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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Refining a Knack for Noodles : Two restaurants rely on home-grown creativity in embellishing the slender strands.

June 23, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

SHERMAN OAKS — The Japanese are noodle-mad. Go to Hatsune Ramen House in Sherman Oaks and you'll find that ramen , the long, skinny noodles we eat as a quick snack, are accorded proper respect. Then there are udon and soba , two soulful noodles found in every Japanese cupboard. Many Valley Japanese restaurants keep some around; only a handful, like Encino's Shinbashi, actually specialize in them.

Tokyo native Kimiko Jadibi opened Hatsune Ramen House last year, replacing a Japanese restaurant called Pasta House. This remains a modest little space housing a dozen tables and a long counter--but remember, it's not a sushi counter. This restaurant doesn't make sushi; it's one of the few Valley Japanese restaurants with that distinction.

Before slurping up your noodles, know that this kitchen can be highly creative. The fine albacore tataki salad consists of gently seared slices of albacore tuna arranged around a large mound of greens mixed with asparagus spears, chopped tomatoes and a healthy dose of cilantro. The spicy dressing is based on yuzu , a Japanese citrus fruit with a flavor somewhere between lemon and tangerine.

Koroke (potato cake) is three tasty, golden-brown croquettes made from fried mashed potato. Crab cake is deep-fried snow crab meat atop a bed of fresh greens, and the unctuous orange sauce is mostly masago , or fresh smelt roe. The best entrees are authentic teriyaki--as in Japan, made only from broiled fish. Chef Jadibi provides a Chilean sea bass teriyaki for her best customers (it's not on the regular menu).

Most people, though, will be eating ramen here--and yes, it is permissible to slurp in polite Japanese society. These noodles are chewier than you might expect if you're used to freeze-dried ramen soup mixes, and not far from spaghetti. Barbecued pork ( chashu ) is the usual topping.

However, there are a dozen choices, and I prefer either sansai ramen or miso ramen . The former is a clear soup popular with the Japanese equivalent of Euell Gibbons fans. Sansai means "wild mountain," and the topping consists of bracken, osmunda (a sort of fern), seaweed, bamboo and mushrooms. Miso ramen is clouded with fermented bean paste (that's the miso ) and enriched with sliced cooked pork. Japanese consider this classic comfort food.

For dessert, don't miss "butterfly," a sticky Greek-style dessert made from deep-fried won ton skins coated with honey.

*

Shinbashi, named for a famous Tokyo footbridge, belongs to another Tokyo native, Sumiko Mukasa. By contrast to the more severe Hatsune Ramen House, it has a bright, brassy and distinctly punk ambience, and its staff--mostly young, hip Japanese-born twentysomethings--are as adept at Val-speak as they are with the latest Roppongi slang.

Shinbashi makes a few small concessions to the American palate. A limited selection of sushi is available--the ubiquitous California roll, for one. My friend's teen-age son wouldn't even consider that idea. "No sushi," he said, as a condition for joining us.

I couldn't resist a couple of the pub-type snacks Sumiko-san keeps on her menu. One was edamame , cooked salted soybeans that you pop out of the shells. Another was gyoza , the Japanese take on pot stickers, wispier and crisper than their Chinese counterparts, and great with beer.

Now roll up your sleeves and tuck in that napkin, because udon and soba can splatter as much as ramen . Udon are thick wheat flour noodles with a chewy bite. Soba are green-tinged buckwheat noodles, more delicate in texture than udon and less neutral in flavor.

There are 11 hot and 11 cold ways to eat udon or soba at Shinbashi. The most Japanese way to have soba might be tanuki (badger) style, one of those untranslatable concepts used to indicate broth and tasty bits of deep-fried vegetables. Chikara udon is made with chicken, vegetables and mochi, a pounded rice cake. In summer, you'll see lots of customers eating nametake ae , which is cold soba mixed with slippery, button-sized nameko mushrooms and wakame seaweed, accompanied by a cold vinegar-based dipping sauce.

Natto udon is pure Tokyo madness. Natto , an acrid-smelling fermented soy mixture, is considered vile in most parts of Japan outside the Tokyo city limits. I happen to like the stuff.

Shinbashi also has hearty rice bowls for those who aren't noodle noshers. The beefy sukiyaki don is loaded with bamboo, mushrooms and cabbage, while ten don is shrimp and vegetables fried in batter, set on a mound of rice. Oyako don , literally "mother and child rice bowl," is affectionate Japanese for chicken and egg, in this dish served huddled together in a runny omelet.

My friend's teen-age son had only faint praise for his. "It's boring," he said. "But it isn't sushi."

Where and When

Location: Hatsune Ramen House, 4454 Van Nuys Blvd., Sherman Oaks.

Suggested Dishes: Potato cake, $4.75; albacore tataki salad, $6.50; sansai ramen , $5.75; sea bass teriyaki, $9.50.

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; closed Monday.

Price: Dinner for two, $14 to $26. Beer and wine only. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa.

Call: (818) 986-7061.

Location: Shinbashi, 16161 Ventura Blvd., Encino.

Suggested Dishes: Edamame , $1.50; nametake ae , $6.95; tanuki soba , $4.50; sukiyaki don , $6.50.

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday; closed Sunday.

Price: Dinner for two, $13 to $26. Beer and wine only. Parking lot in rear. MasterCard and Visa.

Call: (818) 501-7039.

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