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Sonoji: Ningyocho tempura chef has noodle-making in his DNA

by

Contributing Writer

When Sonoji arrived just over a year ago in the quiet, low-rise back streets of Ningyocho, it stirred up considerable interest. Primarily that was due to its obvious quality — but also because it stood out from the pack.

The restaurant’s specialty is tempura, a food associated with Tokyo ever since the city was known to the world as Edo. However, owner-chef Toshiyuki Suzuki is from out of town: To site his restaurant in one of the city’s most traditional neighborhoods was always going to cause a buzz.

Suzuki hails from Shimada in rural Shizuoka and ran the first incarnation of Sonoji there for 16 years before deciding to move to Tokyo. He still maintains strong ties to his home, sourcing just about every ingredient he uses from the fertile sea, farms and uplands of that bountiful prefecture.

His seafood, shipped from ports on Suruga Bay, is superb. The meal opens with kuruma-ebi (prawns), first the plump, sweet bodies and then the crunchy, calcium-rich heads. You will also be served kisu (“whiting”) and anago (conger eel), as well as seasonal fish such as tachi-uo (cutlass fish), which Suzuki offers first as sashimi and then again as tempura, to highlight the contrast in textures and flavor.

There will also be seasonal vegetables — right now including scarlet carrots that Suzuki cooks low and slow until they are soft and sublimely sweet. Meanwhile, his shiitake mushrooms are the largest, fattest you’ve ever seen, and so succulent they evoke the texture of abalone.

One of the absolute highlights of the current menu is the creamy, meaty oyster that he wraps in nori and hands to you, to eat with your hands. And, if you’ve chosen the upper of the two menus, he will also prepare morsels of game meat, such as wild venison from the uplands of Izu Peninsula.

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Sonoji is that every meal closes with a serving of soba. This may not sound radical — after all tempura is the classic topping just about anywhere the buckwheat noodles are eaten. But rarely is this equation reversed. At tempura restaurants, the final course is invariably rice.

Suzuki, however, has noodle-making in his DNA. He was born into a family running a soba restaurant and learned the skills from an early age. He also trained in Japanese cuisine before settling on tempura. For him it was only natural to combine the disciplines.

Seated at his intimate, eight-seat counter, you watch him at work: precise, calm, never too busy to answer questions, a modest artisan in action. Sonoji may not be the fanciest of Tokyo’s top tempura houses. But it is one of the most welcoming and easygoing.

It is also among the most affordable. And here is the other reason why Sonoji has generated such enthusiasm. Tempura of this quality can easily cost twice as much. Not surprisingly, spaces at Suzuki’s counter are now at a premium.

Set menus at ¥6,900 and ¥8,900; Japanese menu; some English spoken