Sobaya Nicolas: Michelin-starred soba that belongs in your memory, not your camera's

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Special To The Japan Times

If taking pictures of a meal is one of highest forms of flattery in the modern age, then what to make of the restaurants in Japan that forbid photographing what you are about to eat? The best answer I can come up with is that I’m not sure — nor do I have enough space in this review to decipher the contemporary compulsion to document everything.

At Sobaya Nicolas, a portentous Michelin-starred soba (buckwheat noodle) restaurant in the north of Kyoto, it’s impossible not to notice the signs — written in Japanese and English — forbidding photography. Unfortunately, this creates an atmosphere not unlike that of a museum, and to even glance at your phone may evince latent desires to take a picture. Perhaps it’s just better to put your phone away altogether and concentrate on the food, which is presumably what the husband-and-wife team who run Nicolas intended with their no-photo signs.

The a la carte menu here is so comprehensive and inventive that you could actually forego trying the soba Nicolas is known for. Or you could kill two birds with one stone and try the sobazushi, vinegary soba studded with maitake mushrooms and omelette, and wrapped in seaweed. I ordered it more for the novelty than anything else, but as with each dish that preceded it, it was well executed, delicious and, of course, picturesque.

One way to navigate the a la carte menu is to opt for the shunsai selection (¥2,260), available on weekdays during lunch, which is a tapas-style serving of three side dishes and a choice of tempura — on a recent visit the options were anago (saltwater eel) or vegetables. The trio of side dishes included: togan (winter melon), an almost tasteless vegetable, which was simmered and enlivened with a ponzu (citrus soy sauce); delicate strips of chicken coated in parsley sauce and topped with finely grated fresh Parmesan; and sashimi cuts of flounder served over kaburamushi (mashed turnip), which was a well-measured change from the typical wasabi or mustard.

Elsewhere on the a la carte menu there are some innovative dishes, with an emphasis on seasonal fare, such as matsutake mushrooms served with duck, and figs served with a spicy sesame sauce. Between the starter selection and the saltwater eel tempura I also tried a sweet sake from the centuries-old Sogen Sake brewery in Ishikawa Prefecture. Nicolas’ sake menu features some of Japan’s heavyweights including Dassai from Yamaguchi Prefecture.

The tempura batter on the anago was almost light enough to defy gravity and float off the eel meat. I am glad it didn’t, the combination was delicious, especially with a pinch of salt. Rounding out my lunch, I had a bowl of cold soba with slices of dried roe, bright as carrot wedges, dotted around a beautiful red bowl, with a slice of yuzu (Japanese citrus) to offset the saltiness of the roe.

Incidentally, Nicolas is named after abstract painter Nicolas de Stael, a hero to chef and owner Koichi Numata. Both men carry the torch of invention and experimentation in their own way, but there is nothing abstract about Numata’s exquisite cooking.