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Nanakura: A lighter take on udon noodles

by Robbie Swinnerton

Is it possible to become a noodle addict? Technically no, but at this time of year it’s not hard to build up a fierce dependence on food that is light, quick and easy on the digestion. And it always pays to know where to find a good fix. Around Shinbashi, it’s hard to do better than Nanakura.

The specialty is Inaniwa udon, a variety of wheat noodle from Akita Prefecture in Japan’s far northwest. Unlike the hefty, chunky udon of western Japan — especially from the Sanuki area of Shikoku — the Inaniwa version is smooth and delicate. Not that there’s anything refined about Nanakura or its noodles.

They arrive in a generous tangle, with a thick, savory dipping sauce on the side. Tsukemen (dipping noodles) is a style more often found at ramen shops, and this rich stew would not be out of place in that context. Made from a broth of chicken and duck cooked down with plenty of morsels of the meat, it is thickened with sesame and given extra zing by adding onion and myōga ginger.

At midday, that’s pretty much all Nanakura serves. You just choose from three portion sizes (¥800, ¥1,000 or ¥1,200). But if that’s not enough to satisfy your cravings, supplement it with a small donburi rice bowl (an extra ¥300), which comes topped with glistening red ikura (salmon roe) or other seafood.

As at any self-respecting noodle joint, there is invariably a line outside. At lunchtime, the queue moves at a good pace, but not in the evening, as Nanakura loosens its necktie and morphs into a cheerful izakaya tavern where you are expected to linger.

The food is satisfying and more sophisticated than you’d expect in this quintessential salaryman location. This is clear from the moment you sit down. The otoshi starter served with your first drink is an elaborate cocktail of uni (urchin), a few strands of junsai (water shield), creamy yuba (soymilk skin) and a plump ama-ebi shrimp, all laid on top of slithery clear tokoroten (agar) noodles.

Seafood predominates here. One trademark dish is an intriguing layered terrine fashioned out of foie gras, kaibashira (scallop holdfasts), uni and kanimiso (crab tomalley), and topped with a scoop of ikura roe. Another is the sashimi uni basket: scoops of creamy-orange urchin covering a woven tray the size of your hand.

Other dishes well worth trying include toro tuna cooked down with ginger and set in a dark nikogori aspic; abalone simmered with bamboo shoots and shiitake mushrooms; sautéed scallops; and anago (conger) tempura. And don’t miss the intensely garlicky Chinese cabbage pickles.

These are all preliminary snacks, intended for lingering over as you sip your sake, shōchū or wine. And once you’ve eaten and drunk your fill, you end the evening with a serving of that udon. Whether you’re hard-core noodle addict or more of a recreational slurper, you will find they slip down a treat.

2F No. 1 Shinbashi Ekimae Bldg., 2-20-15 Shinbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-3571-5012; www.nanakura.co.jp; open 11:20 a.m.-2 p.m. (LO) and 5-9 p.m. (LO); closed Sat., Sun, holidays. Nearest station Shinbashi; smoking restricted; lunch from ¥800, dinner set menu from ¥5,000, also a la carte; major cards OK; no English menu; little English spoken. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.