Now that summer has been blown away, we finally have the appetite not just to eat but to venture further afield. Time to head across the Sumida River into the shitamachi (old downtown) heartland of Ryogoku, home to the national cult of sumo and its central shrine, the mighty Kokugikan stadium.
But it’s not the season yet for chanko nabe, the belly-filling hot-pot of the wrestlers. Instead, we are in search of soba, the buckwheat noodles that have nourished this city for centuries, since long before its name changed from Edo to Tokyo. And no one makes them better in this neighborhood than Tadashi Hosokawa.
His eponymous restaurant stands just a minute’s walk from the Edo-Tokyo Museum, but the overarching ugliness of that building’s massive facade is thankfully shielded from sight by the time you reach the doorway. From the wide, low noren curtain of handspun white linen and the bank of shrubbery that conceals the window, you know before you even enter that Hosokawa serves his soba well dipped in refinement.
The sliding wooden door with its washi paper-covered panes; the walls clad in rough-textured mud a warm shade of ocher; the alcove with its simple flower arrangement: The motifs are as traditional as the materials. But the actual look and layout of the spacious dining room are nothing but contemporary.
There are no tatami mats, just four communal tables of polished hardwood, plus one more in a semi-private room to the side. These are easily large enough for everyone to stretch their elbows in comfort and, more importantly, to order plenty of dishes.
Noodles, of course, form the core of Hosokawa’s menu but, as at most artisan soba-ya, there is also an appetizing selection of starters prepared with a level of expertise that will impress even the most hardcore of soba aficionados. There is good sake to go with them, too.
Hosokawa’s signature dish is tempura of anago (conger eel), another quintessential food of old Edo. The crisp, golden batter that covers the delicate white fillet is wispy light — much more in keeping with modern Japanese cuisine that the heavy, oil-rich tempura that was the norm in the days of the shoguns.
Whereas eel is served year-round, there are also seasonal specials. During the summer months, the tempura list may include okra or manganji tōgarashi, long, green, fleshy peppers that are better known in Kyoto and which can sometimes pack more than a tingle of heat. In autumn, the focus is on shiitake and other mushrooms.
One of our favorite starters is yaki-miso. Hosokawa does a very tasty take on this classic accompaniment for beer or sake: The savory miso is mixed with crunchy buckwheat grains and fine-chopped negi scallions, its saltiness leavened with mirin (sweet rice liquor). Formed into a patty and then grilled till the upper surface is crispy brown, it is served at the table on a ceramic “stone” with lovely mottled glaze, set amid a plate of coarse crystal salt.
Anago shows up in other forms besides deep-fried. It may be sliced and served with cucumber as su-no-mono (dressed with rice vinegar); or as anago-ni, a long fillet that is gently grilled, then simmered in a lightly seasoned dashi stock until it is delectably tender. Served on a leaf of sasa bamboo, with a dab of freshly grated wasabi root to add extra perk, this too is a side dish of quality.
Having nibbled and sipped, it is time for noodles. Hosokawa makes two kinds: The standard version are fine-cut and lightly flecked; the inaka (country-style) are slightly chunkier, darker in color and rather more substantial.
That said, a single portion of seiro (served cold with a dip; ¥1,050/1,100 for inaka) is only enough to sate a modest appetite. If you have not filled up on appetizers, you are likely to crave a second helping (an extra ¥950/¥1,000).
But they taste superb. Hosokawa makes the noodles himself, using buckwheat flour that is freshly ground each day. As an indication of the premium he places on quality, he even has his own farm in rural Ibaraki Prefecture where he grows some of the grain used in the restaurant.
The noodles are made from 100 percent buckwheat — usually a certain amount of wheat flour is mixed in to bind the dough — and you can certainly taste the difference. They have a gentle earthy fragrance that is so subtle you barely need to moisten them in the tsuyu dipping sauce.
Though soba snobs might disagree, there is no obligation to eat the noodles cold or unadorned. They’re just as good with tempura — anago, of course, or vegetables such as kamo-nasu (Kyoto eggplant) in summer, or gobō (burdock) in the winter months. Another Hosokawa special that will soon be back on the menu is kaki-soba: noodles served hot in broth with Hokkaido oysters.
Unusually, Hosokawa also offers light desserts to round off the meal, such as soba kanten, gently sweetened cubes of jelly incorporating buckwheat flour. And there is also likely to be some fruit — although the wonderful figs simmered down with sweet sake are unlikely to be on the menu much longer this year.
Hosokawa calls his style “Edo soba.” In part, this is just marketing — after all, he is operating in a traditional part of town and right beside a museum set up to celebrate the past. But mostly this is a way of saying he prepares everything by hand, with care and no artifice. In truth, though, this soba is likely far superior to anything served in this city in centuries past.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.foodfile.typepad.com/blog.