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Muto: Handmade soba noodles with their own Michelin star

by Robbie Swinnerton

Who would choose to become a teuchi soba specialist? Kneading and rolling the dough, cutting it by hand, then carefully cooking and serving the delicate buckwheat noodles — it’s a long, laborious job to prepare a meal that can take mere minutes to consume.

Ask Eisuke Muto, who packed in his life as a salaryman to follow his dream of becoming a sobaya-san. From eager enthusiast to committed artisan, he climbed a steep learning curve, guided only by his dream of not only owning his own restaurant but also preparing from scratch all the food he serves.

That mission was accomplished a dozen years ago, when he opened for business in the backstreets of Nihonbashi. But his compact, self-named restaurant is no mere labor of love: It is the best in the neighborhood — no mean feat in one of Tokyo’s most traditional districts — and draws custom from well beyond its immediate catchment area.

It’s not the sort of place where you order, slurp and then dash off back to work. It feels cozy and comfortable, a place where you can settle in for a bit, even at lunchtime. And that is just as well, since Muto now only serves his noodles as part of multi-course set meals.

The omakase (chef’s choice) lunch is a five-course banquet in miniature. It starts with a couple of light appetizers: perhaps a classic sobaya snack such as yakimiso — rich, savory miso mixed with buckwheat grains and grilled until its upper surface is nicely crisped — or soba-dōfu, buckwheat flour set into a small tofu-like cube that comes adorned with uni (urchin) or tiny shrimp, or bathed in a thick, clear ankake sauce rich with crabmeat, depending on the time of year.

This is followed by a light fillet of grilled fish, tempura of sansai (wild plants such as fiddleheads) or bamboo shoots or, come autumn, mushrooms aplenty. At dinner, the central “main” dish is invariably a nabe hot pot — currently featuring delicate shirauo (whitebait) — which is cooked in front of you at the table. All is light, flavorful and prepared with finesse.

The culmination of every meal, though, will be the soba noodles that Muto still prepares daily in the tiny workshop at the back of his kitchen, and which are usually served in the seiro style — a tangle of cold noodles on a tray of woven bamboo. Light gray-brown in color, al dente in texture and with a subtle, nutty earthiness, they are simple, satisfying and wholesome, though gone in an instant.

Tokyo does not lack for good teuchi soba restaurants, but Muto stands out for the quality of the dishes that accompany the noodles. This has not escaped the notice of the Michelin restaurant inspectors, who have awarded it a coveted star for the past four years. Inevitably, that means the 16 seats are almost always full in the evening, and often at lunchtime too. Calling ahead is highly recommended.

1-13-1 Nihonbashi-Muromachi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; 03-3231-7188; open 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. (LO) and 6-7:30 p.m. (LO); closed Sat., Sun. and holidays; nearest station Mitsukoshimae; no smoking; omakase lunch ¥3,390 per head (plus drinks); dinner ¥7,900; major cards OK; Japanese menu; little English spoken.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.