‘Tis the season for Christmas analogies. On the first day of December I wound my way round downtown Kyoto, hoisting and reining in my umbrella because the weather couldn’t make up its mind. At the first inn I called upon there was no room; I went to a second inn and was met with the same response. I took off for another part of town. Thankfully central Kyoto is small enough that you could throw a cat and it would land in a restaurant. At the third inn, I met with the same response: “No room.” Is it because I . . . hadn’t made any reservations? Yes.
It was pushing nearly 2 p.m. when I found a welcome seat with some strangers at Aji-Zen, a few minutes’ walk south of Shijo Station on the Karasuma subway line. Aji-Zen is marked by a rather strange entrance: a (fake) stone arch more suited to “The Flintstones” or Universal Studios Japan.
As you enter you’ll see the “soba factory,” a small workshop sealed off behind glass. The master was not at his station on my visit, but his wife told me that he has been making soba for 30 years and has written a book on his craft. Later on I learned that the rolling pins he uses were made in collaboration with sportswear maker Mizuno, more famous for making baseball bats, among other things.
Soba, and noodles in general, are Japan’s original fast food. However, the speed at which your food arrives at the table belies the time that went into preparing it. With noodles you want that al dente texture — there should still be a bite there as you slurp it up. At Aji-Zen you get that. The list of noodle dishes is long and there’s a good choice of hot and cold dishes: zaru soba (cold soba served in a basket), hiyashi tanuki soba (cold soba served with radish and leek), nishin soba (a hot dish served with a sweet herring) and kamojiru soba (duck-and-leek soba). For no reason, I went with nameko-oroshi soba, noodles served cold with nameko mushrooms — those miniature cartoon-like mushrooms — along with grated radish and leek. What set the dish off was the tsuke-jiru, the noodle dipping sauce. It was both sweet, from the mirin and sugar, and spicy, when mixed with the grated radish, which has an earthy, acidic taste. On its own, it’s probably not going to fill you up, which is why almost everyone was ordering set menus. The staff are hurried but friendly; I deferred to my server’s suggestion of mizuna, a simple nettle-like plant often used as garnish, and fried tofu in a sweet hot broth. This was the perfect dish for the day it was. It came piping hot, steam rising. It’s an elementally simple dish but full of flavor. You could sit there drinking it all afternoon, except that I also had a glass of sake from Yamagata Prefecture. A mark of a good soba shop is the drinks it keeps. Aji-Zen passes on all counts.
J.J. O’Donoghue is an Irish writer living in Kyoto.
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