Food & Drink | KYOTO RESTAURANTS

Ryuheisoba offers new enjoyment to Japan's humble noodle

by J.J. O'Donoghue

‘Go west,” U.S. singer Nathalie Merchant implores in her 1995 track “San Andreas Fault.” “Paradise is there.”

There’s also a wonderful soba restaurant there — that is, on the western outskirts of Kyoto, a stone’s throw from the imperial villa at Katsura.

A quick note about the villa: It is reputed to have one of the nation’s most beautiful gardens and while it is open to the public, it’s booked out for the next three months.

Ryuheisoba, however, isn’t. Booking is advised, though, because the restaurant has featured in the Michelin Guide since at least 2012.

Ryuheisoba is run by the Nakamuras, a young and welcoming couple, and the restaurant occupies the ground floor of their house in a quiet residential neighborhood.

An alleyway leading away from the house takes you up to Nakamuraken, a Japanese cafe housed in a 130-year-old machiya (townhouse) that has been in the Nakamura family for generations.

This is where chef Nakamura learned about food and hospitality from paterfamilias Nakamura.

I had the restaurant to myself on a recent morning, but it was only 11:30 a.m. It’s a small establishment with just two tables and a counter, and the atmosphere is contemplative and respectful.

Like many restaurants in Japan, there is, for want of a less pretentious word, a “holistic” approach to the food. The first course, a fiercely delicate sobagaki (buckwheat flour), was served in a beautiful hand-woven basket. The delicacy of the soba is offset by its stark flavor and a sprinkle of salt enlivens the dish.

Admittedly, it’s a small serving of soba, but I think it’s suggestive of other ways of enjoying this humble noodle. Accompaniments in the basket were lightly boiled nanohana (flowering green vegetable) topped by sweetened dengagku miso, a sliver of koi (carp), a deliciously sweet serving of goma-dofu (sesame tofu) and two soba biscuits.

Shortly thereafter came my bowl of steaming soba. You are presented with several options when you first order. It can be a bit tricky if you are unfamiliar with some of the soba nomenclature, but at its most basic the options are kakesoba (soba served in broth) or morisoba, with the dipping sauce served separately.

The complexity is compounded by the fact that Ryuheisoba makes several different noodles by ingredient. My heart (or stomach) wanted to go with kamo (duck) soba, but I ordered Ryuhei soba, the house dish, served in a beautiful handmade bowl. Two dumplings floated atop my bowl of soba, made from hamo (conger eel) and mountain yam. To the side, strips of seaweed melted into the dashi. Grated yuzu added to the fragrance of the soup.

You might be tempted to write a haiku from this experience. Don’t. Just savor the memory.

The penultimate dish was steamed sticky mochi rice topped with unagi (eel) and a sprig of sansho (pepper) — a fragrance reminiscent of spring, my waiter told me.

Dessert was a rerun of soba: sponge cake and twigs of soba coated in green tea-flavored chocolate.

Ryuheisoba is inventive, elaborate, respectful and, above all, homely.