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Teuchisoba Narutomi: Soba and tempura make for a classic combination

by Robbie Swinnerton

Tempura and soba: Separately, they’re two essential elements of traditional Japanese food culture. Put them together side by side on the table and they add up to one of the all-time classic dishes.

Even at its most basic — at a stand-and-slurp noodle counter, say, on a station platform — it’s a winning combination. But prepared with care, diligence and quality ingredients, the combination is one of the modest masterpieces of Japanese cuisine. That’s the way it’s done at Teuchisoba Narutomi.

More than eight years has passed since noodle-master Masaaki Narutomi opened his eponymous restaurant on the furthest fringe of Ginza. He chose a quiet location, on a side street that is closer to Tsukiji Market than the bright lights and temples of consumer spending on Ginza’s main drag. That does not deter the aficionados: Narutomi produces some of the finest teuchi (handmade) soba noodles in the city.

Because buckwheat flour does not hold together easily when formed into a dough, in the old days it was invariably mixed with a proportion of wheat flour. The classic ratio was two parts wheat to eight of buckwheat — ni-pachi in Japanese — as this was thought to preserve enough of the buckwheat flavor while making sure the noodles did not fall apart.

Narutomi, though, has mastered the art of making his noodles from 100 percent buckwheat flour. Not only does this allow the flavor of the grain to shine through, but it also results in noodles that are finer and smoother — more slurpable, you might say.

Fans of artisan soba mostly like their noodles served cold, a style known as seirō after the small basket-weave tray they are served on. But Narutomi is equally happy to dish up his soba in hot, savory broth — ask for kake — as it shows off the fragrance of his excellent dashi soup stock.

Hot or cold, the noodles go beautifully with tempura — and Narutomi has a very fine hand at that too. Instead of the jumbo kuruma-ebi prawns that are ubiquitous (and often flavorless) at most soba restaurants, he offers juicy cuts of anago (conger eel) or plump hotate scallops in a layer of crisp batter so light it would pass muster at all but the finest of Tokyo’s tempura houses.

His vegetable tempura is just as good, especially the renkon, slices of wheel-like lotus root, and gobō, long strips of dark burdock. As a seasonal delicacy, he is currently offering creamy fugu no shirako (puffer-fish milt). By next month, though, he should have sansai (wild mountain herbs) and takenoko (bamboo root).

Soba connoisseurs — tsū is the Japanese term — are generally keen on their sake. Narutomi keeps a small fridge-full of premium brews from around the country. Among the best on his current menu are Kaiun and Yoshidakura, from Shizuoka and Ishikawa prefectures respectively.

And since good sake demands good appetizers, so that you can linger at leisure, the handsome lacquered menu also features some excellent side dishes. As a starter look no further than the yaki-miso, a thin layer of miso mixed with buckwheat groats, which Narutomi grills until lightly browned and so full of savor it’s hard to stop nibbling on.

Another excellent, umami-rich bite is the uni-tsukudani, which is made by lightly salting and drying premium sea urchin. As an accompaniment to a flagon of chilled ginjō-shu sake, this is very unusual and highly recommended.

With the chill of winter still threatening, dishes of greater substance are called for. Nothing hits the spot like yu-dōfu. The tofu is first heated in dashi stock, which is then thickened with kuzu starch and garnished with freshly grated ginger.

Even heftier is the kamo-nuki. The bowl of warming broth contains slices of duck breast, slivers of negi leek and small cubes of awa-fu, dumplings of wheat gluten mixed with yellow millet grain. Add an order of Narutomi’s noodles and you’ve got a full meal that will more than sustain you for the walk back to the nearest station.

While many soba specialists adopt a traditional look, often with rustic decor, Narutomi’s compact dining room feels spare and minimalist, almost austere in its monochrome simplicity. With just three tables seating a maximum of 14 people, plus chairs for five more at the counter overlooking the spotless open kitchen, reservations are recommended.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.