Ramen, soba and udon are the trinity of Japan’s noodles, though it can sometimes feel as if the last one on that list is underappreciated. Ramen has followed sushi down the path of global domination — no doubt helped by instant ramen’s popularity — and buckwheat soba noodles can swing from low to high, cooked by both no-frills neighborhood joints and haute cusine establishments. So where does this leave udon, a simple white noodle made with flour, salt and water?
If the recently published Michelin guide is a bellwether, udon appreciation is on the rise — although I expect it’s more a case of Michelin catching up with, rather than leading the herd. Kyoto and Osaka, between them, have 10 udon restaurants listed in the 2016 Kansai guide, and all are new additions. The exotic-sounding Aozora Blue, in the staunchly white-collar district of Honmachi in Osaka, is one of those additions.
Opened just over a year ago by husband-and-wife team Hirofumi and Yuki Matsui, Aozora Blue is a gorgeously simple restaurant with lovely touches: leather bound menus, winsome tree-trunk stools and a charming cast-iron sign hanging outside the restaurant, made to resemble a bowl of udon.
Chef Hirofumi opened his udon restaurant after working in a soba restaurant. The decision to opt for udon was based on that essential ingredient of flour, Yuki tells me. After sampling various types of flour from around the country, the husband and wife decided to embark on turning the wheat grain into udon — which is done in front of the restaurant’s diners. The flour is sourced from many prefectures, including Tottori and Hokkaido, and it’s used to produced two types of udon: house speciality jikaseki arabiki (udon made from coarsely ground flour), which, were it not for its girth, looks closer to a soba noodle, and a so-called blend noodle (made from a mixture of various wheat flours) that is much closer in appearance to standard white udon.
On a recent lunchtime visit I sampled both. The arabiki noodle was served hot in a bowl of kake jiru (hot broth), but in this case the ingredients were toned down, giving the noodle more of the spotlight. The monthly special, a nabe (hot pot), came with noodles ordered zaru-style (served cold with dipping sauce). In keeping with the Kansai tradition, the noodles are cooked a little past al dente and both types retain that classic chewy texture. The arabiki was my favorite, but only marginally, for the wonderful depth Chef Hirofumi imbued it with.
There are three lunch sets available (priced from around ¥1,200 to ¥1,600). My sushi set came with a delightful bowl of shiitake mushrooms in a bowl of grated radish. Indeed, if side dishes such as these are any guide, the non-udon options at Aozora Blue are also worth investigating, the only problem is that they are only offered after 1 p.m., which is as good an excuse as any to return to a restaurant with a bright future.