There’s a hobbit-in-the-Shire feeling in Muraki, a homely husband-and-wife run soba restaurant west of Kyoto city. The entrance is uncharacteristically marked not by traditional noren curtains but sliding wooden doors — the ki in Muraki is the Chinese character for tree or wood. The arboreal theme continues inside with the main communal dining table composed of two long slender planks and the smaller wooden tables placed in alcoves. And from the ceiling, a half dozen bird mobiles sway, making the restaurant feel like a tavern deep in Scandinavian snow country. Or a perfect setting for hobbits, if they ate soba.
Muraki serves black and white buckwheat noodles, which are both made early each morning with flour from Hokkaido and Fukui prefectures. The “black” soba is black in name only, these noodles are juwari, made from 100 percent buckwheat giving them a more robust character than the lighter “white” soba noodles, made from a combination of buckwheat and wheat flour, which are closer to the texture of vermicelli once boiled. You can choose either type for most orders, but I recommend the darker soba which has a more substantial, wholesome flavor — more buck for your bang if you’ll pardon the pun.
Lunch started with hot cha-soba, a mix of green tea and the water in which buckwheat has been steeped. This was served with soba chips, which are offered at almost every soba and udon restaurant. They’re bland but offer something to nibble on while perusing the menu.
Try the set menu if you’re feeling hungry, and if you’re still hungry thereafter, you can reward your appetite with something from the a la carte menu.
The lunch set, which includes a choice of either soba, comes with two delightfully sweet inari-zushi, vinegared rice stuffed inside bean curd “pockets.” These are complemented by two other dishes of simple but delicious homecooking that rounds out the lunch menu: okara, made from bean curd lees (a byproduct of making tofu that’s similar to potato stuffing in taste), and simmered vegetables in a light dashi broth. If you’re hungry, however, it’s worth paying the extra few hundred yen for the bigger portion of noodles or proceeding to the a la carte menu.
This menu doesn’t explore any new territory, instead sticking with soba classics such as tempura, sweet dashi-infused dashmaki omelette, and nishin-boni, Pacific herring simmered — for almost as long as it was alive — in a stirring concoction of dashi, sweet sake and soy sauce. Although the herring looks like a shiny stick of turf, or peat, its rich, deep flavor more than compensates for what it lacks in visual appeal. This dish alone is worth making a detour for, and can also be ordered with soba. The additional items on the menu — tempura, vegetables, fish and meat — are both generous and filling. And for a digestif there’s a small but nice selection of regional sakes. Muraki is an endearing restaurant, for its setting and its soba.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5