Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Kazami: A noodle joint that's hard to find but worth the hunt

by Robbie Swinnerton

It takes considerable confidence to open a new restaurant at the hottest time of the year, when people’s appetites are at their lowest ebb. To locate it down a narrow alley hidden from sight of Ginza’s passing foot traffic seems even more foolhardy. But ramen shops work according to different rules — especially when they’re as excellent as Kazami.

You may need sophisticated GPS equipment to find your way here, but once you arrive you can see it is far from an ordinary noodle joint. A large indigo banner is strung across the entrance, narrow windows form vertical slits in the sleek concrete facade, and a beautiful wooden doorway slides open effortlessly at the slightest touch.

Inside, ergonomic wooden chairs are aligned along a timber counter looking into the gleaming open kitchen where owner-chef Hidenori Ohata and his assistants preside in spotless uniforms. If it weren’t for the steam from the bubbling pans of cooking water, you might take Kazami for a high-end Ginza sushi shop.

Ohata’s noodles are every bit as refined as the setting — so elegant that he calls them “soba,” which is short for chūka soba (“Chinese noodles”), rather than mere ramen. Both his shio (salt) and shoyu soba are light and refreshing, perfectly suited to the summer weather.

The noodles are served in a seafood soup prepared from Hokkaido konbu seaweed and five kinds of dried fish. To counterbalance any residual fishiness he blends in Noilly Prat vermouth, and adds a dash of chicken oil at the end to leave a light sheen of extra flavor.

The toppings include two slices of meat, standard chāshū (braised pork belly) alongside a confit of pork shoulder that is cooked sous-vide (slowly at low temperature) leaving it a delicate pink color. The bowl is completed with slivers of deep-fried tofu, some cooked greens, a square of nori seaweed and half a golden, oozing aji-tama (soft-boiled egg).

But that’s not all. There are extra seasonings: grated ginger, to give the soup a little extra bite, and a paste that looks like mustard but turns out to be an earthy porcini mushroom puree. This is surely a first at any ramen shop in Japan.

However, it is Ohata’s third style of ramen that really breaks new ground. Called sake-kasu noko soba (thick sake lees ramen), the chunky noodles are concealed under a rich, hearty soup made with the residue from sake-making. Aromatic but not alcoholic in flavor, it has a rich, deep umami that may polarize ramen enthusiasts but should win converts as soon as the weather gets chilly.

This same thick, hot soup forms the basis for the sauce Ohata uses for his tsukesoba (dipping noodles). And, in case you are still not full, he also serves small side dishes of rice, including a good mixed seafood chirashi-zushi (scattered sushi).

Before opening here, Ohata worked at Kagari, currently Ginza’s most popular ramen shop. But the ideas and recipes at Kazami are very much all his own.

In an earlier phase of his cooking career he spent years in London, grilling yakitori in the prestigious Oxo Tower. Here at his own place, he is happy to explain everything — including the intricacies of the ticket machine — in excellent English.

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