The holidays are over and the year of the monkey is swinging into action. But it’s still very much the season for ritual: You can tell from the flow of worshipers heading into the wooded precincts of Meiji Jingu Shrine. In the face of such solemnity, the brash bustle of nearby Harajuku can feel crass and commercial. But there are pockets of serenity — you just have to know where to look.
In the case of Matsubara-an Keyaki, that direction is upward. From your table three floors above Omotesando you can look out at the tops of the keyaki (zelkova) trees that line the busy boulevard below. It is easy to forget you are a one-minute stroll from the shrine’s main gate and the visitors milling around the nearby railway station.
This is the sister shop of a well-loved soba noodle house in the residential backstreets of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. Apart from the setting, the Harajuku restaurant has much in common with the original, from the moment when you relinquish your shoes at the door to the relaxing, modern take on traditional Japanese decor.
Matsubara-an’s calling card is its teuchi soba (buckwheat noodles prepared by hand). Walking down the corridor to your table, you can stop and admire a young artisan kneading the gray-brown buckwheat dough, rolling it out thin and then cutting it with precision into perfectly regular strips, each just a couple of millimeters thick.
What makes Matsubara-an so popular — in both Harajuku and Kamakura — is the extensive menu of side dishes to delve into before your noodles arrive. Traditionalists will be happy to find classic sobaya (soba shop) snacks, from sashimi and chilled tofu to itawasa (slices of fish cake served with freshly grated wasabi root), and a good selection of premium sake.
There are plenty of crossover starters as well, such as the house-special, bagna cauda: a selection of vegetable sticks served with a rich, hot, anchovy-based dip. The charcoal-grilled chicken is good. The seared duck breast, nicely moist and pink inside, is even better. The a la carte menu even offers substantial main dishes, such as wagyu steak.
The easiest strategy is to order one of the set menus (¥1,500-¥3,810 at lunch; from ¥6,000 dinner; prices exclusive of tax). Even the simplest option will open with a colorful array of seasonal appetizers. The dinners are substantial meals that will include the duck, as well as a selection of seafood or vegetable tempura. They are also likely to feature another Matsubara-an signature dish: slices of soft, fluffy dashimaki tamago (rolled omelet served with grated daikon).
And, of course, there will be noodles. They are light and delicate, with plenty of subtle, nutty buckwheat fragrance. Whether you order seiro (chilled, and served with a dipping sauce) or kake (served in a hot soup), the only grumble may be that serving sizes are small and barely adequate if you haven’t first filled up with enough side dishes.
But for a restaurant of this size — there are over 70 seats and they are almost always filled, with lines outside the door at peak times — everything is surprisingly good. And why quibble anyway? The great thing about Matsubara-an Keyaki is the superb convenience of the location and the fact that it stays open year-round, including national holidays and even on New Year’s Day.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.