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Friday, April 18, 2008
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Hand-rolled soba: The director's cut
The word tsu (connoisseur) is often bandied around when talking about Japanese cuisine. Originally denoting a general savoir-faire in worldly matters — most especially in the pleasure quarters — it is now widely used for those who know their food and drink.
And yet a tsu is not necessarily a gourmet in the Western sense. Along with connoisseurship, there is also a connotation of refinement bordering on asceticism. Thus a sushi tsu is as likely to extol kohada (the lowly gizzard shad) as premium toro tuna.
And that is why, since Edo times (1603-1867), one of the favorite areas of expertise for the tsu has been soba, those quintessentially Japanese noodles prepared from humble buckwheat flour and eaten with the simplest of dipping sauces.
The great film director Akira Kurosawa was a connoisseur of Japanese cuisine in the widest sense — he especially liked his meat and chicken, it is reported. But he was also an aficionado of te-uchi (fresh, handmade) soba. So that is why, after his death, when plans were hatched to launch a Kurosawa-inspired restaurant, it was deemed essential not only that no shortcuts be taken on the food, but that good noodles would be an essential part of the equation.
There are now four Kurosawa restaurants in Tokyo, all built in retro style to replicate the feel of buildings featured in his movies. Of them all, we find it is the original branch (opened in 1999) that draws us back from time to time — mostly because there are few other good soba shops in its area, tucked away behind Sanno Hie Shrine and just walking distance from Akasaka station; but also because we like the old-time look, now that it's acquired a few years' worth of patina.
The entrance, with its slatted windows, traditional wooden gate and flagstones, is modeled after a set in "Red Beard" (1965). In the lobby, a photograph of the master sits prominently in an illuminated alcove. An original film poster for "Yojimbo" (1961) adorns the wall of the ground-floor dining room. But this is more than just a film buff's theme restaurant: There is plenty on the menu to gladden the heart of any tsu, whether long-standing or still aspiring.
Any self-respecting soba shop (and here we discount the fast-food slurp-and-run joints) should offer a substantial range of side dishes to complement the noodles. Over the centuries, a standard repertoire of preparations has evolved at which te-uchi soba restaurants are expected to excel. Kurosawa does not disappoint.
Top of the list is tempura — not the ubiquitous flavorless pair of defrosted jumbo prawns, but far subtler delicacies of fresh seafood and seasonal vegetables. Right now, to celebrate spring, one of the offerings is anago (sea eel), served with a sprig of tara-no-me (the edible bud of the wild aralia tree) and a few tender young broad beans, all of which are enrobed in a light golden-brown batter.
Other sobaya standards on the menu include kamaboko ("cakes" of steamed pureed fish) served with a dab of freshly grated wasabi; sashimi of chicken or rare aegamo duck breast; misozuke-dofu; small squares of tofu that have been "pickled" in miso until they almost resemble tangy curd cheese; and yaki-miso, crunchy groats of parched buckwheat mixed with miso, smeared onto a flat bamboo scoop and lightly grilled.
Savory but not too salty, all of these go brilliantly with sake. And this is the other area of expertise in which a tsu must be deeply versed. Needless to say, Kurosawa has a prime selection of nihonshu from around the country. Among the better-known brands, Den-shu and Juyondai stand out prominently. But we were more than happy with one of the entry-level offerings, Shikizakura Hanagami, a less complex but flavorful brew from Tochigi.
There is plenty more on offer. Every evening (and all day on Saturdays), they fire up charcoal in a large irori grill and prepare morsels of seafood (mostly semi-dried himono), mushrooms or vegetables such as asparagus spears or bamboo shoots. It's very simple, and each serving is little more than a couple of bites, but it's all prepared and presented exactly right — and, more to the point, everything tastes just as good as it should.
The same goes for the soba. There are two basic types to choose from. The regular hand-chopped noodles are finely cut, light and neutral in flavor, perfect with tempura or in a hot broth. The inaka country-style noodles are thicker-cut, darker in color, heartier and more substantial: These are what you round off your meal with if you want to head home feeling fully satiated.
Hot, cold, with a simple dip or topped with warm egg or grilled gamecock, there are over a dozen options from which to choose, all of them highly acceptable.
Some people treat Kurosawa as a simple noodle joint, dropping in for a quick snack. Others settle in for a drink or two, taking their time for a leisurely evening. You can even book multicourse meals (This should be done ahead of time). And if you really want a slap-up meal, there are tatami rooms upstairs where you can dine on shabu-shabu hotpots featuring wagyu beef or premium pork from Kyushu black hogs.
A died-in-the-wool, hardcore tsu is unlikely to rate Kurosawa even in the top 100 of noodle restaurants for lots of reasons: It's too mainstream; it's not owner-run; it's too easy to find. But for anyone keen to investigate what traditional connoisseurship is all about, it's a fine place to start.