Matt Gross's story in yesterday's New York Times about eating ramen in Tokyo produced the expected stomach growls, as well as memories of my own Tokyo noodle adventure a few years back. My partner Michael and I were visiting Japan with our friend and her Tokyo-born mother. Lelah and Ioe did triple duty for us as translators, tour guides, and culinary Virgils -- a godsend in a city where English is useless and the cuisine is strange and exciting. The Japanese are such incredible connoisseurs of food - they obsess over the quality and origin of ingredients, detecting subtleties of quality and debating them endlessly. The worthiness of a particular soba noodle depends on not just how and with what it was cooked, but where and when the buckwheat was harvested, how long it has been since the harvest, and other minutiae. To go someplace second-rate for your noodles is to experience deep, shameful embarrassment, and we weren't about to let that happen.
After a visit to the Senso-ji shrine in Asakusa, Lelah and Ioe took us to a tiny restaurant just up the street, promising the "best soba in Tokyo." The place hadn't opened yet, so we cooled our heels outside, watching as the line got longer and longer behind us -- clearly this was an establishment of some renown, despite the rather anonymous façade. After an old friend of Ioe's joined us, we were finally let in, stooping through the low entrance into a small room of tatami mats and shoji screens. The space was definitely not built for us big-boned Americans -- Michael had to fold himself origami-style to fit around the table. The restaurant was packed with locals and waitresses wearing what looked like nurses' uniforms; indeed, the atmosphere was hushed and serious, the patrons studying their bowls with the concentration of a surgeon. Ioe's friend -- I've forgotten his name -- ordered a round of sake for the table and explained that this restaurant, called Namiki Yabusoba, has been around for at least 100 years and is famed for the quality of its buckwheat noodles, which come from Hokkaido. All great buckwheat noodles come from Hokkaido, we further learned, but these have an even higher pedigree.
The first course arrived -- there had been no menus -- and consisted of steaming bowls of broth with pork, vegetables, and soba noodles. I remember it being delicious, salty, and warming (we were visiting in December). Then came cold soba noodles, served with various dipping sauces. Again, scrumptious, though it's funny that now I remember the details of the surroundings more distinctly than the flavor of the noodles. I suppose that's a weakness of my sense memories: I can recall what a restaurant looked like, find it again on a map, and tell you who I was sitting next to, but perhaps my palate is too dull or abstract to conjure up, four years hence, many details on the taste.
But it was the overall experience -- knowing we'd been introduced to a real "find" -- that stays with me. In fact, Tokyo was a series of great restaurant moments: That first jet-lagged dinner at a sushi bar where the shocking freshness of the fish was supplanted only by the shocking hugeness of the bill. The Chinese restaurant whose every nook and cranny was stuffed with phallus sculptures - not to mention an enormous wooden penis hanging from the ceiling. The elegant tempura bar where Michael somehow got his thumb stuck in a jar of salt and we could barely control our laughter. Or the sushi spot right outside Tsukiji Market where we watched a fish plucked out of the tank and filleted so quickly that its little mouth was still breathing as it was carried to the table on a platter.
Whatever the nuances of that particular soba noodle or that particular bowl of broth, it's the bold strokes of those memories that I brought home from that trip to Japan.