Tracking down tiny, one-counter restaurants in Tokyo’s narrow backstreets can often feel like the proverbial haystack needle-search. No such problem finding Kagari, even though it’s hidden away down a tiny unmarked alley. The giveaway is the perpetual line of people outside.
That’s only to be expected: ramen shops and queuing go together like rice and pickles, sake and sashimi, pizza and beer. So how do you know this is the right line to join? First, you’re in Ginza. Here among the flash department stores and brand-name boutiques, it’s not exactly common to see people braving the elements as they wait to eat. And then there’s the large sign above the door in Roman letters with the single word “Soba.” This is misleading: Kagari does not serve buckwheat soba noodles. But it is also the confirmation you are looking for. This is no ordinary ramen shop.
Kagari offers its hot noodles in two very contrasting styles. Ask for the tori-paitan soba and they are served in a thick soup the color and consistency of cream. As smooth and comforting as corn potage, it contains very finely diced onion to give a light texture along with the extra sweetness.
The alternative is the niboshi-shōyu soba, a dark, savory broth made from dried sardines and seasoned with soy sauce. As with the paitan, the noodles themselves are fine and delicate (in pasta terms, think spaghettini thickness).
The toppings are as elegant as the broths. You get a couple of slices of chicken (rather than the usual pork); slivers of real bamboo shoot from Kyoto (not the ubiquitous Chinese menma bamboo); a sprig of flowering nanohana greens; and as a garnish, a sprig of kaiware daikon sprouts.
Light and appetizing; simple and elegant; natural and healthy; sophisticated. These are not the usual adjectives that spring to mind when ramen is discussed. Kagari breaks the mold in many other ways too.
Just look at the extra toppings you can order. Shallots or garlic fried in butter; sudachi citron, to add an extra tartness to the flavor; wonderful aji-tama soft-cooked eggs with dark orange yolks; extra greens on the side; even slices of roast beef.
Almost all of the above are included on your plate if you order Kagari’s top-of-the line tsukemen — ask for the tokusei-tsukesoba. The noodles are much more substantial, almost as chunky as udon (or Siena-style pici pasta). The soup is a thicker version of the niboshi fish soup, which can be ordered either hot or cold. And this too is superb.
You place your order before you’re even inside, then wait some more until you are summoned in to squeeze behind your fellow diners at the tiny eight-seat counter. Your noodles will be served with minimal further wait or ado. Once you have slurped and finished, you pay up and leave.
Is Kagari really worth queuing — a good half hour if the line is down to the corner — for a meal that will take half that time to eat? Without question.
4-4-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; no phone or website; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5:30-10:30 p.m. (Sat. till 9 p.m.); closed Sun.; nearest station Ginza; no smoking; ¥1,000 per head (plus drinks); no cards; Japanese menu; no English spoken. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.