After earning a computer science degree in his native China, Haochen Liu did a career-180, coming to the United States to study at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. He headed to the South Bay's Manresa and spent countless hours peeling vegetables for legendary chef-owner David Kinch, until an impressive salmon dish promoted Liu to line cook. Late last year, after a few other stops along the way, he opened his own restaurant, Kumino, in Mountain View.
Before we get carried away, this isn't Mountain View's Manresa, folks. Rice bowls and noodle soups under $13 are Kumino's primary currency, yet this is absolutely not just another ramen shop.
The most in-demand dish is a warm eggplant salad ($7) carefully playing off bell pepper puree and miso butter, which Liu created at Manresa and Kinch served on the tasting menu. While Manresa mingles Japanese influences with the Northern California terroir, Kumino's menu delves deeper than Manresa into unabashed, yet disciplined fusion. The menu skips around China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, Italy, Scandinavia, and who knows where else. No tasting menus here, but lots of wonderful tastes.
One rice bowl boasts impeccably fried chicken cutlets ($11), spoonfuls of soothing pumpkin curry, baby carrots, and the bracing sweet addition of apple chutney. In the salmon bowl ($13), every bite packs an umami one-two punch of melted miso butter and a garnish of salmon roe.
Tonkotsu ramen ($12) at Kumino is lighter and less fatty than most Peninsula versions. The pork belly and shoulder slices are pork chop-thick and succulent, the noodles springy with a hint of tension. Kimchi adds intensity and the soft-yolk poached egg is a tangy crowd-pleaser. Kumino also offers an Italian-inflected garlic linguine and spicy chashu pork bowl ($11.50), a spicy braised-beef ramen ($12), and a vegetable ramen ($10).
Liu's seafood ramen ($13) best shows his commitment to layers of flavor, making vats of broth from whole tilapias and at least a dozen other ingredients. It's not glamorous or frugal, since one pound of tilapia only yields enough broth for one bowl of ramen. That broth, though, is fortifying and robust, while being agile and pure -- the antidote to tonkotsu ramen. The seafood ingredients aren't missing either, with lots of shrimp, scallops, mussels and salmon hunks.
For a restaurant of 34 seats and a six-person outdoor patio, Kumino's dedication to homemade cooking is worthy of applause. The seafood ramen's broth is a full-time job, and there is the homemade chili sauce for blissfully chewy and mildly hot crispy rice cakes ($6), not to mention the two-day marinade for the fork-tender Chinese barbeque spareribs ($6.50). The last two are only on the dinner menu, otherwise both lunch and dinner menus are similar.
Starters include the delightful beet salad, with a sweet-earthy soy vinaigrette that subtly elevates every bite of juicy citrus and meaty beets. The namesake cumin-studded pork belly bun ("cumino" is Italian for cumin, Liu's favorite spice) and the cilantro and jalapeno-enhanced pork shoulder bun with a soy paste could be the signature dish at a restaurant in Tulum, Mexico, but springs from a classic pork preparation in Xi'an, China (all buns $3 to $4). I appreciated the tempura eggplant bun, and the ponzu cream cheese in an Izzy's Bagels-meets-Tokyo smoked salmon bun, but both could use an added jolt of flavor.
On my initial visit, this style of cooking reminded me of David Chang's Momofuku Ssam Bar and Noodle Bar in Manhattan, where a handful of Asian cuisines are mixed together, alongside a hefty dash of dynamic creativity. Kumino's menu is globe-trotting in a more gentle way, while Momofuku's is more like a wanderlust backpacker traveling to a new city every day. It turns out that the sous chef at Kumino is Bryan Leavey, a Culinary Institute classmate of Liu's and a former chef at Momofuku Noodle Bar. If a project from a couple of alumi from Manresa and Momofuku were to open in San Francisco, the waits would approach those of hot-spot State Bird Provisions. Instead, Kumino is the unknown newbie at an otherwise sleepy mini-mall at Middlefield Road and North Rengstorff Avenue.
Kumino sports a small counter, often with a solo diner gazing into a tablet. Everyone seems to eat quickly and the service follows suit, almost too swiftly when the ramen arrives before appetizers are finished. Luckily, the one efficient server couldn't be more charming or helpful with deciding what to order. A black-and-white mural of a woman and a sea creature on a side wall serves as decor, along with a two-part kitchen; one for the serious cooking, and one for the final prep stage. A little background music wouldn't hurt since it can be almost too quiet.
There is a small, pleasant list of sake and beer, but no wine. That will come soon, with plans for a list focused on California and Italy. Homemade green tea tiramisu ($6) and strawberry cheesecake ($3.50) are the only desserts, but Liu has plans to expand the dessert menu as well, with inventive ice cream flavors.
It will be a thrill to see what is next beyond wine and ice cream. Kumino is the opposite of Castro Street's restaurant scene, where atmosphere dominates and food follows in a supporting role. There is noteworthy cooking going on at Kumino, in a quiet location that is sure to get attention once word gets out.
580 N Rengstorff Ave., Mountain View
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Mondays.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: lot, easy
Beer and sake only
Outdoor seating: yes
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: quiet
Bathroom cleanliness: good