Funny thing about Japanese restaurants is that they’re usually well known for one specific thing. While many restaurants in Vancouver or New York or Paris are famous for a certain style of cuisine, Japanese restaurants usually specialize in a single dish or dishes all based on the same ingredient. What you end up with is restaurants that only serve tempura or sushi or soba noodles. Heck, some places even only serve a single dish such as an unagi don (flamebroiled eel on rice) or fugu (pufferfish).
Because it is summer and plenty hot in Tokyo, one of my favorite dishes is zaru soba, which is basically cold buckwheat noodles. It is a perfect summer dish because it is a light and refreshing meal. When made well, it’s delicious. When they’re not, they taste like someone tried to make spaghetti out of cardboard.
Marunouchi is the business district in Tokyo and mostly full of office buildings and the occasional department store. However, nestled in the middle of a massive concrete jungle is a tiny, traditional Japanese house-looking restaurant with a small garden in front of it. I was intrigued and since it was nearly 7pm and all I had was an onigri hours earlier, I was also hungry. After peering through the window to see the restaurant at capacity (always an indication of a decent place to eat) of diners munching on soba noodles, I asked for a seat.
Kanda Yabu Soba opened in 1880, so it has a long, long history of making some of the best soba in the world. All the servers are incredibly friendly and picked up on the fact that my Japanese is horrible right away, bringing me an English menu. It has several different styles of soba noodles, both hot and cold. I ordered a cold Nameko soba since I love mushrooms as well as an appetizer of braised duck breast. Oh, and a bottle of sake.
The duck breast arrived first, served on what I assume is a bed of shaved radish with a dollop of mustard. The duck is served cold but is delicious and incredibly flavorful. I tried it with the mustard as well but since the mustard is very potent, it sort of overwhelms the duck…even though the duck itself is a strong flavor.
I was a tad perplexed when my Nameko soba arrived since I’m used to dipping my noodles in the sauce and slurping them noisily. When I saw that it was all in the same bowl, I have to admit I was a bit confused. However, this dish is fan-freakin’-tastic.
The soba noodles are perfect. Not mushy…not cardboard-y…but perfect buckwheat noodles. The nameko mushrooms and grated radish are perfect as a cold dish as each mushroom explodes in your mouth with the earthy flavor of mushrooms and taking on the flavor of the tsuyu (er…the soba sauce, if you will). I thoroughly enjoyed this bowl of noodles…right down to the last drop of the tsuyu, since after you’re finished, the waitress brings you a teapot full of the water that the noodles were cooked in (sorry, I forget what she called it) to pour into the sauce to make soup, which is a heck of a lot easier than picking up each mushroom since some of them are rather tiny.
After that, I decided I hadn’t really had enough of their noodles and ordered a plain zaru soba as well. As with my Nameko soba, the noodles are perfect.
The sake they gave me was a relatively decent one. It isn’t labeled so I can’t tell you what brand it is. I asked for a cold one since they’re usually the better sakes. Hot sake is lesser quality stuff that is heated to cover up the crappiness. It was a tad sweet for my taste (although I don’t like sweet stuff as much as most people) but easy to drink and great for summer.
The restaurant itself is a very nice place to be. From what I just read right now on the net after Googling the romanized version of the name, this is apparently one of the most famous soba places in Tokyo and the owners are quite established in the art of making noodles. Kanda Yabu Soba is set in a beautiful traditional building, with half on traditional tatami mats and the other with regular tables and chairs. The place just oozes warmth and serenity.
It has a very special kind of ambiance, especially with the lady behind the counter reading orders out in a sort of Japanese poetry style. At first, I was wondering what was going on and what CD they had in the player, but after awhile, it’s actually rather soothing. The staff are very attentive and very friendly.
The only real problem with Kanda Yabu Soba is the price and portions, as the former is rather high and the latter is a tad small. Portions in Tokyo are never truly large but if you are a big eater, you might not be satisfied here unless you spend a fortune. My bill (nameko soba, zaru soba, duck and a bottle of sake) came to 3300 yen. The Nameko is 1100, the sake 800 and soba/duck 700 each. Not absurd but when you consider that a serving of soba is usually twice the size and half the price, it does seem on the high side even if this is probably one of the best places for soba in the city. You could also probably eat here a lot cheaper but…where’s the fun in that?!
However, the quality of the noodles is higher than any other place I’ve been to so far. This is the best soba I’ve had since I arrived in Tokyo three weeks ago…and I’ve eaten a lot of it. For the experience and quality of the food, I’d definitely give them a recommendation.