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Matsubara-an makes soba a fresh tradition

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From the very first sip of aromatic otoso sake and steaming-hot ozoni soup, we always love the time-honored ritual and ceremony of New Year’s in Japan. But even more than that, we like it when the hallowed traditions are brought up to date and placed in a contemporary context. That’s the way they do it at Matsubara-an.

At first look, this restaurant in genteel Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, seems nothing but traditional. It occupies a stately, 70-year-old timber town house set in its own spacious garden. You enter through an imposing wooden gate and relinquish your shoes at the exquisite entrance hall. However, once inside, you find that appearances can be deceptive.

The main dining room is beautifully restored with impeccable shoji screens, period lampshades, retro furnishings and views out onto the garden. But the tatami mats are covered with carpets, and instead of zabuton cushions you sit at stylish modern tables and chairs.

Too often this kind of hybrid look can feel stilted and forced, but at Matsubara-an the mood is comfortably casual. A buzz of conversation drowns out the bossa nova emitting from the sound system. The waitresses are polite but friendly, putting you immediately at ease.

The menu reflects a similar blend of simplicity and sophistication; Japanese and Western, traditional and modern. The specialty of the house is te-uchi soba, buckwheat noodles that are prepared fresh each day, rolled out and cut by hand and served with considerable refinement. However, there’s plenty more to explore at Matsubara-an besides noodles.

Just take a look at the mixed hors d’oeuvres plate. It features a selection of seven different dishes, including a couple of cuts of smoked duck; a smear of pate on a sliver of baguette; a cube of chilled tofu topped with savory miso; a slice or two of carpaccio; and various vegetable preparations.

Kamakura has a deserved reputation these days for the excellent produce grown in its coastal microclimate. Matsubara-an’s version of bagna cauda showcases the local vegetables at their best. The colorful array of crisp vegetable sticks is accompanied by a thick, anchovy- and garlic-driven sauce that here is served cold rather than hot.

Much of the seafood is landed nearby, especially the aji (jack) and shirasu (whitebait). But even greater emphasis is given to duck, which is served either grilled or simmered down in chunks in a rich broth, in much the same style as pork kakuni.

As at any soba restaurant worth its salt, Matsubara-an prides itself on the quality of its tempura. Rather than the standard-issue pair of jumbo prawns served elsewhere, it prepares crisp kaki-age patties packed with fresh shrimp, cuts of soft squid, jade-green shiso leaf and fragrant mitsuba herb.

These side dishes are all available a la carte throughout the day, but at lunchtime, two set menus are also offered. The ¥2,800 course comprises the hors d’oeuvres plate and a vegetable tempura, along with a serving of noodles — either seiro (cold with a dip) or kake (in hot soup). In the ¥4,000 course, you also get a plate of the grilled duck, plus dessert and a soft drink.

In the evening, though, Matsubara-an undergoes a change of character. The lights are dimmed and in place of out-of-town visitors it fills with locals, who settle in for leisurely dinners lubricated by sake, shochu, wine or whiskey from the well-stocked bar. In winter, nabe hotpots of pork or duck are added to the menu; throughout the year, there are steaks and seafood.

But what distinguishes Matsubara-an from just about any other soba restaurant we know are its garden tables. These are popular year-round, thanks to the overhead space heaters (blankets are also provided). But it is when the weather gets warmer that these come into their own.

They fill up with people out walking their dogs, families with young kids in tow, and even beachgoers. Where else can you sit down for tempura-soba dressed in shorts and a tank-top, to the accompaniment of sunshine and birdsong? That’s the kind of reworking of tradition that we really love.

Matsubara-an lies well off the regular tourist trail, down a quiet side street in a residential district a good 15-minute walk from the center of the city. Even so, there are often lines outside at lunchtime. If you don’t have a reservation, expect to wait up to an hour at weekends and especially on holidays.