The narrow backstreets of Kagurazaka boast an embarrassment of dining choices. This bustling traditional entertainment district offers great Japanese, a profusion of French and some excellent Italian restaurants, too. When it comes to noodles, though, only one name matters: Kyorakutei.
You’ll know you’ve found it when you see the gaggle of people outside: Some are waiting in line for seats to free up, others have stopped simply to gaze at the small grinder in the window revolving slowly but constantly as it mills coarse buckwheat grains into a light, fine flour.
Arrive at the right time of day and you can also watch as a chef carefully kneads this freshly ground flour into a dough, rolls it out thin and then painstakingly slices it by hand into delicate noodles. This teuchi (hand-cut) soba is Kyorakutei’s calling card, and it draws customers from well beyond the immediate vicinity.
Many are connoisseurs, the kind of purists who know and relish the finer points of the genre. They understand the difference between standard soba, made with a small proportion of wheat flour, and darker-toned juwari, made from 100 percent buckwheat flour. The former work better when served hot as they hold together well. The latter have a fragrant nutty flavor that needs only the lightest dipping sauce.
There are also hand-made wheat noodles — udon is more substantial; hiyamugi is lighter, a specialty of the summer months — and these can be eaten on their own or in combination with soba. But few people are content to merely order, slurp and leave. Kyorakutei also offers a great range of appetizers and side dishes that make it a great place to settle in for an extended meal, especially in the evening.
All self-respecting soba restaurants offer tempura. Few do so with as much finesse as you find here. Ask for the seasonal tempura plate and you will first be served a couple of chi-ayu (young sweet fish), which moments earlier were swimming in a small tank at one end of the counter. These will be followed by juicy chunks of hamo (pike conger), a summer specialty in western Japan, plus morsels of maitake mushroom, eggplant and other vegetables.
Start with new-harvest edamame soy beans or broad beans charcoal-grilled in their soft, jade-green pods. Follow this with an order of sashimi, or perhaps a serving of namero (coarsely chopped white-meat fish mixed with miso and scallions, much like the piscine equivalent of a steak tartare.
Next, something from the grill: another specialty of the house is anago teriyaki, delicate fillets of conger eel seared over charcoal until lightly browned. Like the ayu (sweet fish), the eels are kept live under the counter, and prepared to order in the cramped open kitchen.
As at any izakaya tavern, this is the kind of food that cries out for a drink or two on the side. Kyorakutei’s owner hails from Aizuwakamatsu in the mountains of Fukushima Prefecture. Needless to say, that region’s brewing tradition is well represented on the sake list.
Reservations are only taken for dinner, and only for three of the tables. Get there early, or be prepared to wait your turn. Either way, Kyorakutei is worth it
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.