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Kagawa Ippuku: Udon to rival Shikoku’s very best

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

Sometimes you want simple. Sometimes you feel like hunkering down with no-frills, no-fuss food that fills and comforts. Sometimes you need a quick, restorative visit to Kagawa Ippuku in Kanda.

As the name indicates, Ippuku has pedigree. The main restaurant in Shikoku’s Kagawa Prefecture is one of the most popular noodle shops in a region that prides itself on eating more (and better) udon than anywhere else in the country. Kagawa is still often referred to by its feudal name, Sanuki, and so is the style of wheat noodles produced there.

When Ippuku launched its Tokyo outpost in the summer of 2015, it did so to some acclaim. In part, this was because it’s always special to find excellent noodles made in the true Sanuki style. They have to have exactly the right texture, smooth but with a firm chewiness.

The broth is critical, too. It must be clear, savory and so satisfying you need nothing more, save some finely chopped scallions on top and a sprinkling of condiments such as sesame or grated ginger.

And, of course, there have to be good side dishes. That means tempura that hits the middle ground, not too refined but never thick and greasy. Kamaboko fish cakes are essential, as are toppings such as wakame seaweed, abura-age (deep-fried tofu) and egg, either raw or soft-cooked in the onsen tamago style.

Ippuku scores high on all counts. Whether you like your udon hot, cold or in the classic have-it-both-ways state, with chilled noodles but hot broth on the side — here they call it sono mama (“just as it is”) — the noodles and broth are spot-on.

As is the tempura: All the old favorites are there, such as chikuwa (kamaboko “sausage”), geso (squid tentacles) and toriniku (chicken). There’s also a substantial mixed vegetable plate. And don’t miss the hanjuku-tamago, a batter-fried version of the aji-tamago eggs served at ramen shops.

So far so excellent, but Ippuku has gone a step further to stake its claim. For its curry udon, the thick, dark, mildly spicy roux was initially produced by Kitajimatei, an old-school French restaurant with a formidable reputation for its cuisine. Then, when Ippuku launched its niku (“meat”) udon, it turned to Ginza Shinohara, one of Tokyo’s top new Japanese restaurants, to create the recipe for the addictively rich, lightly sweetened, finely slivered beef, which is served with a generous topping of katsuobushi (bonito) flakes.

Both dishes are made entirely in-house now and, as a statement of intent, that’s impressive. So, too, is the fact they have a small drinks cabinet with very passable sake and shōchū, plus oden (Japanese stew) to go with it if you want to linger a bit after the lunch rush is over.

And this is the only drawback: Ippuku closes its doors at 5 p.m. However, just last month a second Tokyo branch opened in Harajuku (Gloria Bldg. B1F, 2-31-7 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-6804-5523), which stays open an hour later — a step in the right direction.

Open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (or until noodles run out); closed Sun. and first Mon.; noodles from ¥430, tempura from ¥110; English menu