I'm on a quest for good soba, and I hope you can help me out.
When it comes to soba, texture is a big deal. Most of the buckwheat noodles I've eaten, I've pinpointed as being too frail or too chalky, too gummy or too soggy, and so forth.
This is because soba dough is mostly buckwheat, which is not a type of cereal grain, but rather a fruit seed without any gluten at all. Soba dough is not 100% gluten free, but it comes pretty close at 20% wheat flour and 80% buckwheat flour. Yet we have high standards for soba—we expect our soba to behave like a wheat noodle, with the same sort of resiliency and chewiness.
A few weeks ago I realized that I knew only of one place in the city for excellent soba, Cocoron on Delancey, where the noodles are peerless. But waiting upwards of an hour to get seated is kind of a buzzkill, even for a noodle lover. Besides which, I wanted a soba contingency plan for those days when I don't have an hour to spare.
So last week I set out on a soba quest, in the midst of that terrible heat wave. I got lucky on my third try. (Soba-ya's noodles: too gummy on the night I went; Soba Totto: too chalky.)
SobaKoh was a different story. It is a quiet little place in the East Village. I say "little," but Soba-Koh is twice as large as the diminutive Cocoron. The service here is wonderful in that painfully polite Japanese way. The first time I went, I did not make a reservation, and the waitress apologized profusely for making me and my date wait ten minutes. Then, when I returned a few days later, she apologized to me. Again. Profusely. For that other night. For my having had to wait ten minutes, without a reservation.
First off, the texture of these noodles is spot-on. They're chewy and particularly firm, maybe a hair thicker in width than most, yet there's nothing underdone about them. The flavor of buckwheat here is not as strong as that of Cocoron, but it's a small difference. You can't go wrong with the basic dipping broth (tsuyu) of dashi, soy sauce, and mirin, yet I am drawn to the Tsuke Tororo Soba ($12.50). It is cold soba, with a dipping sauce containing grated japanese yam.
Grated mountain yam is a slime-ball waiting to happen. Raw, it looks innocent enough, but as soon as you begin to grate it, the yam it turns into a viscous mess. It's powerfully sticky stuff, coating each strand of soba faster than alien goo will cling to Sigourney Weaver. (Warning: if mucous-y textures are not your thing—for instance, you hate natto—then choose another kind of dipping sauce.)
Also, the noodles came with one perfect little raw quail egg (the top of the shell very carefully taken off) that you mixed into the dish table-side. At first I wished there were two quail eggs, or maybe a pheasant egg, but then I found myself luxuriating in this one dollop of a creamy yolk and not wanting any more after that. It was the perfect exercise in restraint.
For dessert, I would not say no to the homemade buckwheat ice cream. It comes with toasted, crushed bits of buckwheat. The texture is on the fluffy side, whereas I like my ice cream denser, but the flavor of the buckwheat more than makes up for it.
The soba quest continues. Next week, I have on my list: 15 East, Soba Nippon, and Sakagura. I am open to suggestions from fellow soba enthusiasts. Where do you go for soba?
309 E 5th St, New York 10003 (map)
About the author: Born in Shanghai and raised in New Mexico, Chichi Wang currently resides in Manhattan, where she divides her time between writing, cooking, and tracking down the best noodles in the city. Visit her blog, Mostly Tripe.