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Thursday, Sept. 28, 2000

TOKYO FOOD FILE

NOODLES

Trendy slurping in Azabu-Juban


All things must pass -- especially, it seems, the good stuff. So a final farewell, then, to the old Azabu-Juban we used to know and love, with its funky, friendly mom 'n' pop stores, cheap nomiya and overpriced wine bars, and its faintly musty smells of onsen and kimchi.

Oodles of noodles

There are no doubt plenty of fogeys bewailing the intrusion of the new subway line on what they see as one of Tokyo's last untouched little village communities. Not us, though. We're all in favor of improved infrastructure -- especially if it means it's easier to check out the rash of chic new eating places that have been opening up down in the Juban.

You can't help but turn your head as you go past Noodles. No prizes for guessing what's on the menu, but it's certainly no ordinary slurp-and-run operation. This is a noodle joint for the Nobu generation.

It's a free-standing two-story building with a trendy orange exterior and appropriately squiggly logo. What catches the eye, though, is the full-wall, ceiling-high, back-lit display of glass pasta jars, each filled with a different shape and size of noodle. It's an arresting motif, and one that perfectly sums up their aspirations: to present what are essentially simple street foods in sophisticated "fusion food" mode.

The usual questions arise, of course: Is there any substance behind all this style? Does the food live up to the promise of these surroundings? The answer at Noodles is an almost unqualified yes. After two visits -- one an extended evening, the other a brief snack -- we can say we've not been disappointed.

As much thought and inventiveness has gone into drawing up the menu as the remarkable interior design. It succeeds without being brilliant, but everything is presented with care as well as flair. It's upmarket without being pricy or pretentious. The important thing is, they care about their ingredients.

Start with a plate of their Vietnamese-style spring rolls. They are prettily arranged, with artful daubings of mayonnaise and blobs of sweet chili sauce. But they taste just fine, with a well-flavored filling of shrimp, chicken, salad veggies, coriander and bifun noodles, all wrapped in good fresh rice paper.

Suspicions that the kitchen know what they're doing will be confirmed on receipt of the roast duck appetizer. Served with fine chopped negi leek, the slices of duck meat are sweet, moist and not in the slightest rubbery, perfectly replicating the rich flavor of the finest kamo namban, but without the soba (this same duck also appears in the noodle listings, served with a chilled Korean reimen).

The sauteed foie gras is outstanding and not to be missed. Not only is it pan-fried perfectly, it is annointed with a delicate sauce of sweet red berries, and served with a few choice salad greens and thin wedges of rich moist honey bread. This is seriously good food -- although as the priciest item on the menu (2,000 yen for two small slices) it ought to be.

Adequate but far less memorable is the fritta of anago (conger eel). Does Italian-style battered seafood work with a Thai red curry dipping sauce? Try it for yourself, but know in advance that this is the same coconut curry dip that shows up later on the menu as a dip for the spicy Thai-style noodles.

This is the main shortcoming at Noodles. If you are not careful, you may find yourself with the same flavors repeating themselves in two consecutive dishes. Order judiciously, though, and all will be well. The "healthy noodle salad" with udon is given a nice rich sesame flavor; the chilled Korean reimen is light and refreshing; and the Vietnamese beef noodles (pho bo) are hearty and warming (the chili sauce is served separately, so you can adjust the heat level for yourself).

The beer is Sapporo (including Yebisu by the bottle) and they also have two kinds of sake, but you'd do better to direct your attention toward the simple, well-priced list of mostly New World wines, from which we extracted a very adequate Barossa Valley Semillon Chardonnay which held its own with just about everything except the spiciest moments.

While you eat, jazz plays softly. The waiters wear T-shirts and jeans rolled up to the knees, and combine friendly attentiveness with efficiency even if you're just dropping in for a quick but stylish bite late in the evening (they're open until 4 a.m. most nights) at the small counter by the first-floor open kitchen.

Should you wish to settle in for a leisurely dinner, they will show you upstairs, where there is seating for 10 at regular tables, some large upholstered chairs which are popular with families with young children, and an outside terrace where it seems entirely permissible to linger with wine and keitai phone for the entire evening.

This is the admirable thing about Noodles. They've managed to make it hip enough to be seen in with your designer clothes, but also loose enough to bring your kids out with you -- and without skewing the prices unreasonably high.

Best of all, of course, they built that new subway right to the door.

Noodles 2-21-7 Azabu-Juban, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3452-3112
Open: 6 p.m.-4 a.m.; Saturday 11:30 a.m.-4 a.m.; Sundays and holidays: 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Nearest station: Azabu-Juban (Namboku Line)
How to get there: Leave Azabu-Juban Station by Exit 1. As you emerge on street level, Noodles is on your right. From the Ichi-no-hashi Crossing, walk in the direction of Gotanda. Noodles is about 200 meters down on the right of the street, after the Juban TY Boxing Gym and opposite a Honda showroom.
What works: Chic looks, relaxed ambience, good service
What doesn't:Sauces and flavors get duplicated on the menu
Number of seats: 42
BGM:Hip jazzy stuff
Price per head: 3,500 yen (without drinks)
Drinks: Beer from 700 yen; sake from 700 yen; wine from 700 yen/glass, 2,800 yen/bottle
Credit cards:Most (but not Amex)
Language:English menu, some English spoken



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