Chef Basil Yu, the culinary wizard behind Yagi Noodles, is a bit of an art nerd. Eye-catching prints and a large mural – all by local artists like Kevin Bledsoe, Nicholas Lima, and Ramon Hernandez – inform the laid-back style of Yagi’s new location in Newport’s Long Wharf Mall. Most are pop culture-y twists on traditional Asian art, and Yu points them out with a mix of savvy art curator and enthusiastic fan. Given his background, this dichotomy makes sense.
Raised in Manchester, New Hampshire and the child of Chinese immigrants who owned a restaurant, Yu grew up in the industry. “It’s a similar first-generation story,” he says. “When you don’t know the language, you open a restaurant.”
His parents, chasing the American dream, wanted Yu to go to medical school. He entered the University of Southern Maine in Portland as a health sciences major on a pre-med track. To help put himself through school, he cooked. Surprisingly, it was his first time working on the line.
“I wanted to be in the kitchen,” he recalls of his early years working at his parents’ restaurant, but because he was fluent in English, his job was front-of-house. “I was an awkward teenager with acne, and I had to answer the phones,” he recalls with mock horror. “I dreaded doing it.”
Whatever trepidation he felt working out front, it didn’t follow him into the kitchen. He credits his dad for instilling a work ethic that took him from the work-study job at his university’s cafeteria to his entry into high-end dining at the storied White Barn Inn in Kennebunk, Maine.
There, cooking became a passion. “There was a level of creation, to be able to make something with my hands,” he says. “Everyone’s doing this sort of dance to put on this show. It felt good to be part of it.”
He expected to do a year at White Barn before heading to culinary school, but his executive chef told him the Auberge Resorts restaurant was the best training ground. “The restaurant was a small, four-person line, so I learned each station,” he says. “Then I went to the bakery and learned that. There’s a banquet facility, so it was like, let me do banquets.” While he soaked in the industry on the job, he studied culinary texts during his downtime.
Yu came to Rhode Island to be Chef du Cuisine at the Vanderbilt in Newport, where he stayed for four years before taking a job as executive chef at Chair 5, making him part of the opening team at Narragansett’s The Break Hotel. During a two-year diversion at Dunton Hot Springs in Colorado, he hosted a Monday night ramen pop-`1up at a local brewery, the precursor to Yagi Noodles.
“Growing up Asian, I always gravitate towards Asian flavors,” he says, noting noodles were his go-to comfort food. “But the fine dining restaurants didn’t really allow me to do that.
“We made all this complicated and beautifully presented food, and I still love that,” he says of his days at upscale eateries. “But, at the end of the day, what are you eating? What are you getting on your way home from work?”
Unsure of his next career step, Yu returned to Newport and consulted for a while before the opportunity for a ramen pop-up presented itself during the pandemic and became a runaway success. He ended up building out a space on Thames Street.
“You think it’s going to be just friends, but strangers were coming into the restaurant,” he recalls. “It was like, wow, this is a thing.”
Leaving the location on Thames was bittersweet, but the new Yagi Noodles is spacious enough to have a boba bar in the front and plenty of seating for diners. The larger kitchen means a broader menu that extends beyond the five different ramens, and includes the addition of appetizers, pillowy bao buns, and a selection of yakitori. There’s also a dedicated, humidity-controlled noodle room, where Yu and his team handcraft the pasta. It includes a window so diners can peek at the process.
Ramen purists won’t find the traditional Japanese style at Yagi. Yu calls his recipe uniquely American. “We’re American ramen inspired by Japanese and Chinese cuisine opened by a Chinese American,” he says. “You don’t get much more melting pot than that.”
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