Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Muromachi Sunaba, Kanda (室町 砂場)

Kanda continues to delight this hardened area lunch-eater. Today I ventured even farther afield, getting to the limits of where I can walk and return in an hour, to visit this highly-regarded soba restaurant. If you're wondering where I got the picture (and why it's so sunny when that's clearly not today), I yanked it from their web site. Nyah. The street where Sunaba lives also has two eel specialists facing each other (in addition to the two around the corner), plus a cute little pizza bar named Henry (with, yes, an Italian oven with their name in the tile mosaic. It's getting monotonous.), so I'm sure I'll be back soon. Like, errr, tomorrow.

Based on some cursory research, Muromachi refers to an era of Japanese history about 700 years ago (as well as the town where Sunaba is located). So we're in for a traditional sort of vibe here. And a sunaba is certainly a sandbox. I'd like to say that this conjures images of a big bowl of finely-ground buckwheat flour which the chef can play in like a kid pretending to be at the beach, but I'd be making that up (compelling though it may be). Certainly if he WAS playing in such a sandbox, he'd be hell to clean up afterwards. Buckwheat flour is very fine stuff, which is why it gets so gummy when you mix it with water.

Inside is just as peaceful and traditional as outside - a little bit dim and furnished with pale green walls, light wood, flowery pictures and a separate tatami area. It was almost packed, mostly with businessy-looking men talking over noodles, but there was a small two-person table by the window and I took it. Fortunately this window looks out onto the small, sheltered garden, a heavily manicured landscape of rocks, moss and Japanese dwarf maples.

An interesting point emerged right away - there's no separate lunch menu (which is in line with the Japanese custom of 'no quantity discounts' - if one item costs Y100, why on earth would MORE of that item cost LESS per piece?!). You could see this as a good or bad thing; since there was no menu board outside as there is at so many places, I had abandoned thoughts of pricing before I stepped in. That's not to say it's expensive; it's OK for a quality soba restaurant. The positive way to look at it is that you can have whatever you want - the gentleman next to me was snacking on a plate of grilled leeks in anticipation of his main course, while the table opposite ordered a side dish of roast chicken with their noodles. In a town where every place has a pictorially or sampled-based outside menu with limited options at lunch time, this feels very much like 'dinner dining', adding to the relative elegance.

Seemingly at the same time, my neighbor and I raised our hands to order. We both ordered the same thing - ten zaru. This was the best-looking cold noodle option on the menu since summer is a season when the best delicacies are absent (the menu lists the treats from other seasons, just to tease you when they're not there). Sunaba's zaru soba is made from the inner core of buckwheat kernels (polished, I imagine, in much the same was as rice is polished before making higher-grade sake) ground very fine and produced with special techniques. [At this point I should interject that their English menu is truly excellent - it has explanations of soba, its history, proper eating, their specialty products and the menu, all in flawless and elegant English.] The zaru is a pale gold color and is soft and smooth on the way down (Y550 by itself).

We had both gotten the 'ten' version; this adds Y1000 to the price and only a small bowl to the tray but is almost worth it. The tenpura in this case is a classic kakiage, a chunky deep-fried biscuit of shrimp and bay scallops. It's patently obvious that they fry in pure sesame oil, as one is supposed to (and which drives up the cost dramatically), and the quality of the shrimp, scallops and indeed the frying was outstanding. The soup was a real treat, with a deep, complex flavor that was hard to pinpoint.

But it was all a little skimpy, especially for something so enjoyable. I finished the noodles and tempura, then looked around and wondered what to do. Then I really noticed my neighbor for the first time. His woven straw hat sat opposite him on the chair, accompanied by the green and white-striped jacket of his summer seersucker suit. As I continued contemplating my course, he put down his newspaper, burped loudly, called the waitress "Hey, sister!" and ordered another round of noodles. Aha. The done thing.

Sunaba's mori soba (Y500) is more traditional - whole buckwheat, a coarser grind, the usual gray color, and cold dipping sauce. In this case the special onions and sweet wild wasabi that they supply as accompaniments really shone. I almost felt bad about putting the grated wasabi in the sauce; it was easily juicy and mellow enough to eat raw. These noodles had excellent flavor and were cooked to tooth-resistant perfection.

Unfortunately that plate was quickly gone too, as was my lunch hour, and I hurried out the door with a quick bow and a healthy exchange of funds.

Don't worry, I'm not going to start writing like this all the time.

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