Call us traditional, but when it comes to New Year it is not the Champagne and raucous party streamers we go for; it’s the deep, clear fragrance of fine sake and the quiet tolling of ancient temple bells. Add some quality cuisine — Japanese, of course, with plenty of soba noodles — and we are ready to start the year afresh.
But tradition does not mean old fashioned, and nor does it have to be austere. So, for one of our final meals of 2010, we booked ourselves in for a leisurely dinner at Sasuga Bekkan.
As the name suggests, it’s a branch of Soba Sasuga, a chic basement restaurant on the furthest edge of Ginza. A favorite of ours for several years now, Sasuga made its name by making soba stylish. It was among the first to match the simple, earthy flavors of the humble noodle with side dishes of kaiseki quality, in a setting that felt traditional but totally up to the minute.
The newly opened (late November), Bekkan lies around just a couple of corners from the parent restaurant. And its basic premise is exactly the same: Top-quality te-uchi (hand-cut) buckwheat noodles, served with style, a superior selection of side dishes and premium sake and wine.
Where Sasuga is small, spare and smart-casual, Bekkan is slightly larger, rather more sophisticated and a lot harder to find. Hidden away on the second floor on a little-traversed back street, accessed by way of an anonymous plate-glass door and an unadorned stairway, this is just the kind of obscure, inscrutable location in which Tokyo eateries seem to revel.
The plainness of the entrance is forgotten once you arrive upstairs. The look is classic contemporary wafu: Traditional Japanese materials furnished with a distinctly modern sensibility. The dining room is partitioned with simple timbers. The rough-textured packed-mud walls are tinted a range of golden ocher earth tones. Carefully lit alcoves display chunky ceramics and simple hand-dyed fabrics.
Owner Chiaki Fujita says the intention was not to merely create a clone — although Sasuga’s continued popularity would certainly warrant that. Instead, she wanted a place that would be quieter and more discreet, somewhere to open a bottle and linger at leisure till late.
Fujita was certainly not the very first to offer wine with noodles, but here she ups the ante with some serious Burgundies, plus a good fistful of Champagnes. On a future visit we will definitely go down that route. But this time we stuck with sake: Kokuryu, Shinkame, Kikuhime and many more.
As we sipped, we nibbled on sobamiso (¥400), a little cone of smooth, savory miso studded with nutty, freshly toasted whole buckwheat grains served in an exquisite leaf-shaped saucer — all the ceramics are hand-thrown and eye-catching. We also enjoyed the yakimiso (¥700), a thin layer of white miso mixed with scallions, smeared onto a square of finely shaved wood and then grilled (actually blow-torched) to give it a delectable, dark golden-brown tinge that goes perfectly with the sake.
Tasty as these starters were, it was the mixed appetizer plate (sobaya no tsumami mori-awase; from ¥1,200) that really showed how fine the cooking at Bekkan is. It featured little rectangular crackers of deep-fried buckwheat dough, mixed with sun-dried konbu seaweed; cuts of kamaboko fish paste topped with sliced cucumber; fillets of savory marinated herring, the kind often served over soba in western Japan, but far less sweet here; whole tsubogai whelks in their conical shells; slices of rare-pink duck breast; and — the star of this particular show — morsels of conger eel in a firm but delicate nikogori aspic jelly.
Another standout was the sobazushi (¥1,300 per person). The strands of delicate noodles were perfectly aligned around a core of egg, savory mushroom and preserved greens, rolled up in fine strips of omelet and nori seaweed, sliced into wheels about a centimeter thick, and served on dark green leaves of sasa bamboo, with a garnish of pink-tinged myoga buds. This needs to be ordered in advance, so mention it when you reserve.
We love nabe hot-pots at this time of year, and were intrigued by the house-special Sasuga nabe (¥2,500 per person). This is an original recipe developed by Fujita and her chefs and essentially it’s yudofu (simmered tofu), but sobayu, the thick, starch-rich liquid left over after cooking the soba noodles, is used instead of a clear broth.
The silky-smooth tofu, made to order at a nearby artisan tofu shop, is so fresh it needs only the slightest of seasonings — either a pinch of salt or a gentle dip into a creamy sesame sauce. The flavor is subtly sweet, but far from bland. Next, the broth is replenished with more ingredients: Shiitake and shimeji mushrooms; slivers of abura-age, golden-brown deep-fried tofu; and organic mizuna herb. And once that is all eaten, whole groats of buckwheat are cooked up in the broth until it forms a thick ojiya porridge.
We kept the noodles to last, not as an afterthought but because they are, after all, Sasuga Bekkan’s raison d’e^tre. Delicate and refined, they look and taste nothing like the versions you find at most common-and-garden soba joints.
First, they are not the usual dark brown but a very light shade of green. That’s the actual color of the grain when it is harvested, as long as it is stored carefully. They are also made from pure buckwheat (most soba has a percentage of wheat flour added to hold it together), freshly stone-ground each day.
Each batch of noodles at Bekkan has its own particular provenance. The buckwheat is sourced from specific Japanese prefectures and even specific farmers. Some soba connoisseurs like to say they can taste the terroir. We would have to make many a return visit to Bekkan before we attain that level. We will be looking forward to doing just that in the year ahead.