The Man Who Crossed the World to Eat at Daikaya

Ramen master Sakae Ishida gives the new Penn Quarter restaurant his mark of approval.

By: Jessica Voelker

Two days after its official opening on Valentine’s Day, the Penn Quarter ramen restaurant Daikaya received a visitor: a well-groomed man with round glasses and a neat row of bangs across his forehead. The man bent over a big bowl of soup, took a slurp from its broth, and smiled his broad smile. Later, he would remember thinking, “This is Japanese ramen.” Seeing him smile, Daikaya co-owner Daisuke Utagawa recalled a wave of emotion washing over him. “I had to run back into the kitchen,” he says.

“It was like your dad saying, ‘Good job,’” agreed chef Katsuya Fukushima, who is helming the kitchen at the ramen spot as well as the upstairs izakaya, which is set to open in the coming weeks. Fukushima came to the project from a fine-dining background—he worked for José Andrés at Cafe Atlantico and Minibar, and his résumé lists stints at Vidalia and Cashion’s Eat Place. Though he was born in Japan, he left the country as a young child and only really reconnected with his native land while traveling along with Utagawa and partners to prepare for Daikaya. Another part of his preparation: spending three weeks cooking alongside the man with the round glasses—ramen master Sakae Ishida, (or “Ishida-san,” as Fukushima calls him, “san” being a designation of respect in Japan). This stage took place inside the Nishiyama noodle factory in Sapporo, Hokkaido, the birthplace of miso ramen, a beloved soup style in Japan. Despite his white-tablecloth pedigree, Fukushima approached the process with humility. “This isn’t rocket science, but it’s real cooking, true cooking,” he said.

“It can drive a good chef crazy, in my opinion” says Utagawa. In its very simplicity, ramen is extraordinarily complex—a contradiction mirrored in the challenge of eating it: You want to get the noodles in your mouth, but you have to contend with the steaming soup, and armed only with a pair of chopsticks. All three of the men spoke of the impossibility of creating a perfect bowl. The goal, instead, is balance. There should be balance among the four important components of the soup—stock, noodles, tare (the miso-based concentration that serves as Sapporo ramen’s primary seasoning)—and the secondary seasonings: spices, condiments, and toppings. And there should be balance within each component—in the way the stock shows off the umami of the ingredients that compose it, in the structure and texture of the noodles, in their elasticity and springiness. Temperature, elevation, water—all these things impact the texture of the noodle, so modifications and tweaks are always necessary.

Nishiyama Seimen Company makes noodles for hundreds of restaurants around the world, though the only other place that cooks them in the US is Ren’s Ramen in Wheaton, Maryland. Ishida boards an airplane about 70 times a year to travel to restaurants serving the company’s noodles, and spends much of the rest of his days visiting Japanese ramen shops. The noodles can be found at soup spots in countries such as Dubai, Belgium, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Singapore, and throughout Japan. It is Ishida’s job to ensure those venues are offering an experience in keeping with Nishiyama’s spirit of excellence.

Daikaya makes four types of ramen, adhering as much as possible to the traditions taught by Ishida. Down the line, Utagawa and Fukushima may work in original twists on these classic soups, but both are adamant that they want recipes to evolve naturally and over time. “I want to do Sapporo ramen first,” explains Fukushima. “What I put out is where I am in my ramen career. What I’m offering is genuine.” The ramen master seems to agree.