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Friday, Aug. 20, 2004

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Chilling out with noodles in summertime


These are days of heat and tribulation. For 40 days and 40 nights we sweltered and sweated through that record heat wave -- and there's plenty more of the summer yet to come. Not surprisingly, given these almost biblical weather conditions, our main source of solace and sustenance has been noodles -- usually of the chilled variety.

News photo
The interior of Saikabo restaurant (above); a bowl of gomoku hiyashi soba noodles at Charlie House.
News photo

On the fifth floor of the sleek new Coredo building in Nihonbashi, one of our favorite Korean restaurants has opened its latest branch. Saikabo's original shop in Yotsuya-sanchome (reviewed in this column three years ago) is funky and intimate. Here, the presentation is much more sophisticated, and the cooking is every bit as good as we have come to expect. You will find the usual pulgogi (grilled meats) and chige stews -- plus, of course, Saikabo's excellent chijimi pancakes, arguably the best in the city.

But it was the chilled noodles that we were there for. Made from buckwheat mixed with sweet potato flour, they have a soft brown color not so different from soba noodles but with a much smoother texture that helps them slip down your throat effortlessly. These are prepared in two ways, as bibin-reimen or as mizu-reimen (their Japanese names). The former are seasoned with a thick, spicy sauce that leaves your taste buds prickling. The mizu-reimen, on the other hand, are served in a delectable chicken broth (also chilled) that is almost as translucent as water -- hence the name.

The toppings are equally light and tasty -- a slice each of pork, apple and hard-boiled egg, with a few shavings of blanched daikon. To make it easier to eat, the waitress will deftly chop up the noodles in the bowl, using large black iron scissors. Then the thing is to add just a dash of rice vinegar, stir in a dab of yellow mustard to taste, and mix it all up.

To awaken your palate and leave you with that unmistakable chili tingle, they serve a small portion of their homemade kimchi on the side. It's simple, delicate and very refreshing. Of course, it is not very filling -- but that is the whole point. If you need something more satisfying, then order one of their rice dishes: The ishiyaki bibimbap -- rice and vegetables in a crackling-hot, black-stone bowl -- is also excellent. But as a light snack to sustain you until the cool of evening, you will not find better.

* * * * *

Shibuya is never our favorite part of town, even at the best of times; at this time of year it is well-nigh unbearable. But we never complain should fate (or whim) lead us anywhere near the top end of Koen-dori -- as long as it's around the opening hours of Charlie House.

One look at the unprepossessing facade and cramped, cluttered interior and you might easily dismiss it as just another hole-in-the-wall noodle shop. You would be making a big mistake. The specialty of the house here is Cantonese tangmien (tanmen in Japanese): thin, uncrinkly, white wheat noodles served in a soup so delicately flavored you could almost call it refined. This is not your average ramen joint.

The menu on the wall, unchanged for decades, lists six different noodle dishes. The basic style is cha-li (from which the name Charlie punningly derives), featuring scallions and morsels of pork. The cha-shu tangmien is topped with slices of meat that has been marinated and steamed till it is light, unfatty and delectable. Other options include wakasagi -- small, smelt-like fish deep-fried in crisp, fragrant batter; and tebasaki -- tender chicken wings cooked down in a rich, sticky sauce that clings to the meat like a layer of savory butterscotch. These are served separately from the noodles, rather than in the broth, to ensure they do not lose the distinctive flavors of the herbs they are cooked with -- star anise, cinnamon and bay leaves.

During the summer months, though, it's the chilled gomoku hiyashi soba that is the best reason for a visit to Charlie House. The noodles are formed into a mound on the plate, which is then covered with a colorful array of meat and vegetables: strips of red-tinged pork, chunks of white chicken breast meat and shreds of yellow omelet, each interspersed with long slivers of crisp green cucumber.

A small pinch of pickled ginger is perched on top; a dab of yellow mustard sits on the rim of the plate; and beneath it all is a sauce that subtly blends soy with just the right amount of rice vinegar. The quality of the basic ingredients is good; the colors, flavors and textures are in perfect balance; and serving sizes are large enough to leave you feeling satisfied.

Lunchtimes at Charlie House are busy, and you rarely have the time or space for leisurely appreciation of your food. It's built for speed not comfort, and there may be three more stools squeezed in at the L-shaped wooden counter than the 10 that fit. You order, eat, pay up, and leave. Things are more relaxed in the evening.

Many regulars like to settle in with a beer or two, or perhaps some Chinese liquor, plus a few side dishes. These include pitan (preserved eggs); cucumber and chicken meat in a piquant sauce; and their special chozume, pink Cantonese sausage served warm and sliced very thin.

Good as these snacks may be, they serve only as prelude to your real excuse for being there -- those superb noodles.

Charlie House, 1-15-11 Jinnan, Shibuya-ku; (03) 3464-5552. Open 11.30 a.m.-2.30 p.m. & 5-8.30 p.m; closed Sundays and holidays. From the Parco crossroads, walk up the right side of Koen-dori toward Yoyogi Park. Turn down the second side street on the right after the Salt and Tobacco Museum, and Charlie House is on the right, almost immediately.

Japanese/Chinese menu; English not spoken; no credit cards (cash only).

Saikabo
Nihonbashi Bldg. 4F, 1-4-1 Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku; tel: (03) 5204-0108 www.saikabo.com
Open:11 a.m.-11 p.m. (Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m.)
Nearest stations: Nihonbashi (Ginza, Asakusa and Tozai lines)
How to get there:From Nihonbashi Station, take Exit C1 or C2 and you will be in the basement level of Corredo Nihonbashi building.
What works: Superior Korean home cooking in a sophisticated modern setting.
What doesn't:Prices are a bit higher here than at their main restaurant (though still very reasonable).
Number of seats: 78
BGM: Contemporary R&B
Price per head:Lunch set meals (including mizu-reimen) from 950 yen; dinner courses from 3000, also a la carte available.
Drinks:Beer from 380 yen; chuhai from 380 yen; shochu from 1,500 yen/small bottle; makkoli 1,700 yen/bottle; Korean soju from 1,200 yen/small bottle; homemade ginseng liquor 600 yen.
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language:Japanese/Korean menu; little English spoken.
Reservations: Recommended in the evening



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