relish would complete the dish.

There is, in the end, more in common between a dish based on Spam and one on the parts of organic vegetables even the Birkenstock-loving chef crowd is prepared to discard. It is a shared conviction that within the unloved and underappreciated lies a key to inspiration.

Building a dish around the subtle variations in the flavors of the different parts of the broccoli plant is not so different from building one around the different ways to control the saltiness of Spam. It’s about finding and enhancing the value of the cheap stuff so many chefs discard if they do not outright ignore.

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It is how one goes about building a Whet Noodle.

CityBeat Restaurant Guide: San Diego’s Ramen Moment

Ramen. In Japan it’s an obsession. In America it’s been late-night dorm room post-party munchies. In San Diego, though, 2015 saw a handful of shops grow exponentially and ramen become serious eats.

There are four major “types” of ramen in Japan: shoyu, miso, shio, and tonkotsu. Those four are divided into at least twenty regional variations, each of which is subdivided seemingly endlessly. Sometimes you suspect every town has its own distinctive version. At its most basic level, though, a bowl of ramen is four things: tare, broth, noodles and toppings, constructed in that order.

Davin-Waite-in-the-Whet-Noodle-kitchen-990x1024.jpg

Tare is the powerful, flavored essence at the bottom of the bowl that generally (but not always) defines the ramen’s “type.” Next comes the broth: pork, chicken or combinations of the two are most common but some variations use dashi, sardines, spicy bean paste or lard. The noodles for ramen are golden yellow, alkaline Chinese-style noodles. Perfect ramen noodles are firm yet supple with just a hint of a crunch. Topping options are nearly infinite, though nori seaweed, spinach, chives, chashu (roast pork), pickled bamboo shoots, egg and fish cake are common.

The most common ramen type in San Diego is tonkotsu, the one major style defined by the broth instead of the tare. For tonkotsu broth, 24 pounds of pork bones are boiled hard for 20 hours until they collapse from their own weight resulting in a milky white, deeply delicious, meaty broth highlighting savory flavors and umami warmth that is the very essence of pig. Some of the besttonkotsu ramen in San Diego can be found at Ramen Yamadaya’s new downtown location (531 Broadway) or Tajima Hillcrest (3739 6th Avenue, Suite B).

Santouka Ramen (4240 Kearny Mesa Road) inside the Mitsuwa Marketplace offers an opportunity to do a quick ramen tour of several of Japan’s classic ramens. The tare for the shioramen is based on salt (though, ironically, it ends up tasting less salty than other types). Misoramen builds its tare on red soybean paste. The tare for shoyu ramen, the saltiest, is based on soy sauce. Santouka was the first Japanese ramen chain to hit San Diego (albeit in a supermarket). 2015 saw Santouka joined by Nishiki Ramen (8055 Armour Street, Suite 201A), across the same shared parking lot and Jinya Ramen Bar (825 Garnet Avenue) in Pacific Beach with a Hillcrest location on the way.

Rakiraki Ramen and Tsukemen (4646 Convoy Street) offers an example of a relatively recent (mid-1950s) Japanese variation that became Tokyo’s “in” ramen in the 2000s. Tsukemen ramen is brought to the table with noodles separate from a piping hot bowl of thick sauce-like soup. The intent is for diners to dip the noodles themselves.

Ramen innovation, at least in Japan, is accepted, respected and greeted with enthusiasm. That may be less the case outside Japan. One of the first of San Diego’s ramen innovators, Underbelly(3000 Upas Street in North Park and 750 West Fir Street, Little Italy), has been successful despite the fact self-appointed Ramen Police tagged it with the “inauthentic” label. Surely their topping combinations are far from traditional, but they work.

The most recent addition to San Diego’s ramen scene is The Whet Noodle (1813 South Coast Highway, Oceanside) next door to Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub. At Whet Noodle, Davin Waite does to ramen what he did to sushi at the Rodent, earning serious consideration as San Diego’s most consistently creative chef. Take, for example, his duck shoyu ramen. Japan, of course, knows no such thing. Built on a 50/50 tare of mirin and soy and a 50/50 broth of smoked and roast duck, the result is a soup featuring some of the body of a tonkotsu but with an emphasis on elegance. Mine came with toppings of pulled duck, lightly pickled egg, charred Napa cabbage, shiitake mushroom, fish cake, pickled daikon, scallion and bean sprouts. The Whet Noodle also offers a vegan option (hot and sour miso broth) with more styles to come. Waite is cautious about calling Whet Noodle’s dishes “ramen” but ramen is exactly what they are. Creative ramen, yes, but respectful too.

San Diego has become home to a bona fide ramen scene. We have excellent examples of many classic ramen variations. We have the creative offerings of Underbelly and The Whet Noodle. We have newcomers arriving all the time

San Diego is having its ramen moment.

Sushi chef doubles down with Ramen Bar

Oceanside's Davin Waite is known for his creative cuisine

OCEANSIDE — When Davin Waite opened his tiny, irreverently named sushi bar the Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub in South Oceanside in 2013, it was done mostly as a lark.

Situated in a small side room of Greg Lukasiewicz’s Bull Taco shop at 1815 South Coast Highway, the rent and seating in the space were low enough that Waite could afford to experiment and let his imagination run wild.

But a surprising thing happened. Chefs and food writers talked up Waite’s out-of-the-box creativity like crazy and before long, diners were driving from as far as L.A. to sample items like his Kentucky fried tuna heads and fish sperm chowder. Lines would form out the door and Waite’s staff had a hard time keeping up with demand.

So when Lukasiewicz decided last fall to relocate his Oceanside taco shop, Waite and his wife, Jessica, decided to take over the 100-seat space. Last week, they opened The Whet Noodle, a Japanese izakaya (pub) that specializes in ramen dishes. It is operating side by side with the sushi bar Waite affectionately calls “The Rodent.”

While the Whet Noodle’s opening menu is small and conservative by Waite’s standards, he promises to gradually introduce daily specials to please his always adventurous fans. First up? Duck-fat roasted organic carrots with walnut chimichurri.

Around San Diego, Waite is known as a “chef’s chef.” Within the industry, he’s widely respected for his sushi-making skill, commitment to quality local products, sustainable seafood and zero waste. And because he’s known as a culinary artist, friends say he’s the only guy in town who can get away with running a successful restaurant named after a rat.

Waite, 37, said the kooky name was inspired by his bi-national upbringing in England, where rural pubs often have bizarre and amusing names. He said spending so much of his youth in his parents’ native country shaped his food philosophy.

Detail view of two ramen noodle dishes at The Whet Noodle. At left is Duck Shoyu and at right is Hot and Sour Miso, both with added egg. San Diego Union-Tribune

Detail view of two ramen noodle dishes at The Whet Noodle. At left is Duck Shoyu and at right is Hot and Sour Miso, both with added egg. San Diego Union-Tribune

Waite was born just a few days after his parents moved to Southern California from Northeast England for work. (His father, a chemist turned computer designer, is now nearing retirement at Qualcomm.)

Waite and his brother Loren, now 33, split their childhoods between San Diego and England, where their aunt ran a pub. From a young age, the brothers developed a taste for, and passion for preparing, international cuisine, be it Indian curry or beans on burnt toast.

After high school, Waite studied psychology but secretly dreamed of becoming a chef. He landed a job making California rolls at a local sushi bar, then while attending college in Santa Barbara in 1996, he dropped out to become a full-time apprentice to a Japanese sushi chef.

From 1999 to 2004, he refined his techniques in the kitchen at La Jolla’s Café Japengo, then he and his brother and friends opened their own business, the short-lived The Fish Joint at Hill Street Coffeehouse in Oceanside.

After that, he worked as a food industry consultant helping food inventors bring products to market. It paid well, but he missed cooking. So when Lukasiewicz offered him the side space at Bull Taco in early 2013, he jumped at the opportunity.

“It was lucrative but not creative. The whole experience inspired me to find my passion and it reaffirmed my commitment to doing what I love,” he said. “Sometimes you push the limits and you fall down and skin your knees, but at least I’m doing something new. If you’re not taking chances, where’s the fun in that?”

The Rodent’s name and gritty biker bar design reflects Waite’s sense of humor and honesty.

The Whet Noodle

Hours: 4-9 p.m. Mondays. 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays

Where: 1815 S. Coast Highway, Oceanside

Online:thewhetnoodle.com

“I don’t believe in being fake. If I had white guys in Japanese sushi coats and menus in Japanese, that would be fake. I’m an English kid who grew up in Southern California with Mexican friends,” he said.

Waite is an outspoken advocate for “nose-to-tail” dining, a common international style of cooking that uses all of the fish or animal, including organs, bones and skin. One of his favorite past dishes at The Rodent is sausage made from fish egg sac casing.

“I liked taking the items that other people throw away and turning them into the best things. You take something that sounds gross and tie it back to comfort food and people like it,” he said.

Waite said he and his wife came up with the idea for a ramen bar because there weren’t any in the Oceanside area and he frequently found himself driving down after work to San Diego’s ramen Mecca: Convoy Street.

“I never meant to compete with Convoy, because I can’t, but I thought we could do something up here that people would like. Plus, a ramen bar is a natural extension of what we’re doing at The Rodent.”

The new restaurant, like The Rodent, is only open now for dinner service beginning at 4 p.m. daily. Sometime this spring, The Whet Noodle will open for lunch as well, and will offer some grab-and-go sushi items from the Rodent kitchen.

The Whet Noodle menu features a variety of hot and cold shareable appetizers, like scallops, calamari and, soon, fried sweetbread nuggets. Waite has developed two ramen broths. There’s a hot and sour miso broth made with vegetable stock that’s vegan and gluten-free, and there’s a duck shoyu stock, made with the slow-smoked duck meat that is a signature Rodent dinner entrée. The noodles are being made to order – “crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside” – with a firm tofu from San Diego Soy Dairy.

Waite said he’s enjoying creating new recipes and he and his wife have been surprised at initial turnout, since they didn’t advertise their opening and don’t have any signs up on the building yet.

Best of all, Waite said he’s now able to work again side by side with his brother and the friends who he started The Fish Joint with back in 2004.

“I’m having a blast as a line cook again and this is like the final link for me in putting the old gang back together again.”

The Whet Noodle – Soon to Be Your Favorite Noodle House!

A little over two years ago, after a random internet search for new sushi restaurant openings in San Diego, I found myself braving Friday evening rush hour traffic to get to the farthest corner of the known universe, Oceanside, all because of a name… The Wrench and the Rodent Seabasstropub.  It was like a dare.  “Come eat at the Rat place if you’re bold enough!” it cried.  It was either going to be great food or I was gonna meet some interesting people.  Challenge accepted.

That evening was a life changer. It turns out both of my pre-supposed premises were true – there was (and is) great sushi, just traditional enough to be called sushi, unique enough to be considered trendsetting and groundbreaking enough to be heretofore undiscovered.  And, it was being served up by a group of the most genuine, eclectic, animated and devoted chefs and restaurant people I’ve ever met.

Since then, what started as a hole-in-the-wall, under the radar, popup sushi joint inside a slightly larger hole-in-the-wall taco joint has taken the County by storm.  There are very few corridors or water coolers in San Diego where Wrench and Rodent won’t get at least a nod of recognition if they come up in conversation…and they come up a lot.  In fact, a review I wrote at the time, shortly after they opened with no fanfare and a heavy dependence on the loyal following of patrons they had garnered through many years in the industry, stated, “(They) are maybe the coolest people you’ll ever meet.  The fact that they are pouring every bit of their souls into making sure that the food and experience you receive at this 6 week old soon-to-be-impossible-to-get-into-haven-of-the-freshest-fish-ever is almost too much to handle.”  I know.  I think it’s a gift.  My wife swears it’s a curse. Either way, I was right.  Again.

Now, it’s time to welcome to the family their new younger sibling – The Whet Noodle.  Does the name have that same edgy “FU” quality to it that Wrench and Rodent has?  Honestly, no.  But it is a double entendre that oozes with innuendo.  How do I do this without getting too graphic or phallic?  Okay, I’ve got it.  Let’s just go with Whet – as in sharpen, hone, stimulate and excite.  So, if you have a “wet” (as in limp and drippy) noodle (in that not overly graphic phallic sense), perhaps eating here will “whet” your noodle.  Don’t worry, you don’t have to understand it.  I barely do…

Anyway, a couple of evenings ago, I was invited in for a menu development night.  The interior is still under construction with co-owner/contractor hottie Jess staining walls while Chef Davin works up the new magic recipes in the kitchen.

I brought Dee, of course, who always manages to pick up on the subtleties in the seasoning that I tend to miss because I’m busy stuffing my piehole, and we were joined by Chef Stephen Reyna of the Privateer, located just a block or so down the street.  The purpose of the visit was to taste some of the main menu items and provide feedback for further tweaking.

As the food was being prepared, I was able to check out the happenings behind the scenes.  What did I learn? Well, while the broth is the most important part of any ramen dish and its most closely guarded secret, it is also the easiest when it comes to service.  It can be made in advance and sit on the stove all day simmering and gaining deeper flavor.  Meanwhile, all of the ingredients that make up the ramen bowl must hit the grill or the flat top in precise order and be timed to the second for doneness, lest it become a burnt, gooey, mushy or otherwise unpleasant mashup that will certainly ruin even the best of broths.

 

Note here the perfect stillness of the fresh ingredients on the flattop as Chef Davin kicks it into warp speed to flip, maneuver, coerce and otherwise tend each component of what would turn out to be some of the best ramen to have crossed these lips in quite some time.

As we dove into the first offering, elbows flying, heads bobbing and lips smacking, it quickly became clear that this ramen has many of the same inherent qualities about it as the sushi from Wrench and Rodent has.  In other words, if this was an SAT phrasing, it would be something like, traditional sushi is to Wrench and Rodent as traditional ramen is to Whet Noodle.  The ramen here has all the basic components of a traditional plating – broth, noodles, vegetables, meat and eggs (there is a gluten free/vegan option – keep reading) and a deep, satisfying savoriness.  Yet, there are twists of flavor and texture combined with an artistic touch of unorthodoxy that will lead you off the old school path and leave you with a deep conviction that this is exactly the ramen that your Oceanside born and raised, adopted Japanese grandmother would have made…if you had one.

The first offering of the night was a Duck shoyu based broth with smoked duck, charred Napa cabbage, and a variety of other veggies, fresh and pickled.  The noodles are a house recipe and everything in the dishes you will receive here is sourced locally.  This broth had a deep, rich flavor that you would normally associate with a duck base, but without the sticky oiliness that often accompanies.  Somehow, the essence of the fat is infused into the broth to create a smooth richness that finds its own direction into your belly.  There was a light sweetness as well, uncommon in ramen broth generally, but not unpleasant in this one.  With the smoky and savory ingredients, the sweetness seemed as though it were there simply to get ahead of any potential flavor monotony.

The real stars of the dish were the charred Napa cabbage (this should be available as a stand alone side salad with a light aioli or vinaegrette dressing), the deeply infused, ohh, soo smokey duck and the fried egg.  In fact, of the three top ingredients, I’m calling the fried egg the hands down winner of the group.  It was textural genius, with a just crisp doneness around the edges of the white and a perfect soft yolk that infused itself into the broth when cracked to lend another layer of flavor and creaminess not previously known to the ramen universe.  I loved it so much I recommended to Chef that he forgo the traditional soft boiled egg and go strictly with this.  I don’t think that’s going to happen, but, dayuuum, if he leaves this fried egg option on the menu – get it.  It’s a difference maker.

 

Next in the hot seat was a hot and sour miso broth with grilled shrimp.  This broth will be the base of the vegan offerings, and for those wanting a gluten free version, remember to ask for the GF noodles. Man, this broth was good.  It had a bit of sweetness, which surprisingly also doubled as the “sour” in the dish.  I wanted to say there was a Tamarind overtone.  In fact, I did say it while staring Chef straight in the eyes to see if I nailed it.  He never flinched.  He gave me a quizzical look and said, “Interesting.”  The citrusy, slightly sour, pungent sweetness of the broth is nicely balanced and offset by a mild, but prevalent spiciness.  If you’re one of those people who can’t handle a little black pepper on your food, this probably isn’t for you.  However, for those that can handle a mild spice backed by a ton of flavor, it’s hard to go wrong with this one.  The shrimp had a pinch of salt and pepper applied while on the grill so that its natural seafood essence stood out, encouraging the broth to envelope and enhance the flavor almost like a dip or a jus.  Once again, the charred Napa was a welcome component and the fresh heirloom carrots added a great crunch to the dish.  This broth will work with innumberable meat and vegetable combinations.

 

This one.  This one.  It’s a smoky carnitas Tonkotsu broth with, you guessed it, smoked carnitas.  But, wait… there’s more!  A little slice of lamb belly buried beneath the other treasures is like the foie gras of the dish – a tender, fatty, melt in your mouth little nugget that has you closing your eyes so you don’t have to look at the accusing glare your wife is giving you for eating the whole thing.  Wait, that might have been when I ate the entire perfectly soft boiled half egg.  Anyway, this may be the closest to a “traditional” broth you will find here, yet, it still has a unique depth of flavor and character that is at one level hard to define, but, at another level, well, who cares?  It was great and it was mine.

Here’s the Rundown:

Food/Pricing/Service:  Expect an easy to navigate, concise menu.  There will be these three, maybe four by the time they open, basic combinations, with the ability to add-on items as desired.  There will be at least one Soba offering as well.  Each of the creations we tried was exotic while approachable, different while familiar and edgy while casual.

Average price per serving – $8 or so.  Add-ons will be affordable, in the .50c – $1 range.  Patrons will order at the counter and then take their number to a table where their orders will be brought out.  Beer and wine will also be available.

Where and When:  1815 S. Coast Hwy, Oceanside.  Don’t look for big signs or banners – that’s not how they roll here.  Seriously, you will find the place.  The initial search is part of the allure.  Once you find it, you’ll never forget it and you’ll be in on the secret, which is – this is some of the best food available.  Period.

As of the publishing of this article, a firm, official opening date has not been set.  However, knowing what I know about these guys, I never really expected one anyways.  There will be no huge, invitation only, soft opening where the glitterati of the industry get to be first in line.  This is more of a socialist endeavor – great local food by great local people for great local people.

So, here’s what I can tell you – Sometime after Christmas, keep an eye out for an unlocked door and an unheralded opening sans trumpets, banners and hoopla.  But, don’t wait too long.  Something tells me that this will quickly become an impossible-to-get-into-haven-of-noodle-loving-paradise…oh, never mind.  Just go.  Cheers, my friends!

The Whet Noodle

1815. S. Coast Hwy, Oceanside, CA