For a food with such a long and venerable history, udon gets surprisingly short shrift in Tokyo. Sure, it’s not hard to find these long, chunky, white wheat noodles. But compared with the many artisan soba-ya serving handcrafted buckwheat noodles, there are very few outstanding udon restaurants. At least there is Kamachiku.
First off, the setting is more than special, it’s unique. Where else in the city can you sit down to eat inside a century-old redbrick kura (storehouse), least of all one that’s been refurbished with such style and contemporary sensitivity? Throw in a secluded location with a garden view and it adds up to an understated classic.
The neighborhood is Nezu, an area of narrow alleys still imprinted with the memory of the way things were before Tokyo became a modern megalopolis. From the main thoroughfare, Shinobazu-dori, you just take a couple of turns into the low-rise residential backstreets and you reach the stately two-story building that houses Kamachiku.
This, along with the garden, is all that remains of the residence of a wealthy merchant. When it was redeveloped to build a senior citizens’ home, the architect Kengo Kuma was brought in. Besides the facility itself, he also oversaw the conversion of the kura, and he’s done a beautiful job.
You enter through the new section, a glass-enclosed extension that feels almost part of the greenery outside. This is also the main dining space, with a single long communal table with ample room for a dozen people. At lunchtime, with the light streaming in from the garden, it’s a great spot for a light meal.
If you are lingering — as you will want to do, especially in the evening — the place to sit is inside the old storehouse. The entrance is at the top of a short flight of stairs. You remove your shoes and store them out of sight, then shuffle across the polished floor and sit on thin zabuton cushions at low tables (with horigotatsu leg wells). There are seats for 20 up here, and they are always the first to be taken.
Sit back, sip your drink and let your gaze wander up through the massive crisscrossed ceiling timbers to the gables high above. The external brickwork may seem Western; inside though, it feels entirely Japanese, reminiscent in scale of temple architecture or traditional mountain farmhouses.
But you are here to eat. Thankfully, the food is well worthy of this impressive setting. At Kamachiku the excellent noodles are prepared fresh each day, rolled out and cut by hand in the age-old way, and brought to the table with absolutely no nonsense or pretension. That’s the way they do it in Osaka, the udon heartland, where Kamachiku has its original branch.
There’s only one choice to make: zaru, cold udon with a cold dipping sauce; or kama-age, noodles served in hot water, with a piping-hot dip. Whichever, they come with the same condiments: a generous saucer of finely chopped negi scallions; grated ginger; a small cruet of shichimi-tōgarashi (seven spice); and a large bowl of age-dama, small Rice Krispie-size croutons of tempura batter.
You spoon these into your dip, pick up a couple of strands of udon, dip them and slurp. Chopsticks can make lifting the long and slippery noodles a bit fiddly: Bring your own napkin to protect your lap.
While udon will form the core of your meal, Kamachiku has several other strings to its bow — starting with its sake selection. The refrigerator is loaded with isshōbin magnums, including several described on the menu as “famous sake that you want to try once in your life.” In fact, brews such as Denshu and the always popular Juyondai are not unusual at all at sake-specialist izakaya taverns, but to find them offered here is yet another indication that this is a noodle shop of some distinction.
There is a substantial menu of side dishes to nibble on while waiting for your noodles. Some are simple, such as onsen tamago (eggs poached in their shells), goma-dōfu (tofu-like cubes of creamed sesame) or oshinko (lightly pickled cucumber and eggplant). Others are more substantial, including seafood or vegetable tempura.
The best approach if you just want to settle in and chat, without the hassle of delving through the Japanese-only menu, is to book a set meal in advance. This must be done two days ahead. But you will want to reserve your table anyway: The chances of walking in off the street and finding a table free are very slim.
At weekends, however, reservations are not taken, and a queue forms outside the door well ahead of opening time. Benches are provided for those first in line, as well as an awning.
If, like so many other people, your legs are already tired from spending the day exploring the Nezu area, you are advised to arrive early. Kamachiku is worth the wait.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.