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Friday, Feb. 20, 2009
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Austere, obscure, entirely Japanese
At the recent Tokyo Taste World Gastronomy Summit, the super-chefs assembled at Tokyo International Forum paid fulsome homage to Japan and its influence on their own creative vision. Their well-honed, technologically enhanced presentations were leavened throughout with buzzwords such as dashi soup stock, yuzu citron and umami savor.
They waxed lyrical about the inspiration gained from their visits to Japanese restaurants, from premium sushi counters (step forward, Ginza's Sukiyabashi Jiro) to exclusive kaiseki ryori (take a bow, Kyoto's renowned Kitcho and Tokyo's ineffable Mibu). But with all due respect to these stellar establishments, the essence of Japanese cuisine lies just as fundamentally in the earthy, undemonstrative food of places such as Nemuri-an.
You won't find this simple soba specialist in the Michelin (or any other) guide. Indeed, you may never find it at all, so well is it hidden among the back streets of Kanda's Suda-cho subdistrict. And even if you do, the chances are you will not get in without a considerable wait, such is the growing buzz on the grapevine of noodle connoisseurs.
What is so remarkable about it? The answer to that lies in whether or not you are a devotee of te-uchi (freshly made, hand-chopped) soba and the pared-down — many would say austere — culinary culture that is so much a part of its appreciation. From the willfully obscure location to the matter-of-fact service and the no-frills seating, most definitely designed for speed and not comfort, Nemuri-an dispenses with unnecessary niceties. It's all about the noodles.
They're made the time-honored, painstaking, artisan way. The buckwheat grain is ground fresh each day in the small stone mill that sits in one corner of the dining room. Then it is mixed to a dough (with no added wheat flour), rolled out and sliced into fine strands. That's the thud and the rhythmic "thunk" you will hear emanating from the adjoining side chamber if you arrive early.
A handful of these mottled gray-brown noodles are briefly dunked in a caldron until perfectly cooked to the core — slightly softer than the al dente of classic Italian pasta. They are then plunged into cold water, drained and arranged on a round tray of woven bamboo that is gently conical in shape, but losing its form due to constant daily use.
First, taste some of the noodles just as they are, bland at first taste but with a faint underlying sweetness and fine nutty aroma. Next, season them in the accompanying dip, a rich soy sauce infused deeply with the smoky savor of bonito flakes. Finally, mix in a dab of the wasabi (grated fresh from the root, of course) and grated oroshi daikon radish on the side dish.
Wait, there's more coming. A second batch of soba arrives. It looks much the same but is made of buckwheat from a another part of Japan. It changes with the seasons: When we were there the other day, the respective provenances were Fukushima and Kagoshima. Taste the terroir: The difference is subtle, but enough to excite the hardcore aficionados who comprise a good proportion of the customers at Nemuri-an.
They are also likely to be connoisseurs of sake, and they will find a score or more of brews from which to choose, none of them too flowery, effete or expensive. There are also simple sakana, the traditional snacks to nibble on as you sip.
These are some of our favorites: Iwa-nori seaweed, crispy flakes of dark-green marine intensity; daikon-ni, a thick, round cut of daikon simmered in soy sauce until it is black, savory and melting soft; tofu, prepared from scratch in-house; slices of home-smoked duck breast (ask for kamo no kunsei); and, not to be missed, gyuniku babon-ni, a slice of beef fillet cooked slow and tender in a bourbon-based sauce and daubed with a blob of thick yellow mustard.
But the noodles are the main event. And the surprise here is to find that Nemuri-an's soba-meister, Hiroshi Yanagisawa, is not some grizzled veteran with ingrained attitude but soft-spoken and still youthful in his enthusiasm and refusal to compromise on quality.
This also explains the unconventional choice of setting for his restaurant. The building may be hard to find, but it's a classic, an 85-year-old stone town house erected shortly after the great earthquake of 1923. The interior is all retro timber from ceiling to beams to the floor (you remove your shoes as you enter) — there's even a steep wooden staircase up to the unused second floor.
Nemuri-an has been going about four years now, but already it is staking a claim to becoming the third great soba restaurant in Kanda. Seeing that its close neighbors, Matsuya and Kanda Yabu, have been in operation for over a century, that is quite an achievement.