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Friday, Feb. 20, 2009


Japan meets Jamaica: ital soba in Tokyo

What is it about handmade noodles, young chefs, minuscule restaurants and hard-to-find locations? Here's another highly idiosyncratic craft-noodle shop that opened recently, which is every bit as hard to find as Nemuri-an.

News photo
Rasta pasta: Koichi Nakajima in his tiny soba restaurant, Asahi.

Asahi lies on a sleepy side street just off Inokashira-dori in a mainly residential backwater halfway between Shimokitazawa and Yoyogi-Uehara. It's a tiny place, a converted store barely big enough to squeeze in two low, cobbled-together tables along with their equally mismatched chairs, plus three stools at a cramped counter by the kitchen.

That may not sound promising, but Asahi has one cogent claim to fame that may make it worth searching out: It is, to the best of our knowledge, Tokyo's one and only ital (Rastafarian vegan cuisine) noodle shop. Think of it as the soul mate of the excellent, whole-food baker, Levain, which is just a short stroll down the road.

Owner Koichi Nakajima in fact worked at Levain for a long time. Now, instead of kneading whole-wheat sourdough and baking it into loaves, he rolls out buckwheat (and wheat) dough and chops it into noodles. And he has brought the same righteous vibes with him, with the sound of nyabinghi chanting (Rasta devotional music) issuing from speakers set into dried hyotan gourds.

Nakajima runs the whole show single- handed, so he keeps his menu simple, with only a small selection of side dishes. He prepares a satisfying platter of vegetables, some cooked, some raw, some pickled, some from the ocean. And in place of the standard soba-shop staple, duck meat, he pan-fries cutlets of handmade kofu — wheat gluten which is produced by kneading wheat dough — a traditional preparation that is served in Zen monasteries.

Apart from just one item, the dashi-maki tamago omelet, Asahi is totally vegan. That philosophy extends to the dips that Nakajima serves with his soba (at most noodle shops, fish stock is blended in to give extra depth to the basic soy sauce flavor).

With the noodles, the choices are straightforward. Soba or udon (wheat noodles); cold (ask for mori) or warm (atsu-mori) on bamboo trays; or immersed in the hot cooking water, with a separate accompanying dip (known as kama-age, a common way of serving udon). It may be simple but it's far from austere — this is soba from the heart.

4-32-26 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku; nearest station: Higashi-Kitazawa on the Odakyu Line; open for lunch and dinner (closed Tues. and the 3rd Mon. of the month); cash only; (03) 3485-7785

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