Every food has its season, and every season its food — and the arrival of the big heat means that, more than ever, this is the time of year for noodles.
Luckily, there’s no shortage to choose from. Somen and hiyamugi are the regular summer fare, insubstantial but refreshing, as is the ramen equivalent, hiyashi chuka. Zaru soba is the old Edokko standby, although strict purists insist you should wait until the autumn buckwheat harvest is in.
Any of the above are welcome in this trying season, but few fit the bill better than inaniwa udon. These wheat noodles hail from Akita and there was a time when, in the eyes of some city folks, they were about as sophisticated as grits and black-eyed peas. But in truth, they are far more elegant and delicate than the better-known (and far bulkier) varieties from the udon heartland of Kansai and Shikoku.
In recent years, inaniwa udon has become a fixture on the menus of more adventurous modern izakaya, which offer it as an alternative to the standard yaki-onigiri or ochazuke for rounding off the meal. But there is nowhere better in the city to find out about these excellent summer noodles than at the eponymous Inaniwa.
Set well back from the main highway, halfway between the crowds of Roppongi and the flash new diners of Nishi-Azabu, Inaniwa is a rare island of calm. A holdover from earlier, simpler times, its look is rustic, but only in the Kyoto sense of the word.
As soon as you see Inaniwa’s indigo noren and venerable wooden facade framed with bamboo and thick green foliage, you realize this is somewhat special. The interior has about as much wood as a temple tea hut. A large tree trunk forms a central pillar. The chairs are covered with tatami-style matting. Koto music wafts through the air. The waitresses all wear kimono.
You can tell already: This is not the kind of place where you come to slurp down your noodles and run. A glance down the (Japanese only) menu only confirms that impression. Although a score of different udon preparations are listed, these compose just a fraction of the total bill of fare. Even at lunchtime, when things are kept simple, they offer a good range of side dishes to snack on before (or with) your noodles. These include tempura, fresh yuba, cold chicken or maguro sashimi.
At dinner time, though, Inaniwa turns into a full-fledged ryoriya, and the main focus is on the substantial range of sophisticated preparations. As is the nature of things, these dishes change seasonally. Here are some of the things we enjoyed when we visited last week.
To accompany our Yebisu beer, we started with the Inaniwa hassun, a plate of mixed appetizers arranged with classic minimalism. On a long, oblong platter were three bright-green broad beans; a thin, half-moon slice of daikon topped with a small dab of shiokara, a light and very palatable version of fermented squid innards; a morsel of mirin-grilled fish, young kamasu (barracuda), we thought; a mouthful of delectably soft eggplant accented with a dab of ginger; and fine ribbons of sashimi cuttlefish.
We followed this with an order of ae-gamo duck, slices of soft, succulent meat served with grain mustard. And with zaru-dofu, a couple of scoops of creamy white, unpressed curds on a bamboo tray, the plain shoyu dip complemented by negi scallions, ginger, green shiso leaf and shreds of crunchy myoga.
By this time we were ready to explore the nihonshu list. They stock sake from just four makers (though none in Akita), of which the two Niigata breweries offered the best choices. Both the Koshinokanbai ginjoshu and the daiginjo Kirinzan are light, easy to drink and not overpoweringly fragrant. And, as such, they made a good accompaniment to our anago no shirayaki — conger eel lightly grilled, just barely browned, to allow the subtle flavor of the fish to come through.
Our final side dish, yuba isobe-age, was in the same vein of Kyoto-style refinement. Fresh, moist yuba (the skin formed from heating soymilk) was wrapped in a sheet of nori seaweed and quickly deep fried, and served in a rich soy-based sauce with plenty of grated daikon to balance the oil.
We finished — of course — with a bowl each of the inaniwa udon. The noodles, which are cut by hand, are fine, flat and thin, slightly crinkly like ramen but much lighter in flavor. They are equally delicious hot or cold.
Our goboten udon featured long fritters of battered burdock root. Crisp and not the slightest bit fibrous, these are placed on a side plate separate from the noodles, which are served in a wide ceramic bowl, covered in a very lightly seasoned broth topped with plenty of finely chopped scallions.
The hiyashi ume-shiso udon is a classic of the genre. The noodles sit at the bottom of a wide ceramic bowl, covered with a layer of grated daikon, slivers of shiso leaf, negi scallions and sesame seeds. Topping this is a single whole, red umeboshi. Sometimes these pickled apricots can be so sour and salty that they cauterize your mouth. But here the umeboshi has been soaked and softened, leaving just the right amount of its signature tartness.
All these ingredients are bathed in a chilled broth (dashi and shoyu). To this, you add a splash or two of fragrant rice vinegar, to imbue that extra edge of flavor that revives and awakens your taste buds. This, above all, is a dish that you feel you can eat all summer long.
There is nothing to stop you from dropping by for just this one preparation (or any of the other udon dishes). But that would not only be unseemly, it would mean you were not taking advantage of Inaniwa’s main virtue. It is not just the noodles that help see you through the heat of summer, it is the ambience, so calm, so cooling, that refreshes and resuscitates.