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Sunday, April 8, 2001


Meditations on the Tao of soba

For a place that evinces such effusive praise ("one of the best soba shops in the world," says at least one connoisseur), Take-yabu has a remarkably undemonstrative presence. In fact it manages to be so self-effacing, few people realize it's there at all.

The only indication that it is a restaurant, rather than, say, a design studio or an exclusive hair salon, is the short brown noren stretched across its door, which is marked off from the street by a striking ironwork railing. That plus the name, spelled out on the door in barely discernible gold hiragana.

But for true aficionados, this is all they need to know. The unusual design, the faded lettering, the lack of self-promotion, the use of the name yabu . . . all this whispers of true craftsmanship and pedigree. The master of the house, one Takao Ame, is of the lineage of Yabu Soba in Kanda, the most reputed noodle restaurant in Tokyo.

The sliding door admits you to a small room with white walls, a few sturdy wooden tables, and distinctive fixtures of glass and burnished metal adorning both walls and ceiling. It's as simple and hushed as the refectory of a Franciscan monastery -- an effect heightened by the dark stained glass in the window and a side chamber screened off like a rarely visited Lady chapel.

Soba is not a religion, of course, but many devotees treat it like a spiritual practice. At Take-yabu, the Way of the Hand-cut Noodle is almost ascetic. There is no background music. Smoking is not permitted. Kids are discouraged, so patrons will not be disturbed at table. Even the noodle-making counter is hidden away out of sight. The hand-thrown ceramics, lacquerware and basketry are worthy of a teahouse. You are served with an almost liturgical earnestness.

There are some playful touches, though. The menu is a chunky tome of Nepalese handmade paper inscribed with brush and ink, and illustrated with folksy sketches, ink doodles and collages cut from ancient French newspapers. Some of the offerings have idiosyncratic names (umudon is the term for udon). And even the standard sobaya offerings (tempura, tororo, oroshi, nishin) are presented with a powerful sense of the aesthetic.

We ordered chilled sake -- Higan daiginjo, pricey (2,500 yen) but wonderfully fragrant -- which was brought to the table in a round white receptacle to be poured into small individual choko of glass. This was accompanied by small appetizers served on a carved fragment of ancient carpentry: a dab of soba miso, the crunchy kernels of roasted buckwheat contrasting with the smooth, barely salty soy paste; a small mound of tender soybeans simmered with chopped root vegetables; morsels of wasabi root lightly pickled in shoyu.

The other side dishes exhibit a similar sense of minimalist precision. Order the ita-wasa (three thick slices of kamaboko fish paste; 800 yen) and you will be brought a large, whole wasabi root and a miniature grater so you can make your own dip to taste. Our asparagus tempura (800 yen) was a single spear cut into three lengths, coated in a delicate, yet crisp batter. For more vegetable matter, we tried the nosawana abura itame (500 yen), coarse greens chopped finely then sauteed and seasoned with soy and spicy chili.

You do not have to be a true believer to recognize that the soba here is of the highest quality. The basic seiro soba (1,000 yen) has a deep, satisfying flavor, smooth and perfectly cooked to a fraction past al dente consistency, the inherent nutty sweetness of the buckwheat grain a sure sign that it has been freshly milled and chopped to order. The tempura soba (2,400 yen) features a crisp, delicate patty of sweet, small batter-fried shrimps, plus yuzu and mitsuba herb to give it extra fragrance. The aroma of katsuo dashi stock wafts from the hot tsuyu, which is served in a dainty copper flask with a rope handle.

Serving sizes are small, but you can always order extra noodles (800 yen; ask for tsuyu-nashi soba). Or sample the soba-gaki (1,300 yen), large, dumplings of buckwheat flour whipped up with boiling water so smoothly they slip down as easily as the noodles.

Take-yabu is not a place where you should hurry. Visit outside the busiest mealtimes (though not too late, as they run out of materials) and satiate yourself on the subtle touches that make this place many cuts above the ordinary. Linger in the peace and soft half-light long enough and you may find that you too have become a convert to the brotherhood of buckwheat noodles.

Take-yabu 4-23-8 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, tel: (03) 3442-7635
Open: 11.30 a.m.-3.30 p.m.; 5-9 p.m. (Sunday and holidays 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m.
Closed: Thursday
Nearest stations: Ebisu (JR and Hibiya lines)
How to get there: Take the walkway from Ebisu Station (East Exit) toward Yebisu Garden Place. At the end, turn left alongside YGP. At the lights, turn left (by the police box), cross the next street and head down the hill. Take-yabu is on the left, just before Ricos Kitchen.
What works: Some of the tastiest soba and trimmings you will ever find
What doesn't: Don't expect large-volume servings or discount prices.
Number of seats: 26
BGM: Of course not
Price per head:3,000 yen (without drinks); set courses from 5,000 yen
Drinks:Beer (Yebisu) 600 yen; sake from 900 yen (reishu from 1,200 yen)
Credit cards: Not accepted
Language: Japanese only; no English spoken

Take-yabu has its main shop in Chiba Prefecture, 1144-2 Kashiwa, Kashiwa-shi; tel (0471) 63-9838. All comments and feedback to Robbie Swinnerton at foodfile@yahoo.com

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